Thursday, 19 January 2017

Saying goodbye to the US at the end of the pre-Donald era

It’s the day before the US Presidential inauguration. I’m at the end of a two-week packed stay in the States, full of small but telling experiences in the run up to the country being Trumped, the end of what I suppose we shall have to think of as the pre-Donald era, an era we may shortly look back on with nostalgia.

I’ve always liked the character of Blanche Dubois in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar named Desire. She “always depended on the kindness of strangers” and, when I’m travelling alone, so do I. They’re not always kind, of course, but on this trip I met many that were.

In a Boston museum, I became aware of a woman pushing another in a wheelchair (her mother? I think it might have been). I sped up a little to get to the door ahead of us and hold it for them but, before I even got there, I heard the mother say, “why, thank you,” and when I looked around, she explained, “I see your intention.” I could only tell her I was pleased to have had it correctly interpreted.

In a restaurant, the Italian colleague who was with me on that occasion chose to apologise for a misunderstanding over our order by saying, “I am sorry. We are both foreigners.”

“Please don’t confuse me with Donald Trump,” came the answer.

Both in Boston and further up the coast north of the city, I could find no one with a kind word for the soon-to-be 45th President. But this of course is Massachusetts, which voted by a nearly two-to-one majority against him. In any case, as my mother pointed out when I told her, she had found it practically impossible to find anyone who had voted for Nixon when she was living in New York in the seventies, “and he was elected twice.”

Later I travelled to Philadelphia, in Pennsylvania which voted for Trump, giving a Republican the preference for the first time since Ronald Reagan. There I visited the hall where a bunch of insurgent liberals gathered back in 1776 and decided they’d had quite enough of British Tory government, just as I have today. It was ironic that it was in the city where Thomas Jefferson wrote the ringing appeal for liberty in the Declaration of Independence, that I first came across open backing of the Trump presidency.

Where the Declaration of Independence was adoptedCould they imagine they were preparing a Trump presidency?
I had lunch in a simple cafe where I had to return to the counter to fetch my meal. The tables were packed close and I must have bumped the man at the next table to mine. I didn’t hear what he said to me but apparently he’d sworn at me aggressively. When I returned, the young women at the table on the other side of mine pushed it aside and invited me to come through that way and not chance provoking the hostile diner. I thanked them.

“Strange things are happening to our country, one of them replied.

It struck me as a neat metaphor of the division in the US, between brutality on the one hand and a degree of tolerance on the other.

Later that day, I was sitting in an alcove of a hotel bar when a mother and daughter (yes, another pair) came in and took the seats opposite me. Most of the time they talked about everyday matters – you know, “well, you can always phone me”, “oh, I don’t want to disturb you, I know how busy you are”, the usual family things – but at the end they came to politics.

“Obama demeaned the presidency,” Mum assured us, “I’ve never seen the presidency reduced so low.”

There was a shocked pause, which struck me as the appropriate reaction to such an assertion.

“You mean…,” the daughter replied, “you expect Trump to raise the standing of the presidency?”

It seemed that was exactly what she expected. “He’ll speak for the nation, and won’t let special interests push him around or buy him off.”

As she was leaving, she pointed out that I’d probably listened to the conversation, and asked my view.

“I’m from the other side of the Atlantic,” I told them, “you won’t find many of us over there who are keen on the Trump presidency.”

The daughter smiled.

“Well, we are,” said Mum, with emphasis. “Friday. You’re going to see. We’re on the way back and not a day too soon. We have a lot to fix.”

Oh, well. That Friday’s nearly on us. Trump and his team start “fixing” things tomorrow. It should be quite a spectacle.

I’ll be watching it from a distance. I fly back on the eve of his triumphal entry to the White House. Back to the relative safety of Britain.

Where can I have the joy of watching my own country embrace its version of Trump: the ghastly retreat into walled-off isolation we call Brexit.

I see nothing to justify my indulging any sense of superiority over our American cousins...

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