Una Mullally: What will remain after Trump’s US?
Russian meddling allegations have added to the administration’s apocalyptic weirdness
As I was sitting in a cinema in Brooklyn last Friday waiting for Phantom Thread to begin, a trailer played for a new documentary called America Uprising, which follows the various waves of contemporary social protest across the United States; undocumented farm workers in Florida, Standing Rock, Trump’s Muslim ban, the Women’s March and March For Black Women, Charlottesville and so on.
Three miles away, near Washington Square Park in Manhattan, the Irish stage production Riot played to hundreds of people in a theatre, its message of artist as dissident taking on a whole new meaning in New York than it had in Ireland when it was first programmed as part of the Dublin Fringe Festival in 2016.
Today is Presidents’ Day, a federal holiday primarily concerned with appreciating the tenures of Washington and Lincoln, but now feeling like yet another fulcrum on which to orientate protest. Even the concept of an American president means something different now. It becomes impossible not to have a Trumpian read on things.
Beneath the Manhattan streets, a guy on the A train announces himself as a Vietnam veteran and begins to busk, singing A Change is Gonna Come: “I was born by the river in a little tent. . .” The dollar bills come thick and fast into his upturned baseball cap. “This must be the first-class carriage!” he jokes.
New York, late February 2018, the US grappling once again with the predictable haze of yet another mass shooting, repeating the same patterns and expecting different results, in a kind of madness.
In some ways, Trump has been normalised as president, in other ways, everything still feels extraordinary.
When reality and fakery expands and contracts like the bellows of an accordion, truth and lies fold in on each other until everything makes the same sound
“Every day it’s a new disaster,” the legendary 83-year-old choreographer Yvonne Rainer told me over lunch in a diner way up in Manhattan, beyond Washington Heights towards Fort George. But even amid the daily head-spinning, the news of 13 Russians indicted as part of Robert Mueller’s investigation created yet another WTF moment.
Well, not so much the news as the detail that emerged in the latest chapter of the most compelling game ever of blind man’s bluff – or is it hunt the thimble? – as Mueller gets “Warmer, warmer, red hot!” towards the source of corruption and collusion. The Slate podcast Slow Burn, which recapped the extraordinary times of the Watergate scandal, is a good reference point and reminder. “Watergate was stranger, wilder and more exciting than you can imagine. What did it feel like to live through the scandal that brought down a president?” the podcast blurb goes.
What highlights to pick from the latest in the Mueller investigation? That Russians posed as political activists – everything from anti-immigration groups to Black Lives Matter supporters – stole identities of US citizens, organised demonstrations, used social media ads to denigrate Hillary Clinton, staged pro- and anti-Trump rallies in New York? Or perhaps one of the most unnerving and weird details: that Russian operatives paid an American to impersonate Clinton wearing a prison uniform at a rally in West Palm Beach, Florida (not far from Mar-a-Lago, incidentally). The “lock her up” chant has never rung so hollow.
Aspects of the election of Trump were a pig in a poke sold to a manipulated population, some of whom, let’s face it, already had a tendency towards naivety and gullibility. Online, the Internet Research Agency, a central part of the Russian social-media operation designed to create discord and division, excelled. Examining the behaviour of social-media bots now, the crudeness and oddness of their messaging is in many ways obvious. But the extreme nature of the messages – that Clinton was almost satanic – was compelling to many. It is hard to counter such things with the tedium of actual, not alternative, facts.
Encroachments on democracy
So-called “purple” states, where blue and red merge creating an election battleground, were especially targeted. With the US midterm elections in November, can this damage be repaired in time? What more interference is coming down the line? The slow burn of encroachments on healthy and functioning democracy has been happening for some time.
The voter suppression, the propaganda, the influence of corporate power, the yawning chasm of inequality, the policy of mass incarceration creating the largest prison population in the world who are imprisoned for mostly non-violent offences (a remarkable 46 per cent of inmates in federal prisons are there for drug offences, with just 3 per cent locked up for homicide, aggravated assault and kidnapping combined). These are all American-made.
On top of it all now is the Russian layer of “managed democracy”. When reality and fakery expands and contracts like the bellows of an accordion, truth and lies fold in on each other until everything makes the same sound and it’s hard to discern which is the extraordinary truth and which are the extraordinary lies. Falsity infects reality like structural damage, the apartment block stands but the pyrite is gradually causing the cracks, the fool’s gold working away.
Extraordinary times call for extraordinary solutions. What is perhaps more frightening about the Russian “interference” is how the creation of discord, division and chaos were also underpinning “values” (if you can call them that) of Trump’s rise and reign. America sure needs an uprising, but what aspects of its democracy will remain when the fog clears?