This week, three subjects have dominated the news. There has been the continuing scandal over systemic sexual harassment, in Hollywood, at Westminster, and within far too many power-structures world-wide. There was the horrific Hallowe’en attack on a cycle path in New York, which left eight people dead. And there was a report from the United Nations Environment Programme on progress in limiting climate change under the Paris Agreement, which concluded that even if all the carbon reduction measures so far pledged are achieved in full, the world will have done only a third of what is necessary to limit global warming to two degrees by 2050.
And in thinking about all three subjects, there is one looming presence that is impossible to avoid: President Donald J. Trump, the man elected just a year ago this week to deal with these problems by denying that they exist, or implying that they don’t matter, or suggesting false solutions that seem guaranteed to make things worse.
On the matter of sexual harassment, Trump has proudly proclaimed his own history of using his power as a famous man to harass women with impunity, and clearly sees such behaviour as non-problematic and even enjoyable; “television president held to higher standards than the real one,” said one pithy and despairing online joker of this week’s downfall, after sexual misconduct allegations, of House Of Cards star Kevin Spacey.
Then on climate change, Trump apparently remains convinced that there is no real problem. He has appointed a climate change denier to run the US Environmental Protection Agency, has a sentimental attachment to fossil fuels, and seems to see the idea of a switch to renewable energy as an attack on the nation’s virility; and his largely meaningless gesture in withdrawing from the Paris Agreement is typical of his position, which amounts to “putting America first”, without ever seriously considering what might be left of America, 50 years from now.
And finally, on this week’s terror incident in New York, Trump provided a no-holds-barred demonstration of his absolute inability to treat violent offenders equally, and of an entrenched bigotry against all those who strike him as alien that makes it almost impossible for him to function effectively as President of a nation as diverse as the United States. The figures on violent death in the United States are unambiguous; if Trump was really concerned about saving the lives of the greatest number of Americans, he would be many thousand times more concerned about the state of mind of heavily armed white civilians who lash out in anger, than about a tiny cohort of self-styled Islamic terrorists. Yet faced with the Las Vegas shooting of 1 October, which left 58 people dead after a lone gunman armed with dozens of weapons opened fire on a rock concert, Trump said it was wrong to draw any rapid political conclusions from the event; whereas within hours of the New York attack, committed by Islamic State supporter Sayfullah Saipov, the same Trump appeared on Twitter using the attack as a stick with which to beat New York Senator Chuck Schumer, advocating the abandonment of an entire visa scheme designed to admit 50,000 new Americans each year, and generally seizing the opportunity to whip up popular feeling against the twin liberal goals of diversity and political correctness, which he dismissed as “not nice”.
To call this behaviour undignified and unpresidential is to state the obvious; Trump’s gracelessness towards everyone, from his wife Melania to the hurricane-shattered people of Puerto Rico, is one of his most striking characteristics. What is finally more important, though, is to understand what Trump represents, with this non-stop chatter and bluster of rebellion against the times we live in, gratefully received by millions of his supporters.
For it is, without a doubt, the dinosaur roar of a dying world, a place where respect for nature was unnecessary because its abundance could be taken for granted, and where the idea of real equality among human beings was at worst non-existent, and at best a series of “nice” words on paper, not to be taken seriously. Of course women are equal and black people are equal and all faiths are equal, say men like Trump; but let those groups stand up and start demanding equal treatment – not to be demeaned and humiliated by way of a “joke”, not to be shot in the street, not to be framed as a hated enemy simply for being Muslim – and then, somehow, we find that for Trump and his ilk “political correctness has gone too far”. In saying that politicians like Trump represent a dying world, of course, it’s important not to dismiss their power.
The world for which they speak is beloved by many of the most powerful on our planet; as a result, its values are pumped out day and night through every kind of popular media. And we should be in no doubt that in dying, this old pattern of thought and denial could take us all down with it, dooming the planet to a horrific future of environmental degradation and war.
Yet it seems clear, nonetheless, that the values embraced by Trump are dying, in a noisy spasm of rage and denial; and that the counter-ideals of freedom, equality and loving solidarity among citizens, enshrined in documents like the United States Declaration of Independence, form a much more powerful and productive basis for a viable future. For now, in other words, Trump can crouch across our political agenda like some kind of presiding demon, mocking attempts at equality, denying the facts on climate change, whipping up hatred for political gain, and even – absurdly – apologising for white supremacists and their conduct. His views, though, are based on a series of desperate and embarrassing lies, told to himself, to the American people, and to the world; and just as nothing comes from nothing, so nothing lasting can be built on the politics of Donald Trump – except perhaps, through a powerful process of resistance and rebuttal, the rough outlines of the movement that will lead to his eventual defeat.