- 23 Oct 20
We are less than a fortnight away from what – one way or another – will be a watershed Presidential election in the US. At the moment, political analysts believe that Donald Trump is likely to be turfed unceremoniously out of the White House by the electorate. But the grim underlying fear is that the natural born demagogue and proto-fascist may have one final trick up his sleeve – or worse again that he will dig in and refuse to go. Fasten your seat belts...
I had wanted to write about U2, not Donald Trump. We have just published a special issue, after all, to mark 40 years since the launch of the band’s wonderfully innocent and explosively original debut album Boy; and 20 years since the release of their huge, shimmering global hit record All That You Can’t Leave Behind. In the context of such monumental musical achievements, we couldn’t leave the entire foreground to a man from Tullamore by the name of Pat Carty, could we?
Well, maybe we could, but it seemed to me, when I dragged myself out of the scratcher this morning, that the poor fella had been digging away in the vineyard for so long, over the past few weeks, that he’d need a bit of a hand. Or moral support at least.
I could, for example, sit and watch, while he hammered away at his poor, battered and bedraggled laptop.
He might read aloud the odd phrase to me, ostensibly by way of engaging in a form of creative collaboration with the boss, but really just to demonstrate that he is indeed what, in the old school, used to be called “a phrase-maker.” It’d require only a modicum of attention and a smattering of enthusiastic applause on my part to convince him that I had been listening.
I could, meanwhile, polish my nails and dream up new rhymes for the word ‘preposterous’ that have nothing whatsoever to do with large mammals with big mouths that live generally in swampy conditions, or along the banks of rivers, in the southern half of the continent of Africa. But nice, and creatively productive, as that meeting of great minds would undoubtedly be, the fact is that I had other issues with which to wrestle.
HUCKSTER WITH HIDDEN HORNS
In truth, I also wanted to write about Donald Trump and the upcoming Presidential election in the United States of America. It has been next to impossible, for endless months now, to get away – even for half an hour of a normal working day – from an ongoing sense of sheer, almighty dread at the appalling possibility that the nasty, lying loudmouth might somehow steal a win in the first week of November, and remain in occupation of the White House. And proceed to torture us all on Twitter for another four years.
Jesus fucking Christ. The palpitations.
On the plus side, since Joe Biden emerged from the exercise in absurdity that is the US system of ‘primaries’, where money doesn’t talk it swears till its red in the face, and the Presidential election campaign proper started, the Democrats have played a relatively good, simple, strategic game.
I am not being insulting when I say that almost nowhere in the world would Joe Biden be considered prime Presidential material. He has nothing much to say. He can’t string more than a few words together impressively. Original he is not. Nor charismatic. His energy levels are low. And he has, in the past, been somewhat gaffe-prone. He is, however, a decent sort of skin and he is a moderate. Perversely, that may be all that the current moment requires in the US.
And so, for the most part, the Democrats have kept their man out of harm’s way. All the while, since February, the death toll from coronavirus has been mounting inexorably. As a result, Trump is trailing badly in the polls, with Joe Biden hitting a double digit lead, in the poll of polls, taken across the a string of national polls. Right now, on the face of it, the election is his to lose.
But that’s what most commentators believed last time out. Hillary Clinton’s advantage wasn’t quite as cavernous, and Donald Trump had the faddish momentum that a fresh kind of lunacy can sometimes engender. But, still, no one thought that Trump had a hope two weeks out. The huckster with hidden horns won completely against the odds.
No wonder that, all over the world, people are sweating. Might the despicable con-man have enough treachery in the tank to succeed in doing the same again? He might.
WE’VE DONE A VERY GOOD JOB
There is one key difference on this occasion. Back in 2016, the social media behemoth Facebook effectively colluded with the Trump campaign, enabling them to target African American voters with the message that their vote would make no difference.
Facebook had amassed sufficient data on just about everyone in America to enable the Trump campaign to home in on those who were most easily swayed to indifference. Who were themselves cynical about the political process. Who had a lot going on in their lives. Or who could be convinced that Clinton had it in the bag and there was no need for them to bother going to the polls on Election Day.
The opportunity Donald Trump and his sleazy backroom operators had spotted was riper for exploitation than conventional political pundits had understood: foment misogynistic hatred of Hillary Clinton; prevent enough black people from voting; meanwhile, get the white supremacists and racists energised, and convince them that their hour has come at last and ‘Hey presto!’. Trump stole the Presidency.
There were those who, in the immediate aftermath of his victory, got all huffy at the suggestion that this really was a disaster; that he was not fit for high office; that he had the makings in him of a political monster, and a demagogue; that he could and most likely would do wrecking ball-scale damage – not just to the United States of America, its people and its institutions, but that the poisonous nastiness, which is his milieu and modus operandi, would spill out across the world in a cataclysmic, toxic, political contagion.
“Donald Trump is the legitimately elected President of the United States,” they said. “Get over it.”
Would that it had turned out to be that easy. In fact, in each and every respect, Trump has exceeded even the very worst expectations of his most virulent detractors. From the start, he was a mendacious, cesspit-minded and thoroughly divisive figure, promoting hatred and conflict where even the worst Presidents have tried – in some shape or form – to act as a healing force, if only just among Americans.
As the President of the United States, he has abused individuals, reneged on promises, broken international treaties, consistently acted in bad faith, carried out personal vendettas, lied countless thousands of times, supported white supremacists, condoned police brutality against African Americans, feathered his own nest, spewed hate, attempted to bully and browbeat political rivals, and so on and on and on.
We’d be here for a week, if we had to get through the entire charge-sheet.
He began his term with risible lies about the size of the turn-out at his inauguration. Invented the idea of an ‘alternative facts’. Fomented hatred against asylum seekers and immigrants. Attacked Muslims. Separated children from their parents at the border. Declared alt-right fascists to be very fine people. Refused to condemn police brutality or the murder of George Floyd. Called US soldiers losers. Paid zero taxes. And still, early in the year, looked as if he might only need to pull the right stunt – like launching a war in Iran – to win.
And then came Covid-19. Put on your best Donald Trump voice, please...
We’ve got it totally under control – it’s just one person from China. It’s just like the flu. 99% of covid cases are totally harmless. Children are virtually immune from Covid-19. Some day, it’s like a miracle, it’ll just disappear. Anybody that needs a test get a test: they’re there – they have the tests and the tests are beautiful. The United States has carried out more testing than the rest of the world combined. The US has the lowest case fatality rate in the world. I see the disinfectant, where it knocks it out in a minute – one minute – is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning? Pharmaceutical companies are going to have vaccines, I think, relatively soon. I said supposing you brought the light inside the body, which you can do either through the skin or in some other way – and I think you said you’re going to test that too... so, we’ll see, but the whole concept of the light, the way it kills it in one minute – that’s pretty powerful. So we have between 100,000 and 200,000 (deaths), and we altogether have done a very good job. A coronavirus vaccine could be ready by Election Day. We’re weeks away from a vaccine.
THERE ARE ENOUGH GUNS OUT THERE
He denied it. Minimised it. Blamed China. Fomented racial hatred again. Offered his own crackpot musings on potential cures. Said it was nothing. Promised vaccines and fixes. You could see him frothing dangerously at the mouth.
But the numbers kept growing. Trump joked about it only being losers like Joe Biden who wear masks. Then he contracted the virus. He had become just another one of an astonishing 8.5 million confirmed cases in the US alone. He failed to add himself to the over 225,000 deaths to date (and rising). There were in excess of 51,000 new cases on Monday of this week – the highest in the world.
And Donald Trump is still claiming that he has done a great job.
There is not a single good and lasting thing that he has achieved in his four years as President. He has run the worst, most chaotic, most chronically dysfunctional administration in history. He has surrounded himself with chancers, flunkies and family members. He has continued to shamelessly screw a buck out of every opportunity in the most corrupt and venal ways imaginable. He is a walking, talking, lying, scheming embarrassment. And a crude and ignorant demolition man, destroying whatever checks, balances and accommodations had been achieved in the international arena through decades of diplomatic hard graft.
And yet, objectively, Donald Trump is still in with a chance. His core support of up to 35% has barely wavered. He just needs to spook enough people out of voting for Biden. Which brings us to the core absurdity.
So totally unrepresentative is the utterly bizarre electoral college system used to vote in the US President that the final tally is likely to come down to the results in a small number of so called swing States. Last time out Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 48% to 46% – and yet Trump took 56.5% of the electoral college votes to become President. How do the citizens of the country that claims to be the world’s greatest democracy allow such a crazy system to continue? And while we’re at it, how do they invest what amount to the powers of a dictator in what is meant to be a democratically accountable President?
How do they let someone like Donald Trump get away, for four years, with the kind of erratic, dangerous, prejudiced and self-serving behaviour that would see him sacked in almost every other civilised country? To take it as its most blindingly toxic, how is it possible for him to flagrantly parachute a stooge in, to take charge of the postal system a few months before the Presidential election, with the specific purpose of slowing down and if possible jamming entirely the process of postal voting, to suppress the African American vote?
What we are witnessing is a level of unscrupulousness that is historic. And a political and electoral system that is completely unable to cope with it. Trump is desperate to hang onto power. Because if he doesn’t he might end up in jail. This is the Faustian pact into which he entered. On the one hand almost limitless power. But at the end of it, the possibility that every crime committed along the way might just catch up with him.
If he loses will he go quietly into that good night? Right now it is impossible to know. But what we can say is that there is growing evidence that he is getting the stage set, and ready, for a refusal to accept or to dispute the result. That he has packed the Supreme Court to decide in his favour. That, if necessary, he will do everything in his power to mobilise the white militias he has sucked up to over the past four years. And that there are enough guns out there in the hands of extremists for these fanatics to believe that they are in with a chance of taking over, or of helping Donald Trump to.
And besides, who knows what the US military and police might do, confronted with having to make a choice? The portents for US democracy have seldom been as dark.
We thought the horror show might be coming to an end – and it might. To get back to where we started, the terrain is different in that Facebook and Twitter are not being quite so accommodating to Trump as they were first time around. That might turn out to be a deciding factor. But if Trump does attempt to hold onto power in the face of a defeat at the ballot box, then it’s likely to get a whole lot bloodier and gorier in the US.
GREED AND LUST FOR UNTRAMMELLED POWER
As I said, I had wanted to write about U2. So much that they have achieved has been done out of idealism. Over the 40 years since Boy, they have created great art. They have built tours that broke new ground in production terms. They have created marvellous iconography that has just now been honoured by being used as the basis for four new Irish stamps. They have quietly contributed hugely to good causes locally and across the world.
Bono in particular has campaigned for a different, justice-driven relationship with Africa. He has battled for the resources to fight AIDS there. He has got in the faces of politicians and refused to go away till he extracted commitments from them that would – and did – offer hope of a better future to individuals and communities across that beautiful continent.
Those of us who have known U2 from the start can bear witness to something extraordinary. The instinct they have shown to make a contribution, to be a force for good and for enlightenment, to make the world a better place for everyone, as far as their influence might reach, was there from the very start. Bill Graham’s article, from 1980, which we republish in this issue of Hot Press, offers an insight that is extraordinary, even for those who know the score. You can trace almost everything that happened to U2 in their work and in their art, back to that moment when a hugely ambitious young band set out, to take on the world.
In The Graveyard Talks Back, Arundhati Roy recently wondered: if she were incarcerated would her writing become freer and less 'negotiated’. Her answer is a powerful rebuke to those who reduce the richness of life to mere slogans. “I believe our liberation lies in the negotiation,” she counters. “Hope lies in the texts that can accommodate and keep alive our intricacy, our complexity and our density against the onslaught of the terrifying, sweeping simplifications of fascism.” This is something that Bono, for one, has long understood.
You could not, I think, find a greater contrast to the self-serving greed and lust for untrammelled power that Donald Trump stands for, than what those four innocent 20 year olds thought, felt and said back in 1980. Human creatures exist in a permanent tension between the drive towards freedom and liberation and the brutal ideology of fear, control and exploitation. The hope now has to be that we can renew that sense of idealism which U2 showed, and the commitment to the values of mutual support, respect and solidarity it underpins. If Donald Trump is beaten well, and forced to slink away from the White House for good – to go down in the annals as a mere twisted blip in history – then it surely will be time to celebrate.
It if does come to pass, this will hopefully be just the start of the a much deeper and more far-reaching process of renewal. In the US, what is needed is a complete reinvention of how democracy works. But that is for another day. In Ireland, we have to get to grips not just with the coronavirus, but with the drift towards a different kind of creeping authoritarianism which it has enabled. But for now, friends, let us just try to breathe. Deeply.
A brighter morning may dawn on November 4. Sleep, sleep tonight. And may your dreams be realised.
The U2 special issue of Hot Press is out now. Order your copy below: