On 4 March 1861, just shy of 156 years ago, Abraham Lincoln stood before the Capitol to deliver his first inaugural address. Seven southern states had recently seceded from the union, and the country faced imminent conflict. In a febrile, fissiparous atmosphere, Lincoln presented a clear-headed account of his determination to preserve, protect and defend the United States Constitution following his recently sworn oath as the 16th president, and concluded with an eloquent plea that conflict be avoided. The language might seem florid to modern ears, but there is no doubting Lincoln’s ability to combine a lucid message with a poetic ear.
I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
Next Friday will witness the inauguration of the 45th American to hold the office of president. Barring any politically terminal revelations between now and then, the next president will be Donald Trump, a man who recently described fighting ISIS as “number one tricky”. Lincoln’s most renowned speech, at Gettsyburg, was but 272 words long; perhaps Trump will look to better this with an inaugural address boiled down to 140 characters. It’s slightly unfair to compare the statures of Lincoln and Trump, and were that it was unnecessary, but with the latter shortly to assume the august office that the former held with such remarkable wisdom, courage and diligence, it seems beholden to point out that, in terms of clarity of thought, strength of heart, fixity of purpose, manner of communication – in fact, use any meaningful character trait you wish – Trump’s elevation to the office of president would be a matter for scorn alone, were it not also so grave. In less than a week, Trump will be sitting in the Oval Office, the newest leader of the free world (if that expression still holds meaning).
Oh, Republican Party! The Grand Old Party, the party of Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Eisenhower and Reagan, how has it come to this? In your wisdom you presented to the American electorate an especially vindictive and solipsistic eight-year old boy, a little bully trapped in the body of a corpulent, capricious, copper-toned parody of the American Dream, a character even Tom Wolfe might blanch at creating. And with a cynical reboot of Nixon’s southern strategy playing out alongside the most mendacious campaign performance this side of Brexit, the electoral college delivered unmerited success. Hilary Clinton won nearly 2.9 million votes more than Trump, although the latter graciously admitted he could have won the popular vote if he’d wanted to.
It’s not the first time in history, of course, that a conservative elite has chosen a charismatic demagogue whom they believed they could control, to deliver them electoral success, though I doubt Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell would appreciate the comparison with Franz von Papen. And if Trump merits comparison with any fascist leader, arguably it’s more precisely with Benito Mussolini: racism, xenophobia, misogyny, an incoherent and contradictory policy programme, disdain for democratic process, an obsession with his country’s (perceived) decline, a lazy appropriation of unreflexive nationalism, a corporatist approach to allowing business interests to shape national policy, an inability to engage in constructive conversation, let alone debate, a two-faced approach to freedom of speech, and a recourse to winning arguments by shouting louder and by lying egregiously about both his own and his opponents’ merits whilst proclaiming the other side to be the ones with their pants on fire.
A preening braggart and a thin-skinned bully, with a short-fused ego and an unflinching faith in his own genius: congratulations to the United States and its political processes for producing possibly the most ill-equipped democratic leader of modern times. His election suggests that the American political system and the means by which its civil society holds it to account are broken. It’s impossible to tell what will come next (beyond a corrupt political elite filling its boots from state coffers), but hard to believe this particular episode in American history will end well. If there is any substance to the recent allegations of close relations between Trump’s campaign team and the Russian political elite, let alone to the suggestion that Vladimir Putin holds some sort of leverage over Trump (there seems no doubt that Putin’s preference was for Trump over Clinton, though it’s not clear quite how far he was prepared to go to effect this outcome), then it’s hard to see Trump’s hold on the reins of power lasting long. Americans don’t respond kindly to external interference in their domestic affairs. Trump’s willingness to make supportive comments about Putin, ostensibly as someone committed to defeating ISIS, whilst disparaging his own country’s intelligence agencies is curious at least. Nor should it be forgotten that Russia’s political elite has scant interest in democratic values or civil society.
So, umm, grunge music…
Well, I have filed this away under non-grunge, but a musical interlude is well overdue. The most obvious item to crowbar in is Eddie Vedder’s performance at Obama’s farewell address. (Hamstrung by a hostile Congress, domestic fatigue with overseas engagements and his own natural caution, history might not be kind to Obama and his performance over two terms, but in his farewell address he deftly reminded us of the things we will miss. Obama might lack Lincoln’s political acumen but he lacks none of his essential decency and humanity.) Of equal note is the general reluctance of American musicians to appear at Trump’s inaugural ball. Most recently I heard Trump’s team had managed to book a Bruce Springsteen tribute act (who if they turn up and perform should hang their heads in shame).
Music has long contained a vibrant political streak, as I’ve argued previously. So, if you’ll forgive the detour, let’s take a journey away from the Pacific Northwest and towards the Deep South – Texas and Alabama to be precise.
First up, a song from Steve Earle, ‘Christmas in Washington’, this video taken from Farm Aid 2008. Written at the time of Bill Clinton’s re-election in 1996, it’s a mournful song about the state of American politics, the rout of the left and hope for its rebirth:
Republicans drink whiskey neat / And thank their lucky stars /
They said “He cannot seek another term / There’ll be no more FDRs.”
And secondly, one from Jason Isbell, ‘TVA’, an affirmation of the positive effects that a Democrat president and Congress – elected by the people, for the people – can bring.
Last autumn, confidently predicting that Clinton would rout Trump in November, I opined that the Republicans would need to take a long look at themselves, remove the corrosive influence of the billionaire-funded, ‘grassroots’ Tea Party movement, and return to a more centrist, bipartisan approach. Not one of my better predictions, although I still hold that, for the longer-term good of the US, the Republicans need to move back to the centre and engage with the political system in a more adult manner. Instead, it’s the Democrats in need of an urgent re-evaluation of their composition and their sense of direction. In the minority in both Houses, and now without the presidency, nonetheless they need to regroup and provide effective opposition whilst also plotting a progressive path ahead; they could do worse than to remember the New Deal and consider how to translate this into a twenty-first century form.
All of which ties in with the post’s heading, a quote from Pearl Jam, ‘Thumbing My Way’:
No matter how cold the winter / There’s a springtime ahead.