Trump’s wannabe stormtroopers were all eagerly lined up to do his bidding, with a quiescent Republican Senate and compromised Justice Department under my old high school classmate Bill Barr, terminally stained and diminished by their allegiance to the monster, or so one hopes. They are now, at very long last, beginning to distance themselves from him, after he incited his armed acolytes to break into the Capitol Building in Washington DC on Wednesday afternoon.
Trump was often derided as an isolationist by the imperial bureaucracy, for whom the term is a stock insult. His opponents liked to say he was tearing down the US-led ‘liberal international order’. In the Washington Post, Josh Rogin wrote that Biden held the promise of salvation from the Trump days: ‘a return to a bipartisan, internationalist foreign policy that moderate Republicans and Democrats have long championed’. In fact the Trump administration’s foreign policy was more orthodox than is generally admitted. Many of his appointees were old regime hands. Having pledged to ‘get out of foreign wars’, he did nothing of the sort. He pursued the global assassination programme established under Obama. The US-backed war in Yemen, begun while Biden was vice president, continued. The military budget increased.
Dying of Covid-19 is by all accounts so awful, agonising and lonely that, as the saying goes, one wouldn’t wish it on anyone. But, more important, I wouldn’t wish Trump on anyone: his swaggering mismanagement of the pandemic has led to the avoidable deaths of up to 210,000 people (and counting).
This autumn was always going to be a tawdry season in America. The past couple of weeks have been a jubilee of below-the-belt viral content: a photograph of the former vice-president’s son leaning down apparently to snort powder off a woman’s bare buttock; a still from the new Borat movie of the former New York mayor in a hotel room with a young woman, leaning back on the bed with his hands in his pants; a story of a journalist pleasuring himself during a Zoom conference in the sight of his colleagues (he said he thought he’d turned the camera off). Sleaze and perversion are now the permanent backdrop of US politics. The world turns its eyes away from a hegemon whose henchmen can’t stop pulling their dicks out. By contrast, the final debate between Trump and Biden was almost decorous.
On Wednesday, Donald Trump tweeted a series of photographs with the caption: ‘Kayleigh McEnany presenting Lesley Stahl with some of the many things we’ve done for Healthcare.’ The pictures showed his press secretary handing some papers and a hefty volume to the 60 Minutes reporter, just before an interview which the president cut short acrimoniously. As many Twitter users were quick to point out, one of the images showed Stahl opening the book and peering inside at an apparently blank page. Had the book been mocked up for the purposes of the interview, embodying not only the lack of an actual health policy, but also the fakery and pretence at the heart of the administration? Others responded that the absence of text proved nothing, since it could have been a flyleaf or title page: ‘Haven’t you ever read a book?’
Democratic Party moralism and Trumpian macho risk-taking are internally related to one another. Gambling, with all its macho undertones, has a special if covert appeal to the evangelical or Puritan mind. It allows individuals to throw off the slow, painful and laborious burden of subordinating their wishes to the superego with one manic play of the dice. Running around without a mask in the face of a pandemic could serve as a huge relief from the endless self-examination of the hypertrophied Protestant conscience. Finally, it’s out of our hands; everything will be decided by ‘fate’.
Student halls of residence have now joined cruise liners, care homes, meat plants, giant evangelical church gatherings and migrant worker dormitories as Covid-19 transmission hot spots. The US is top of the league table so far. A New York Times survey found that by 25 September, 1300 colleges had been affected and 130,000 students had tested positive. Universities in Scotland start teaching earlier than in the rest of the UK, so here they have led the way, with cases and outbreaks at St Andrews, Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh. Many other universities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland have followed since.
On the question of whether Donald Trump is a sinister mastermind or an incompetent scumbag (not mutually exclusive), last night’s debate will have to register in the scumbag column. His constant interruptions, vanity, self-pity and frequent forays into lies and nonsense are all by this point wearyingly familiar. Of course, Trump has been consistently underestimated since he entered politics, and his supporters no doubt enjoyed the petulant way he dominated proceedings. But his abuse of Biden was a far cry from the humiliations to which he subjected his opponents in the 2016 GOP primary debates. The show has gotten old.
By killing Soleimani, Trump has not only supplied the Islamic Republic with a powerful casus belli, he has also reinforced its longstanding narrative of martyrdom at the hands of the Great Satan, and may well help to strengthen the supreme leader’s hand at the very moment that the regime is facing popular anti-Iranian protests in Iraq and Lebanon, and reeling from a series of revolts at home in which hundreds of Iranians were killed by security forces. Not for the first time, the American government has proved an objective ally of Iran’s hardliners.
When I went to look round President Viktor Yanukovych’s former estate, on a mild Sunday in October, the so-called Museum of Corruption was full of visitors. Children clambered onto giant his-and-hers thrones set up opposite the mansion; couples swooned over Italianate gardens; people solemnly fed alpacas. The Trump impeachment inquiry had recently begun. The editor of the Mirror Weekly, Julia Mostovaya, wrote that both Democrats and Republicans in the US were once again using Ukraine to play ‘domestic political golf’ with little regard for the country’s own interests – including its need, in the light of ongoing Russian aggression, to stay in the good graces of both American parties.
Donald Trump said last year that migrant caravans, mainly of Hondurans, were coming to the US from ‘shithole countries’. But now he says that the president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández, is doing a ‘fantastic job’. Trump and JOH recently reached an agreement declaring Honduras to be a ‘safe place’ for asylum seekers trying to reach the US. JOH also promised to help the US tackle transnational criminal organisations. He’s well placed to do this. Last November, his brother Tony was arrested in Miami and accused of drug trafficking and possessing illegal weapons. At his trial in New York, which concluded last week, the jury found Tony Hernández guilty. He faces at least 30 years in prison for bringing 200,000 kilos of cocaine into the US between 2004 and 2018, in packets often stamped with his own initials.
Even if the BBC’s decision is taken to apply only to the constraints on Naga Munchetty’s professional role as a journalist, it sends a message that people of colour working in television must approach racism in public discourse as a matter of abstract interest, to be handled neutrally.
During the last Democratic Party debate, Cory Booker, challenging Joe Biden, criticised Barack Obama’s deportation policies. Predictably, articles defending Obama immediately appeared. Josh Marshall, the editor of Talking Points Memo, was especially eloquent. He framed his defence as a response to a friend who ‘repeatedly presses the point to me that Obama’s presidency was a disaster and that Democrats can’t fix things, either substantively or politically, until they recognise that fact’. I do not know Marshall, but I share the views of his mystery friend.
Several factors point to a Democratic victory in the next US presidential election, including success in the 2018 midterms, a series of state polls, and enormous rank and file enthusiasm, reflected in the large number of candidates who qualified for the debates. Still, the Democrats vastly underestimated Trump in 2016 and may repeat the mistake in 2020. Wishful thinking is not the only pitfall. Understanding the nature of Trump’s divisive personality, and the relation between that divisiveness and America’s politics, is still undeveloped. Here Max Weber’s theory of charisma may be helpful.
‘They are concentration camps,’ Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said of the immigration detention centres on the southern border of the US. Right-wingers angrily replied that she was either simply wrong, or making trivialising comparisons between mere brutal, dehumanising detention and the Nazi project of mass extermination. Not so, Ocasio-Cortez argued: concentration camps existed long before the death camps, and it’s an accurate term for the border facilities, which are characterised by the deliberate combination of extrajudicial internment, bureaucratised neglect and institutional cruelty.
She was right, though the camps’ defenders may have been relieved to be embroiled in an argument over terminology and historical propriety.
Turning Point UK was launched a few months ago in order to defend (or so it claimed) Conservative students who find themselves isolated or intimidated by the left’s alleged takeover of universities across the country. The group is led by George Farmer, a 29-year-old ex-Bullingdon man, and counts in its ranks the Brexit campaigner Darren Grimes, who has been fined for breaking electoral law. They are holding a fundraising dinner tonight, where the guests of honour will be Nigel Farage and Charlie Kirk, the founder of Turning Point USA. (The American organisation maintains a ‘watchlist’ of academics who ‘advance a radical agenda in lecture halls’. Several of the people on the list have received death threats.)
Protesting against Donald Trump’s state visit to the UK is, first, an act of elementary political hygiene: a refusal to endorse the British government’s eager servility to the United States, and a rejection of the politics of the president and his various global allies. Trump provokes a curious mixture of fascination and repulsion, however, and the reasons for protest go beyond a rejection of the current US government, to a sense that Trump presages a new and dangerous way of doing politics.
Of the 156,000 British, Canadian, American and other Allied troops who sailed from Portsmouth for the Normandy beaches in June 1944, fewer than 1500 are still alive. They are all in their nineties, at least. My grandfather, a D-Day veteran who died in 1998, would be 103.
On 15 April, President Trump made an unexpected phone call to Khalifa Haftar, a Libyan military officer and former CIA asset who has launched an attack on Tripoli with the aim of overthrowing Libya’s nominal ruling authority, the UN-backed Government of National Accord. According to a White House statement, Trump ‘recognised Field Marshal Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources’, and the two men discussed their ‘shared vision for Libya’s transition’.
For the third year in a row, I am spending a good chunk of the winter in Palm Beach, Florida, as a guest of a friend who rents an extravagant two-storey, marble-floored gaff four doors down from Mar-a-Lago. When our preposterous president is in residence, the Secret Service and local sheriffs are stationed in our drive.
Click here to read an expanded, updated version of this piece in the latest issue of the paper. While in Washington, DC, negotiations over a border wall remain at an impasse, a case is unfolding in a federal district courtroom in Brooklyn that casts President Trump’s ambition in a new light. Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman stands accused of running Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel, and trafficking billions of dollars’ worth of drugs into the United States.
The two most famous graduates of the Horace Mann School for Boys, class of ’67, were Barry Scheck, of O.J. Simpson ‘dream team’ fame, a lawyer who became expert in the use of DNA evidence in criminal defence cases, and William P. Barr, Trump’s nominee for attorney general. He previously held the post under the late George H.W. Bush. Barry and Bill at the age of 14 were almost entirely recognisable as the adults one reads about or watches on TV. Both boys, so far as I remember, entered Horace Mann in the ninth grade, as a handful were allowed to do. Most of us started in grade seven. We all were required to wear ties and sports coats and proper trousers. I remember Barry in a tweed jacket, a small-ish boy, my size, carrying around an outsize and packed-to-bursting briefcase. He was very determined, and academically aggressive. Bill was then, as now, a pleasant-faced, pillowy-looking boy.
Romaine lettuce in the US is currently under the cosh of a Food Safety Alert: don’t eat it, whether head or heart or baby; don’t sell it; and don’t eat ready-mixed Caesar salad, which contains it. Contamination with E. coli O157:H7 is the reason. An outbreak started in October, with 50 cases across 11 states, as well as in Ontario and Quebec, with 13 in the US admitted to hospital. The lettuce may have been grown in California, unlike the produce that caused the first romaine outbreak this year, which was grown in Yuma, Arizona. That outbreak lasted from March to June, and was the biggest E. coli O157:H7 outbreak in the US for many years, with 201 cases (96 hospitalised) and five deaths.
My father used to be a dry cleaner. In 1964, after selling a small store in Nassau County, Long Island, he hoped to open something new. Working with a broker, he found an excellent location in a shopping centre in an apartment complex that was going up in Brooklyn, right off Neptune Avenue, a few blocks from Coney Island. In those years Coney Island was being superseded by more daring, more modern theme parks, the beach was unclean and the perception that New York had become unsafe was amplified in the outer boroughs. The new middle-income construction, subsidised by the State of New York, promised to anchor the neighbourhood. The seven-building complex was called Trump Village.
Some people have turned to psychiatry in an effort to locate the irrational wellsprings of Trump’s victory, but so far little progress has been made. This is because most of the effort has gone into analysing Trump, who is often described as suffering from ‘narcissistic personality disorder’. Not only are such diagnoses, made from a distance, implausible; they also fail to address a more important question: the nature of Trump’s appeal.
For now, no one other than Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and their impressively inscrutable translators knows for sure what happened in the gilded Hall of Mirrors at Finland’s Presidential Palace during the recent US-Russia summit. Yet from the moment that the two presidents emerged to address the waiting press corps, their statements and actions have created the sense that, rather than leaving the hall of mirrors themselves, they have dragged the rest of us into it with them. And as with any visit to a hall of mirrors, the experience of doubling and distortion can be confusing, disorienting and, at times, a little frightening.
I’m in Europe this summer, though not in exile. I have not been driven to find sanctuary, much less thrown into a cage awaiting deportation, or forcibly separated from my child. When I fly home to New York, I will not be told that my name has 'randomly' appeared on a list, and taken aside to answer questions about the country of my ancestors, or my religious and political convictions. But for the first time in my life I'm not certain that this privilege, which ought to be simply a right, will last. By a strange twist of historical fate, people like me, Jews whose families fled to the US from Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, became insiders, 'white ethnics', but the racism, intolerance and sheer vindictiveness that Donald Trump has helped bring into the mainstream are volatile forces, in constant search of new targets. For Muslims, Latinos, immigrants and black people, this has been the Summer of Hatred. Now we can add journalists to the list. Trump, the inciter-in-chief, called them 'enemies of the American people'. Five were killed in Maryland last week; they are unlikely to be the last.
Benjamin Netanyahu first met Donald Trump in 1986, when they were introduced by Ronald Lauder, the heir of the Estée Lauder cosmetics fortune and a Republican donor. They became friendly, but Netanyahu, who was Israel’s ambassador to the UN at the time, doubted that the real-estate entrepreneur would be very useful to his future political aspirations. He added Trump to his handwritten list of millionaires to whom he might turn for favours, but ‘he was in the lowest category,’ Anshel Pfeffer writes in his new biography of Netanyahu, ‘indicating that he was good for an occasional favour, but not much more.’[*] Like many people, Netanyahu underestimated his new friend.
James Comey’s book, A Higher Loyalty, has been trimmed of any back story that doesn’t prepare us, in one way or another, for his account of the events before, during and after the election of Donald Trump. It opens in the early 1990s, with the interrogation of Salvatore ‘Sammy the Bull’ Gravano, ‘the highest ranking American mobster ever to become a federal witness’, who explains ‘the rules of Mafia life’. Comey is later reminded of this episode during his first meeting with Trump’s team: ‘I sat there thinking, holy crap, they are trying to make each of us an “amica nostra”.’
An enraged President Trump, surrounded by uniformed military leaders, used the same press conference last week to condemn a raid on the office of his personal attorney, Michael Cohen, and announce that he was ‘making a decision as to what we do with respect to the horrible attack that was made near Damascus’. ‘In our world,’ Trump said, ‘we can’t let atrocities like we all witnessed’ happen, and ‘because of the power of our country – we’re able to stop it.’ That is the image, and the language, it will be necessary to keep in mind during the coming months if we are to understand the relationship between domestic crisis, foreign relations, the rule of law, military force, authoritarian populism and visual culture that is poised to reshape the international order.
The anti-Russian hysteria in Washington has slipped beyond self-parody. We now have front-row seats in a theatre of the absurd, watching the media furor explode after Robert Mueller’s ‘indictments’ of 13 Russians and three Russian companies for interfering in the 2016 presidential elections. Mueller’s actions deserve the scare quotes because they are not really indictments at all. The accused parties will never be extradited or brought to trial. Nor is it clear that their actions rise to the level of crimes. The supposed indictments are merely dramatic accusations, a giant publicity stunt.
Donald Trump’s tone may be unprecedented in American politics, but his policies aren’t. Barack Obama restricted the movement of citizens from the seven Muslim countries that ended up on Trump’s travel ban list. The wall that Trump wants to build along the Mexican border is an extension of Bill Clinton’s Operation Gatekeeper. Trump’s rampaging deportation machine was bequeathed to him by previous administrations, including Obama’s. And Trump is hardly America’s first racist president. Even his ‘shithole countries’ comment is not new.
Just before Christmas, President Trump signed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act into law. The name of the bill begins with a truth and ends in a lie: there are indeed tax cuts – regressive ones, for large corporations and the super-rich – but there are no jobs. The law will put the country $1.5 trillion in the red over the next decade, despite drastic cuts to social services.
In a death row appeal soon to come before the US Supreme Court, Robert McCoy will ask whether it is unconstitutional for defence counsel to tell a jury that his client is guilty, in defiance of the accused’s express instructions that he is innocent. McCoy’s lawyer did this in his 2011 murder trial in Louisiana, in a misguided attempt to get his client life imprisonment instead of the death penalty. The lawyer had rejected the opinions of psychiatrists who had found McCoy fit for trial, believing that he was insane and delusional, and that the only way to save his life was to tell the jury he had committed the three murders with which he was charged, in the hope of leniency. The jury promptly convicted McCoy of first-degree murder, and he was sentenced to death.
It was snowing heavily, in New York’s first real snowstorm of the winter, and the women leading the demonstration at Columbus Circle had to cover their microphones with plastic bags to keep them from getting wet, muffling their chants. There were roughly 150 protesters standing with hunched shoulders while fat snowflakes dampened their caps. Their signs had pictures of growling pussycats and the ♀ symbol with a clenched fist in the centre. A woman with facial piercings had draped a large sheet over her shoulders: on the back, it was embroidered with the words ‘CUNT QUILT’, along with a diagram of a uterus made from pink and red underwear.
Late yesterday evening, ‘a senior administration official’ confirmed that the United States will today recognise Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem. Given that the policy is to be announced by Donald Trump, a volatile airhead presiding over a highly fractious government, it’s still far from clear how – or even whether – Washington will put forward a new position. But if, as expected, the US does proceed with this measure, the physical relocation of the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem will be the least of it.
‘The Iranian regime has committed multiple violations of the agreement,’ Donald Trump said last week. ‘For example, on two separate occasions, they have exceeded the limit of 130 metric tons of heavy water.’ In 1931, the American physical chemist Harold Urey discovered deuterium, the isotope of hydrogen that has a neutron in its nucleus along with a proton. He manufactured some ‘heavy water’ (D2O) and, I think, drank some. Heavy water remained an interesting laboratory phenomenon until the Second World War, when it took on new importance since it plays a role in the production of plutonium, which does not exist naturally on earth.
On Sunday, Mike Pence walked out of a football game between the Indianapolis Colts and San Francisco 49ers when players knelt on the field during the national anthem. ‘I left today’s Colts game,’ the vice president said in a statement issued by the White House, ‘because President Trump and I will not dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers, our Flag, or our National Anthem.’ His walk-out reignited a controversy that has been smouldering for weeks.
While Donald Trump gives the appearance of wavering over his decision to pull the US out of the Paris Climate Agreement, Nicaragua has decided to sign it. It was one of only two countries not to sign in Paris last year; the other was Syria. Nicaragua abstained out of principle: the agreement didn’t go far enough. The target – to keep the average global temperature no more than 2ºC above pre-industrial levels – was too high, and in any case unlikely to be met. An unfair burden was being put on developing nations and not enough money was being promised to help them build low carbon economies. I met Nicaragua’s climate change negotiator, Paul Oquist, in June, a few days after Trump announced his decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. I suggested it would be an excellent moment for Nicaragua to change its mind, though claim no credit for the subsequent decision; I can’t have been the only one to think so.
It is a political cliché that tails sometimes wag dogs. The metaphor isn’t instantly decipherable though. Politics has no shortage of figurative fauna – from snakes in the grass and stalking horses to big beasts and dinosaurs – but a wagged dog is more complex than it sounds.
In Michel Faber’s novel The Book of Strange New Things (2014), a Christian missionary called Peter travels to a faraway planet called Oasis to spread the word of god to an earnest population of alien beings. While away, he receives emails from his wife, Bea, at home in the UK. As Peter feels increasingly settled in Oasis, Bea’s news from home takes a turn for the uncanny and ultimately terrifying. Britain and the Earth are in trouble: her messages lists a series of natural calamities across the globe, from freak weather to volcanic eruptions, to the complete disappearance of the Maldives into the Indian Ocean. ‘Stay where you are,’ Bea writes in her last message. I was forcefully reminded of Faber’s novel by recent events in Mexico and the Caribbean. The images coming out of Puerto Rico, where I was born and where my mother still lives, show an island that, more often than not beset by drought, is now drowning and on its knees. I want to go back, but I can’t go back, not while flights are cancelled and there is an indefinite curfew in place.
Last Thursday, three dozen immigrant students gathered for an emergency meeting at Hunter College, a public university on the east side of Manhattan. The mood was grim: two days earlier, in furtherance of his ‘America first’ agenda, President Trump had announced the termination of Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals programme. Daca had given some 800,000 undocumented Americans – including hundreds of Hunter College students – the right to work and temporary protection from deportation. But it was created, in 2012, by presidential fiat, not through legislation, and so fell short of granting permanent residency or citizenship. ‘It made no sense,’ as Obama explained in response to Trump’s repeal, ‘to expel talented, driven, patriotic young people from the only country they know.’
On Sunday evening I took my son to see Mount Rushmore. He is 13, born and raised in Britain, but with an American father and, as he put it, not enough of a British accent to impress the locals in South Dakota. Unexpected pride welled up in me when we climbed the stairs from the car park and he gasped at his first glimpse of the giant, granite-carved faces of presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt staring down at him. ‘Wow’ isn't a word you often hear when touring with teens. Then we got distracted by a flat-bed trailer parked in the access road between us and the visitor centre, the walkway decorated with the 50 state flags, and the outdoor theatre facing the monument. Martial music was blaring from speakers attached to the trailer’s sides, and built up from its bed, like a float in a holiday parade, were large letters spelling out TRUMP.
In late July, HBO unveiled plans for a new show set in an alternative reality, in which the Confederate South, led by General Robert E. Lee, has successfully seceded from the Union. D.B. Weiss, one of the producers of Confederate, explained the thinking behind the series: ‘What would the world have looked like if Lee had sacked DC, if the South had won – that just always fascinated me.’ Last weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, Weiss got his answer, with the ‘Unite the Right’ demonstration against the planned removal of Lee’s statue in Emancipation Park (formerly known as Lee Park). This ‘pastoral scene of the gallant South’, as Billie Holiday might have described it, was open to anyone who hated black people and Jews (‘Jews will not replace us’ was one of the cries), from members of the Ku Klux Klan to neo-Nazis. Emboldened by having an ally in the highest office in the land, they came with Confederate flags, swastikas, medieval-looking wooden shields, torches and, of course, guns. They came to fight. One young woman in the counter-demonstration was murdered by a man who rammed his car into her, weaponising his vehicle just as jihadists have done in Nice and London. A helicopter surveilling the event crashed, killing the two officers inside. Dozens were injured. For the next two days, the world waited for Trump to denounce those responsible for the pogrom. The week before, he threatened North Korea with nuclear incineration (‘fire and fury’). Trump is so hollow a person, so impulsive a leader, that it’s easy to miss the great paradox of his presidency: that a cipher of a man has revealed the hidden depths, the ugly unmastered history, of the country he claims to lead.
Donald Trump Jr was approached last summer by a publicist, Rob Goldstone, acting on behalf of a Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, who offered the Trump campaign ‘very high level and sensitive information’ about Hillary Clinton’s dealings with Russia. The response by Donald Jr was not high-minded: ‘If it’s what you say, I love it.’ Apparently the offer of information turned out to be an empty pretext. The instigator of the meeting was a pop musician, Emin Agalarov, the son of a businessman, Aras Agalarov – a name that also came up in the ‘dodgy dossier’ on Trump collected by the ex-MI6 agent Christopher Steele. Trump Senior had taken money from Agalarov, and in return provided Miss Universe contestants for use in a music video by Emin. American billionaires and Russian oligarchs may be supposed to share an elective affinity. They are members of an international tribe, and snap their fingers at sovereignties.
US presidents since John F. Kennedy have been followed everywhere by an army officer carrying a leather-bound metal Zero Halliburton briefcase. (Zero Halliburton was sold to a Japanese company in 2006, but Donald Trump hasn’t switched to an all-American manufacturer.) Inside the president’s ‘emergency satchel’, also known as the ‘nuclear football’, is a ‘black book’ containing such things as retaliatory options and the codes for launching them. The president has the power to choose any of these options and no one has the power to stop him.
He’s back, like Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street 5, and with a brand new book, Understanding Trump, his 28th or so, and hard on the heels of his two 2016 thrillers, Duplicity and Treason (written with Pete Earley). Newt Gingrich – one of the three amigos, along with fellow failed politicians Rudy Giuliani and Chris Christie, who hitched their wagons to the star from Queens during his campaign for president, all three desperately jockeying for the position of vice president or secretary of state, only to be spurned and humiliated – is back in the mix.
James Comey was the acting attorney general of the United States in March 2004 when two emissaries from the Bush White House marched to the hospital bed of the attorney general, John Ashcroft, and asked him to renew the warrantless mass surveillance programme code-named Stellar Wind – a programme whose legality had been questioned by the Office of Legal Counsel. Comey, who is six foot eight, stood between the White House flunkies and the sick man’s bed, and they retreated. Soon after, he informed Bush that if the secret programme were reauthorised over the objections he had seen, he himself and the head of the FBI, Robert Mueller, would lead a mass resignation from the justice department. Bush fell back; and a chink opened in the system whose vastness and illegality would eventually be exposed by Edward Snowden. It was one of very few moments in the Bush-Obama years that bore the stamp of civic courage: someone inside government had been willing to sacrifice his career to uphold the constitution. So when, in September 2013, President Obama appointed Comey as the next director of the FBI, the move was generally applauded.
Bill O’Reilly’s world-weary smirk has been replaced by Tucker Carlson’s confused stare in the 8 p.m. slot on Fox News. O’Reilly, the most popular host on US cable news, was sacked because of a sex scandal, but Carlson is in many ways a more fitting presenter for the age of Trump.
Sean Spicer's take on the Final Solution has prompted much indignation (and a series of faltering apologies from the White House press secretary), but I doubt he's hiding any swastikas in his closet: the guy probably doesn't even know what a swastika is, any more than he knows what Zyklon B is.
‘It’s going to be a very interesting election. But you know some outside things have happened that maybe will change the course of that race.’ This from Trump, speculating in an interview with the Financial Times about Marine Le Pen’s prospects in the French presidential election (round one on 23 April). As far as we know, Trump has yet to meet her. She got as far as Trump Tower in January, but the president elect was indisposed and Le Pen’s people said at the time that she never intended to meet him. She linked up instead with one of his aides-de-camp. Here she is having coffee with Guido Lombardi, who has a pied-à-terre in Trump Tower and was formerly the US representative of Italy’s Northern League. Both Le Pen and Lombardi like to spare a moment to mull over the scourge of immigration.
Most international lawyers have said that the US missile strikes against the Shayrat airfield in Syria on Friday morning were unlawful. The UN Charter prohibits recourse to force except in self-defence or if authorised by the Security Council to maintain international peace and security. The airstrikes, undertaken unilaterally in response to a chemical weapons attack allegedly conducted by the Syrian government against Syrian civilians, do not appear to fall within the limited exceptions of collective security or self-defence. The US government has given no legal justification for its actions. Yet many US politicians, Western allies and liberal commentators have supported the airstrikes, seemingly untroubled by the implications of the Trump administration’s nonchalant disregard for international law.
Remove a truck’s catalytic converter, install a ‘smoke switch’ that tricks the engine into burning more diesel than it needs, and before you know it you’re rolling coal, purging impenetrable clouds of soot through your exhaust pipe on I-10 in Texas, enough to repel the prig in the Prius riding your tail. Those of us who consider deliberate pollution a vice can forget that there are others who not only don’t care, but revel in it. But Donald Trump – who is today signing an executive order aimed at unravelling Barack Obama's climate legacy – hasn’t forgotten them.
‘I see my country falling,’ Marine Le Pen recently announced on American TV. ‘It makes me impatient … It’s impatience that motivates me today. Quick! Quick! Quick! Quick! Let’s put our beautiful, coveted country back on its feet.’ The word déclinisme entered the dictionnaire Larousse last year, and though the far right has been exploiting the spectre of decline since the 1970s, it seems to have acquired a new note of urgency. Asked why she had chosen to contest the Nord-Pas-de-Calais seat in the French regional elections of 2015 instead of focusing her energies on the approaching presidential race, Le Pen retorted: ‘The situation degrades so rapidly, that wherever I can act, I must do so at once.’
Donald Trump’s reference to Sweden at his rally in Florida on 18 February had Stockholmers mildly amused at first. 'We've got to keep our country safe … You look at what's happening in Germany, you look at what's happening last night in Sweden. Sweden, who would believe this? Sweden! They took in large numbers. They're having problems like they never thought possible. You look at what's happening in Brussels. You look at what's happening all over the world. Take a look at Nice. Take a look at Paris.' He didn’t explicitly say that Sweden was experiencing Islamic terrorism, but that was clearly implied. His reference to ‘last night’ was precise. Swedish journalists tried to find the incident he might have been referring to, but could come up with nothing more exciting than snow-blocked roads in the north, a car chase in Stockholm and a randy elk. No Islamicists were involved. It transpired that Trump had been misled by an item on Fox News – where else? – which had tried to link rising crime in Sweden with its generous asylum policy; but even that turned out to have been a distortion.
‘So, I'm looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like … I can live with either one,’ Donald Trump said at his press conference with Benjamin Netanyahu. The Israeli prime minister appeared to exult in Trump’s presence, until the president suggested he hold off on building more settlements while Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab states worked out a deal – a ‘bigger deal’, rather. The oldest conflict in the modern Middle East – it’s a century since the Balfour declaration – has become a quarrel over real estate.
The sheer volume and rapidity of successive Trump outrages, cascading swiftly past one another, keeps even the most attentive among us from properly paying attention to any one of them, much less to their cumulative significance.
Donald Trump’s personal pathologies aside, it has become obvious that the worst possible leader of a self-styled democracy is the patriarch of an enormous family business, especially one that likes to slap its name in huge gold letters on every item, whether skyscraper or towel – and to whom people inexplicably pay money to paste the name on their own wares. A Trump employee is loyal to Mr Trump, as he’s always called, and one disagrees with the boss man, however mildly, at considerable risk. A federal employee, below the top-level appointments, is loyal to the government. A patriarch rules by fiat; a president has to deal with all those annoying existing laws and the courts that enforce them, agencies full of hundreds of thousands of recalcitrant bureaucrats, know-it-all pundits in the media, a loudmouth opposition party, and contentious factions within his own party. Everyone has an opinion.
A few months before Donald Trump was elected president, I was in Paris talking to an American political scientist, a specialist on North Africa who has made his home in France. Laxminarayan (not his real name) was sceptical of Trump’s chances. And even if he were to win, Laxminarayan added, it was very clear what would happen next. ‘Really?’ I said. ‘And what is that?’ ‘He will have to be removed from power by the deep state, or be assassinated.’
Donald Trump’s clumsy expressions of interest in getting along with Vladimir Putin continue to provoke widespread outrage. The desperate indignation of Trump’s critics, however, threatens to interfere with US co-operation with Russia on vital national security issues. The latest furor erupted after Bill O’Reilly of Fox News asked Trump why he respected Vladimir Putin despite his being ‘a killer’. ‘There are a lot of killers,’ Trump replied. ‘What, you think our country’s so innocent?’
Tomorrow's Super Bowl LI (or 51, if we are still allowed to use Arabic numbers) will not only be the biggest holiday in the American calendar, but also a test of a national mood we haven’t seen since the 1960s.
Last month, in the olden days, people were saying that Donald Trump was very bad, but Mike Pence would be even worse. That was before Steve Bannon was given a seat on the National Security Council, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff were demoted and there was a Muslim Ban and the Dakota Access Pipeline was unblocked – and that’s just the start. In two weeks, everyone forgot to worry about Mike Pence.
My parents brought me to London when I was two years old, seeking refuge from Somalia’s civil war. To guarantee our safety they left behind a home, friends, family and much of what was familiar in the world. Their siblings were scattered. My grandmother and a few of her daughters found homes together in Canada. Some of my uncles came to the UK before we did. Other relatives went to the United States, settling in Minnesota where today a large Somali community thrives. Had my aunt and other Somali-Americans made that journey today they would have been barred from entering the US twice over – for being refugees and for coming from Somalia.
The despair in the weeks following the election has now turned into constructive rage. Opposition – more precisely, oppositions – are forming, not only in the general population, but inside the government itself, as is evident from the cascade of leaks and rogue tweets. One can only speculate what is happening in the intelligence agencies and the Pentagon, but the reaction to Trump’s characterization of the CIA as 'Nazis' and his appalling speech about the size of his inauguration crowd in front of their memorial to fallen agents was plain. Moreover, in a move at first barely noticed in the general chaos, Trump removed the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of National Intelligence from the Principals Circle of the National Security Council and replaced them with Steve Bannon, the white nationalist who has become Trump’s Cheney, co-wrote the 'America First' inauguration speech, and was the architect of the current Muslim ban. There is a probable impending major crisis with North Korea – probably graver than anything in the Middle East – and Trump’s fascination with nuclear weapons is well known. A military coup is no longer unimaginable in the USA: Trump calling for a pre-emptive nuclear strike against Pyongyang and the spooks and brass rising against him.
I travelled to Egypt two weeks ago and arrived home at JFK on Saturday, 28 January, around noon. I am from Iran and have been a US citizen since 2015. Last summer, returning from Europe, the electronic passport machine let me straight through. This time however the machine didn't let me through and I had to stand in line to see a Customs and Border Protection officer. For the fifteen minutes I was waiting, I didn't see a single white person among us. The line of US citizens denied automatic entry were all, without exception, black and brown people who predominantly seemed Muslim. In front of me was a Muslim Indian man who had lived in the US for over ten years. Behind me was a Muslim Sudanese-American woman who was back from visiting her family in Sudan.
With an executive order signed on Friday, President Trump began implementing the ‘extreme vetting’ of Muslims he promised during his campaign. All refugees are now barred from entering the US for 120 days. Syrian refugees face an indefinite ban. For 90 days, all entry has been suspended for citizens of seven Muslim majority countries: Syria, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen. Yesterday, it was confirmed that the ban on entry includes people with green cards who happened to be out of the US when the order was signed. They cannot return home.
Ann Coulter has been Donald Trump’s outspoken champion since he launched his campaign. In Trump We Trust: E Pluribus Awesome!, her book that came out last summer, was more of a manifesto than anything Trump has written himself (that said, I’m not sure he’s ever written anything himself). ‘The only guy whose personal life sounds fascinating is Trump and he never discusses it,’ she wrote. ‘He was too busy talking about building a wall, renegotiating bad trade deals and ending our insane Muslim immigration policies.’ She said yesterday that the cost of building the wall along the US-Mexican border would be ‘roughly equal to one year's worth of therapy, hospital costs of little girls raped by illegal immigrants’. She is a monster.
In the last month Theresa May has given striking evidence of a tilt towards Binyamin Netanyahu and Israel. On 29 December, her spokesman sharply criticised a major speech by John Kerry, who was signing off after years of labouring for an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. He had told some home truths about the Netanyahu government, describing the current coalition as the most right-wing in Israeli history, with an agenda driven by its most extreme elements. Asked by the BBC whether he was surprised by May’s reaction, Kerry said: ‘What I expressed in the speech has been the policy of Great Britain for a long period of time … An honest answer is yes.’
'I have spoken as recently as 24 hours ago with people at the highest level of intelligence,' the president of the United States said on ABC News last night, 'and I asked them the question: "Does it work? Does torture work?" And the answer was: "Yes, absolutely." … Do I feel it works? Absolutely I feel it works.' In Why Torture Doesn't Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation, Shane O'Mara, a professor of experimental brain research at Trinity College Dublin, argues that 'torture is as ineffective as it is abhorrent.'
The queue to get onto the train at Howard University subway station stretched all the way up the stairs and onto the street. As I approached, women began to turn around, looking at us and shaking their heads: ‘Don’t bother.’ I decided to walk the two miles to the National Mall. Washington DC is hard to navigate; it is laid out in a series of pinwheels designed to be difficult to invade, and many areas are geoblocked, turning the map on my phone into a blank. But there was only one direction that anyone was walking. Protesters held signs and wore ‘pussy hats’; pink, mostly handmade, with points on the top like cat ears. A lot of us were carrying clear plastic backpacks with granola bars and bottles of water; fabric bags weren’t allowed because they are too easy to hide a bomb in.
On Thursday, Wayne Barrett died of lung disease in Manhattan. He had written about Trump's business dealings for decades, mostly for the Village Voice, and for his book Trump: The Deals and the Downfall (1992), a portrait of a man who got ahead because of his willingness, at every stage of his career, to screw over anyone foolish enough to trust him. It was reissued last year as Trump: The Greatest Show on Earth: The Deals, the Downfall, the Reinvention.
‘First we are going to cut it off, and then we are going to kill it.’ That was how Colin Powell described the battle plan he and his generals came up with for the war they were about to wage against Saddam Hussein’s army in 1991, and that is, more or less, what happened. After the US A-10 tank-buster bombers known as Warthogs had finished off the Iraqi armoured brigades on the Basra Road, Harold Pinter, disgusted by the gratuitous carnage, wrote a poem called ‘American Football’. He sent it to several publications, including the London Review of Books, where I then worked. He had it faxed to the paper's office on Tavistock Square. None of the editors much liked the poem, but because it was by Pinter there was some further deliberation, and as the afternoon ended we thought we'd defer the decision to the following morning.
As King Ubu from Queens makes ready to take the presidential oath of office, assuming the ‘leadership of the free world’ and the computer codes that unlock America’s nuclear arsenal, the Pollyanna in me would like to remind those hiding in their basements with an eight-year supply of protein powder and Green Giant corn niblets that when Ronald Reagan took office at noon on 20 January 1981, the prospect of an extremely right-wing B-movie actor and longtime shill for General Electric entering the White House was hardly less surreal and unnerving than what we face now. True, Reagan had served two terms as governor of California (1967-75), but we here in the Golden State are still digging ourselves out from under them 42 years later, during which time vast sums of money have been transferred from the state’s resources for health, infrastructure, education etc. to the wealthiest 5 per cent of individuals.
‘Russia is a mental subcontinent, the subconscious of the West. This is why we place our fears, our phobias and foibles in Russia,’ a character says in Zinovy Zinik’s novel Sounds Familiar or The Beast of Artek. The book, published last summer, explores the way the Kremlin Menace can loom to a monstrous size in the Western imagination. A timely subject, given the way the debate around Donald Trump's admiration of Vladimir Putin has morphed into a grotesque tale of Putin playing puppet-master in the US election – complete, according to a recently leaked 'unverified' report, with candid camera footage of Trump enjoying golden showers in the Moscow Ritz and secret meetings between the Kremlin and Trump's team in Prague (home of the Golem).
At the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Stanley Kubrick was living in England. He decided that it was not safe there and he should move his family to Australia. Since he refused to fly commercially, he booked passage on a boat. But when he found that he would have to share the bathroom facilities with a neighbouring cabin he cancelled the whole thing, preferring to take his chances with the bomb.
In the subway station at Fifth Avenue and 53rd Street you start seeing people holding signs. They move in clusters up or down the stairs to the train, clutching their flaps of cardboard: ‘No Racism’; ‘Immigrants Make America’. Above ground, this strip of Fifth Avenue is empty. Metal fences have been set up by the police along the edge of the pavement, and by 55th street the barriers are concrete. You walk in the middle of the street. Police are everywhere, chests bulging under their blue jackets, making eye contact with one another and giving assessing glances to passersby. The police stand outside Giorgio Armani; the pen of protesters in front of them is separated by the barricades from Dolce & Gabbana: Gucci is in Trump Tower itself. Most of the time now the boutiques are closed.
In February, the Israeli prime minister praised the British government for introducing new guidelines prohibiting publicly funded bodies from boycotting Israeli products. ‘I want to commend the British government for refusing to discriminate against Israel and Israelis and I commend you for standing up for the one and only true democracy in the Middle East,’ Netanyahu said.
Richard Hofstadter gave the Herbert Spencer Lecture at Oxford on 21 November 1963, on the rhetoric and superstitions of the American right. The next presidential election was a year away, but Barry Goldwater, a US senator from Arizona, owner of a department store in Phoenix and author of an influential book about his conservative politics, who promised to roll back Roosevelt’s New Deal, was likely to be the Republican candidate.
Donald Trump’s quasi-apocalyptic victory marks the end of American exceptionalism: a certain idea of America, as a model of democracy and freedom, is dead. Trump didn’t kill it; he declared it dead with a campaign that was as surreal as it was reactionary. ‘It’s a nightmare,’ a French friend wrote to me in an email. ‘It’s worse than a nightmare,’ I replied. ‘It’s reality.’
Kids were OK, they said maybe Michelle Obama can be president next time, we decided they would write to her to ask. Five-year-old was dismayed to learn that DT will be president until she is nine, which feels like forever. When we walked out the door the crossing guard on our corner shouted: 'You remember 9/11? Well this is 11/9. Think about it.'
There are many similarities between the Brexit vote and Trump's win. The reliance for victory on white voters without a college education, fear of immigration, globalisation being blamed for mine and factory closures, hostility towards data-based arguments, the breakdown of the distinction between ‘belief’ and ‘conclusion’, the internet’s power to sort the grain of pleasing lies from the chaff of displeasing facts, the sense of there being a systematic programme of rules and interventions devised by a small, remote, powerful elite that polices everyday speech, destroys symbols of tradition, ignores or patronises ‘real’, ‘ordinary’ people, and has contempt for popular narratives of how the nation came to be.
Donald Trump’s instinctive response to his most recent crisis was predictable. As the tales of groping multiplied and swirled, he claimed the high ground. His accusers, he said, were ‘horrible, horrible liars’, whose attacks were being ‘orchestrated by the Clintons and their media allies’. He was willing to suffer for his ‘disfranchised’ followers, however, and they would collectively ‘take back our country’. The election, he promised, was going to be ‘our Independence Day’. As far as the US media took any notice – and many, in their mainstream way, were focusing instead on the complaints of Trump’s alleged victims – there was confusion. Was Trump drawing on the science fiction movie of the same name, wondered the New York Daily News? The 1996 film shows the White House destroyed by aliens. Worldwide havoc ensues. America’s president leads the counterattack that eliminates the intruders for ever (sequels notwithstanding). In Trump’s eyes, that's not fantasy so much as cinéma vérité. The inspiration for his speech, however, is almost certainly closer to home.
I’ve been thinking about some lines of a poem by Wallace Stevens called 'Sad Strains of a Gay Waltz': There are these sudden mobs of men, These sudden clouds of faces and arms, An immense suppression, freed, These voices crying without knowing for what, Except to be happy, without knowing how, Imposing forms they cannot describe, Requiring order beyond their speech. Too many waltzes have ended. The lines are the work of an American poet writing in the 1930s, and the first thing that may come to mind is the hunger marchers of the Depression. But there were other mobs then, in Germany, Italy and elsewhere.
Acquiescence, co-option, appeasement? It’s hard to tell what’s been going on between Donald Trump and the American right since he became the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. Tuesday saw Trump’s final Foxwashing, the end of the feud between the candidate and Fox News presenter Megyn Kelly.
Sixteen years ago, during the Republican primary campaign, John McCain went into South Carolina with a five-point lead over George W. Bush, having enjoyed a decisive victory in New Hampshire. A certain party with no official links to the Bush campaign organised a phone poll, asking: ‘Would you be more or less likely to vote for John McCain if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?’ (McCain had taken his adopted daughter, who was born in Bangladesh, on the campaign trail.) It worked like a top for the Bush team. McCain lost the South Carolina primary by eleven points and never recovered. While the smear campaign was underway, during a break in a televised debate between the two candidates, Bush took McCain’s arm and assured him that he, Bush, would never countenance a dirty manoeuvre. ‘Don’t give me that shit,’ McCain told him. ‘And take your hands off me.’
‘Politics, media, police,’ said the young man with the jagged haircut. ‘Is this the first institutional failure of post-devolution Scotland?’ The panellists, squeezed round the desks of Committee Room One in the Scottish Parliament, wriggled a bit and looked pained. It’s too soon, one said, to know what’s going to happen in the long run. This story has a lot further still to go. But there must have been what he called ‘a failing of institutional Scotland’ when the Trump Organisation started building ‘the world’s greatest golf course’ on the dunes and marram grass of Menie, just up the coast from Aberdeen.