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What disturbs me about Trump’s America? The faces in the crowd.

October 18, 2020

Mobs can be terrifying, unless you’re part of them. Then they’re exhilarating. The surrender of individuality. The irresistible tide of emotion. At least I imagine so.

Years ago, I used to look on with horror at film of lynch mobs in Pakistan, stirred up by self-appointed leaders to take action against some insult, real or imagined, against their religion. I was comforted by the thought that I was far away, and that this could never happen here. By here, I meant countries like Britain, France, Germany and the United States.

I was wrong, of course. Protests take place everywhere, and protesters sometimes coalesce into violent mobs. Could I imagine myself becoming so angry about something that I would join others in a hot fury and attack other human beings with sticks, stones and knives? No.

Worse still, would I have it in me to retain that fury once the mob has dispersed and use it as the fuel to plan and execute some act of retribution, in cold blood, against another human being? I devoutly hope not.

What prompts this self-righteous prattle on a peaceful Sunday morning in a part of Britain where a couple of people arguing about a parking ticket is the nearest you’re likely to get to an angry mob?

It’s not, as you might think, the beheading of a teacher in France who offended someone’s religious belief. Nor is it the sight of groups of tightly-packed drinkers delivering a collective fuck-you to those who were curtailing their freedom to hug, dance, snog and expel the contents of their lungs over each other.

No, what really shocks me isn’t even the daily diet of video nasties showing teargas and random acts of violence. I’ve become used to them over the years. And it isn’t the spittle-flecked ranting of Donald Trump, who may or may not be clinically insane. Surely we’ve all become used to that since 2016.

What I do find chilling is the faces of his supporters at the rallies that are now becoming almost daily events as the US presidential election draws near. Not, however, the faces of the bulked-up white men with military paraphernalia, a few of whom are accused of plotting to kidnap the governor of Michigan and have become as much emblematic objects of fear as clean-shaven men with brown skins and rucksacks became on the London Underground after the 7/7 bombings.

It’s the mums and dads who disturb me. Smiling, kindly-looking folk who might welcome you into their homes if you were passing by their neighbourhood, and, as long as you steer clear of politics, would epitomise what you thought of as the best qualities of Americans. It’s the clean-cut schoolkids, students and young professionals you might meet on the street and find anything but intimidating.

It’s the sight of a middle-aged guy being called up to the stage by Trump. Just an ordinary guy whose enthusiasm Trump picked up on, now standing in front of all those people with a look of surprise, delight and above all trembling devotion.

It’s these people, swaying, waving and cheering together, faces sometimes contorted by fury, sometimes by what looks like ecstasy, as Trump goes through his call-and-response routine, accusing, casting doubt, spreading derision, taking credit and making grandiose claims about me, me, me.

These are the people who buy the lies, chant the chants and, in Michigan, enthusiastically endorse the suggestion that their governor, along with the Democrat candidate for president, should be locked up for some unspecified offense.

These are ordinary people. This is a man whose decisions affect lives way beyond Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

We’ve been here before. And yes, I know it’s crass to talk about the ordinary people who, ninety years ago, were carried away by another demagogue much closer to my home, with disastrous consequences for them and the rest of humanity. Especially crass, perhaps, because the grandparents of the cheering crowds in America helped rid the world of him.

I’m only writing here what many have written before me, including, in as many words, me on so many occasions. But as the beat of electioneering intensifies, I find myself becoming consumed by it, despite the fact that America isn’t my country, and despite the many reasons to be equally disturbed by events in the United Kingdom.

Was this how my parents felt in the 1930s, as they witnessed the rise of a leader even more despicable than Trump in a country close to home? No, because they weren’t bombarded with it on a daily basis. There was no TV and no social media. No smart phones sending them alerts on an hourly basis.

And yet they lived with a fear that we can’t experience – of another world war similar to the one that had touched the lives of so many around them. Perhaps that’s the difference. Our fear of annihilation, despite the posturing of Kim Jong Un and others, has faded somewhat into the background. We don’t really think these people would be crazy enough to blow up the world, do we?

Maybe what causes people to abandon what others see as reason, that leads them to succumb to conspiracy theories and the seductive routines of demagogues, is, in a strange kind of way, a safer fear. A fear not of global holocaust, but of losing home, livelihood, status, influence and power. Of losing a sense of control, however illusory that might be. Safer because in the wealthier countries there’s usually a safety net of some sort that helps us find a way through, should we choose to make use of it.

But of course it can be foolish to generalise. The causes of fear are many and varied. The coronavirus is an addition to the mix. People of my generation fear that it will send them to an early grave, even though it’s just one of the reasons why we might go that way.

But for me, looking from afar at the most powerful country in the world, the anger in the eyes of its “ordinary people”, the stripping of the thin veneer of what we think of as the civilisation that it exemplifies, and the unconfined malice in its political discourse, are phenomena that I currently find the most disturbing of all.

Even if America rids itself of its current ringmaster, I fear that the audience will still remain, waiting for the next circus to come to town.

From → History, Politics, Social, UK, USA

  1. Hi Steve. By complete coincidence, I did this graphic of Trump’s “Faces in the Crowd” today, titled “Truemp Believers”……

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