Eileen Battersby: How can America begin to heal?
Where to now after one of the most corrosive US presidential elections in history
The media gathered beneath the US flag at a Hillary Clinton event in New York on election night. Photograph: Elsa/Getty Images
It’s over and nobody really won because the United States has lost so much dignity, honour, respect and hope – qualities that matter more than wealth.
The resilience evident in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks has been besmirched by the shrill vulgarity of the personalised tone of the US presidential campaign in which details of previous sexual attacks and assaults, contempt for women and minorities, never mind coherent argument, obscured attempts at outlining proposed policy.
Now is the time to heal America. It will be a daunting task, uniting Americans.
The wounds run deep, deeper even than material poverty. The very heart and soul of America has been poisoned. The American people have appeared politically confused, angry and, frequently, irrational, clutching at sound bites. We have been embarrassed and disgraced in the eyes of a world that hasn’t stopped sneering and won’t. Too many lies were found out, too many facts distorted and then beaten to death.
Everybody is a witness and somehow, even watching it has compromised us, not just Americans, but everyone who watched and laughed, (us included) and then hoped no one was noticing as we wiped the smirks off our faces and waited to see how the comedians would handle the latest revelation.
The spectacle was for real, intended for the voters, not actually for the cameras although the cameras caught it, while the all-seeing oracle of the internet and an insatiable, hyper active social media did the rest.
It is so ironic; an optimistic nation which had fostered the fledging motion picture industry before it became an international force and nurtured jazz, in fact has been the global voice of popular culture – space race, technological America has defined the modern world – should be reduced to a hideous carnival.
There is also the other side: America has contributed many great artists and musicians; conductors and composers, world-class dancers, actors, singers. The US has been hugely influential in promoting opera as the popular entertainment for which it was originally intended to be. Broadway’s theatreland spans Shakespeare and the classic repertoire, as well as the latest musicals. American poets, novelists, short story writers and dramatists are equal to, and many simply are the finest in the world.
No soaring rhetoric
But, most painfully of all, the very essence of America, its diverse and thrilling use of a language rich in vernacular and regional idiom, has been reduced throughout a most sordid presidential campaign to snide, slanderous outpourings and catchcries, vicious name-calling and personalised insults. There was no soaring rhetoric, only abusive bile.
The candidates, Hillary Clinton, a career politician from the Midwest and Donald Trump, a bombastic showman from New York, both appeared to be enacting the worst dread a human can have: that of being caught – in her case of lying or at least, of concealment; with him, an inherent failure to grasp even fundamentals, such as the nuclear triad, was disturbing.
Steely Clinton often winced; Trump the petulant tycoon didn’t because he doesn’t think and he sure doesn’t listen. Her experience and caution were pitted against his increasingly meandering allegations.
Probably the most important aspect of this election campaign for me was realising that Hillary Clinton, wife of an unfaithful husband who was one of the most popular US presidents of the modern era, had been transformed from a Lady Macbeth seething with frustrated ambition, and has matured into a battered if impressive fighter. She has endured. “Safe and strong” is what she wants for America.
Donald Trump, however, reveals the ugliest aspects of wealth and privilege, and has demonstrated a reflex reaction to insult and degrade his critics at all costs. He brags about not paying his taxes and plans on reducing the salaries of America’s working class, despite saying he wants to make America wealthy, clearly by penalising workers.
A different time
Voting for Bill Clinton was exciting. His inauguration speech in 1993 remains an inspiring piece of rhetoric and I guess it was the first time I fully realised what a wonderful privilege it is to vote. It was the same when voting for Obama. I felt part of something momentous and idealistic. But that was then, and everybody including me, was young, younger than now.
This time, older, wiser, disturbed by the venom, choosing cautious, careful Hillary Clinton became a moral imperative. She is a rational being; she is at very least a proven politician, a former secretary of state, a potential leader, seasoned by harsh disappointments.
California, my birth state – which I was repeatedly told is my home state (although I’ve lived in Ireland for years) – is staunchly Democrat, but somehow the act of voting finally became bigger. The two-party system is archaic and Jill Stein represents the Californian Green vote, which should be my natural choice but a vote against Clinton is a vote for Trump.
“I’m voting Hillary Clinton,” I’d been kidding, but over the last few weeks, I began to feel worried. Donald the crazy had not vanished and I became aware of wanting her to win, not for me, but for America. Trump was shown on TV grabbing at the flag, a disrespectful gesture; normally I’d merely cringe – it is a free world – yet I wanted to vomit.
In 1935, shrewd cynical Sinclair Lewis, who had six years earlier become the first American to win the Nobel Prize for literature, published his 16th novel, It Can’t Happen Here.
It is about a “Buzz” Windrip, who becomes president. Old “Buzz” is a monster, elected on a hodge-podge of cant, the usual guff about a return to “traditional values and patriotism”. He offers sweeping social and economic reforms. Once he lays claim to the White House, a dictatorship is established.
The novel was intended as a satire aimed at infamous Louisiana politician Huey Long, who just happened to get assassinated shortly before its publication. Yet “Buzz” had been an elected senator.
This time, reality TV became a reality – and a media creation who has never been elected to any office was allowed to distort what it means to be a politician; what it means to be a presidential candidate; what it takes to be a pubic figure and most of all, sullied all notions of what it means to be a man.
For the comedians, the campaign was a challenge, trying to be funnier than that horrific reality. What would Gore Vidal have made of it? The truth is Vidal’s abrasive wit could have proved vital in derailing the entire circus soon after it began. Had Vidal or Norman Mailer still been alive, this would not have happened; or rather it would not have degenerated into what we all witnessed.
Once upon a time America had intellectuals of the stature of Nobel literature laureate Saul Bellow, capable of reducing some of the sharpest minds to silence when engaged in a public debate. One of the most pressing comments made about this election was one we have heard before: why does a large country with so much talent produce such mediocre challengers for the White House?
For the Republican Party, so intent in 1998 on exploiting the Monica Lewinsky affair, Trump is karma, their righteous hypocrisy returned to haunt them in the shape of a vulgar oaf with a gold toilet and apparently no idea of conducting himself outside of a locker room. It is funny and sickening to recall the footage of Donald Trump – who had first threatened to run for president as long ago as 1987 – swiping at Obama in 2008, as he defended his, Trump’s, “great” friend, Hillary Clinton.
Eight years ago in Trump-speak, she was a “great” woman and her husband Bill, a “great president.” Nowadays he says she is a criminal and his supporters wear T-shirts emblazoned with “Trump the Bitch” and chant “assassinate her” or “lock her up.” He has vowed that one of his first actions as president would be to put Clinton in jail.
The people absorb these statements, just as many Latino and Black people could absorb Trump’s racism and sexism, yet could not forgive Clinton’s method of dealing with emails. It is widely known that many Republicans who voted for Trump will never admit it. How shocking is that?
Trump’s support appeared to be fuelled by anger and a reflex rejection of the establishment, inexplicably ignoring the fact that self-proclaimed billionaire Trump is part of the establishment. Everything that Nobel literature laureate Elias Canetti, author of Auto da Fé and Crowds and Power, wrote about mass hysteria, was much in evidence at Trump rallies.
The good guy
Up until the Vietnam War, America always managed to be the good guy, the 7th Cavalry that sauntered in and saved the world. True, it had its own shame, slavery, and when the then future Nobel literature laureate Toni Morrison published Beloved in 1986, much was made of the fact that a writer had finally forced her country to revisit its shocking past, which also includes the humiliation of the Native American people and the battle waged as relatively recently as the 1950s and 1960s for civil rights.
Since Vietnam, and again, most disastrously with the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the world loves to attack US imperialism and its foreign policy, although there are countries which continue to bear the damage inflicted by British imperialism.
Bill Clinton left office with the highest approval rating of any US president since the second World War, a fact ignored by Donald Trump. I voted for Hillary Clinton, not because I see her as Joan of Arc, but because as I mentioned, a vote cast for the Greens or anyone else, amounted to a vote for Trump. She has made many mistakes, but she has made them publicly and they will continue to haunt her; she knows that as does everyone else. Even more daunting, she has changed her opinion on many issues, such as gay marriage, over the years. Ordinary people, in other words most of us, change our minds all the time, but politicians are not allowed that luxury.
Can a communal healing be found in all the great American music, all the great writing, all the beauty of the landscape, the physical majesty of places such as the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone, the world’s first national park? Yet America remains a country where you can openly buy the gun of your choice 24 hours a day.
It is impossible not to detect the relief of Barack Obama’s face as he hands over the poisoned chalice, his dignity intact. But with the electorate presented to the world as a witless mob swayed by the latest scandal, the FBI exposed as Keystone Cops running on the spot and a creature such as Trump, how fares America?
Sinclair Lewis invented his Trump-like monster with the eponymous central character in Elmer Gantry (1927) and for fake preacher insert fake person. Trump is an opportunistic fake, insincerity is his medium.
Another of the many ironies surrounding this cesspit campaign is that John Updike encapsulated the Trump mentality – albeit without the money – in his ‘Rabbit’, Harry Angstrom, high school basketball player turned car salesman, who sustained a cock-eyed notion of the American Dream which is far closer to the Trump reality than that of Jay Gatsby’s, F Scott Fitzgerald’s deluded anti-hero.
The fact is Trump is a screaming, bullyboy salesman, of the breed who yells at viewers to leave their TV sets and race down to the nearest secondhand car lot – even if it is 2am.
Unfortunately for America, when a challenge to the political status quo and the straight-jacket two-party system emerged, it was not a self-made man, a revered Olympic champion, a much-loved actor or even an enigmatic cowboy possessed of meaningless charisma. It was a pampered thug with a flair for abusing anyone, everyone, including people with special needs.
Trump’s posturing was tolerated because so many Americans didn’t want Hillary Clinton, a woman whose bold and historic objective to be elected to an office previously held by her husband – she was not a princess succeeding her father to a throne – has been largely overlooked.
Where is the healing
How many great novels, powerful block buster movies, or latest defining albums will it take to heal the shattered heart of America? Is it time for a remake of The Grapes of Wrath? The devastation of 9/11 caused the world to gaze at the courage of New Yorkers who carried on with business as usual. But after this corrosive election it will be very difficult to stand tall and carry on; the divisions are more than divisive – they are dangerous.
In her closing speeches of an election which demeaned everyone through its vitriol and personalised abuse, Hillary Clinton, the politician, addressed Americans and spoke of a “hopeful and inclusive” nation. “We have to heal this country. We have to bring people together, to listen and respect each other.”
Does the healing begin with a much needed self re-examination? Is it impossible to recapture the romance of the American ideal? It shouldn’t be. After all, this is a country famous as the land of reinvention and opportunity – but not brash, cynical opportunism.
Anything can happen in America. And this time, it did . . . with an unspeakable finale to a grotesque campaign.
America’s most pressing dilemma may be only about to begin.