Diarmaid Ferriter: Trump’s rhetoric is straight from the 19th century
Arrogant self-certainty is central to Trump’s campaign, but it is more sinister than that
In 1853, in response to the unprecedented wave of immigration that saw 3 million arrive in the US in the previous decade, the Know Nothing Party emerged as a force in US political life
As usual, chef Jamie Oliver was firing on all cylinders on one of his cookery programmes during the week. Having pulled plump leeks from an English country garden, he moved into an English country kitchen to prepare the meal, which had a decidedly continental twist as the leeks smouldered under Italian Parma ham.
Jamie was able to rave about the leeks and the ham, while also throwing in references to French gastronomy. He seems very comfortable in his skin, combining a cheeky chappy Britishness with an appreciation of European influences which, it would appear, extends beyond food. He may not have made any direct public intervention in the current Brexit campaign, but last summer he was very vocal about immigration as a positive thing, and why wouldn’t he be? As he put it: “If it wasn’t for people outside this country, every one of my businesses would close tomorrow.”
Donald Trump hardly watches Jamie cooking; I doubt he has the attention span. In any case, he is not interested in learning or gaining knowledge as he is adamant he does not need any. His response to the Brexit campaign consisted of asserting that “I know Great Britain very well” and that Britain would be “better off” outside the EU because “migration has been a horrible thing for Europe”.
SinisterDemonstrating ignorance and arrogant self-certainty is central to Trump’s campaign, but it is more sinister than that. In last month’s New Yorker magazine he was described by George Packer as a “celebrity proto-fascist with no impulse control”, playing a dangerous game of “white identity” politics. That such a game extends to being unable to contain his glee at the horrific massacre in Orlando last week – “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism”, he tweeted – is a reminder of the sickening depths to which he will go. He also conveniently ignores the role immigrant workers have played in building his business empire.
Trump’s is the most recent manifestation of an American nativism that has a long history. In 1853, in response to the unprecedented wave of immigration that saw three million arrive in the US in the previous decade, the Know Nothing Party emerged as a force in US political life, so labelled as it had evolved from nativist secret societies whose members when questioned by outsiders were required to pretend to “know nothing”.
It advocated exclusion of foreigners and Catholics from public office and stricter naturalisation laws; historians have characterised it as an intense but short-lived product of political paranoia that declined as quickly as it had risen, the increasing violence of its supporters being a major factor in its demise.
What happens to Trump’s version of the Know Nothing movement remains to be seen, but it is interesting how he has parroted slogans that are essentially updates of those from the 19th century, when one of the nativist slogans was “Americans must rule America”. Trump’s version of this is “Make America Great Again”, and as Packer points out, “he is talking about and to White America”.
ImmigrationBrexit campaigners are also fond of trumpeting the idea of leaving Europe to “Make Britain Great Again” and they too highlight concerns about immigration, if not quite as offensively as Trump.
But what does their slogan mean? Surely it has to involve defining what Britishness was and is? Both pro- and anti-Leave sides have always struggled with that. When launching the Conservative Party’s election campaign in 1997, prime minister John Major invoked a George Orwell essay from 1941 and talked wistfully of his vision of domestic identity: “Long shadows on country grounds, warm beer, invincible green shrubs, dog lovers and old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist.”
Two years later, however, his successor William Hague suggested the real Britain was “urban, ambitious, sporty, fashion- conscious, multi-ethnic, brassy, self-confident and international”. Both Major and Hague favour Britain remaining in the EU.
As for the Leave side, its leading voice, Boris Johnson, is delusional about a contemporary British identity being bound up with liberating the continent: “a chance for British people to be the heroes of Europe” and to fashion “a democratic liberation” of Europe through a Brexit. In order to sustain this narrative, Johnson has done violence to history by suggesting the EU shares the “same ambition to a united Europe that Hitler pursued”, which is completely untrue.
He has extended his megalomania by presenting himself as a latter-day Winston Churchill, drawing parallels with the choices that confronted him during the second World War with the choice facing British voters next week. He has also skewed the truth about Churchill’s belief in the importance and necessity of European unity.
There is an abundance of myth and delusion in Britain and the US at the moment about a restoration to supposed greatness, reflecting a dangerous jingoism that deliberately ignores the complexity of their respective histories.