Menu

Donald Trump didn’t drop from the sky

Jun 29, 2020 • 17m 13s

As Donald Trump comes to the end of his first term, it is clear he has benefitted hugely from America’s divisions - in fact, he is the perfect expression of them.

play

 

Donald Trump didn’t drop from the sky

253 • Jun 29, 2020

Donald Trump didn’t drop from the sky

DON:

The thing about Trump is that what he's really done is make reality itself contestable, and that makes it very hard to fight him...

**

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

As Donald Trump comes to the end of his first term as US President, it is clear that he has benefitted hugely from America’s divisions - more than that, he’s the perfect expression of them.

Today, Don Watson on four years of chaos - and what happens next.

**

RUBY:

Don, let's start with what it is that you make of Donald Trump, as you look at the final stages of his first term.

DON:

Well, I think he's a horror, and I guess what I find remarkable from the last four years is that 40 percent of the American public, and a surprising number of Australians, couldn't see what a horror he was going to be.

RUBY:

Don Watson is a speechwriter and author. He wrote about Trump for The Monthly.

DON:

The mistake is to think that by his crassness and manifest crookedness, you know, he's dropped from the sky. He hasn't. He turned out to be the candidate that American libertarian Republicans like the Koch brothers had been looking for for a long while.

RUBY:

Don, let's go back a little. I want to choose one moment that tells us about the contemporary divisions in American culture, and I was thinking that we could start with Hurricane Katrina.

DON:

Um, well Katrina sort of shone a light on the vast discrepancies in wealth and privilege and power in America. It was a kind of great grotesquerie.

Archival tape -- reporter:

We tried to get down, we couldn’t because of the rising water there - the issue there is the fact that the wind continues to blow in the surge...

DON:

I went there, I don’t know, it was about four or five weeks after the hurricane went through, maybe it was a little more than that, can’t remember… and it was truly extraordinary.

Archival tape -- reporter:

This morning the water started to rise. The reports we’re getting now: Canal Street - actually we have a video of it - Canal Street underwater, Bourbon Street...

DON:

Not only in the sort of signs of the devastation of this sea surge which had lifted up casinos, which had been in the water and put them on land, and thrown fishing boats 400 yards inland and put them on top of post offices, things like this.

That is extraordinary. But so also was the response. And so the rubbish was still lying there. It was hard to imagine that, you know, this can-do country couldn't do what was obviously necessary.

Archival tape -- unknown:

This is hell. And to have this happen in the United States of America, in the state of Louisiana, and to not have immediate, immediate response, regardless of the laws, is tragic.

DON:

What happened in New Orleans after Katrina was a sort of an example of how flimsy the state was, how flimsy the sort of liniments of power and effect were.

It exposed the great gulf between rich and poor. Between black and white and Hispanic. All these things were sort of there for everyone to see.

And Katrina was really the beginning of the end for George W. Bush. It's funny how nature has its way as sort of implanting itself on the best designs of human beings.

RUBY:

And what did Obama represent in response to this?

DON:

Well, I think it's going to take a while for people to work out, for history to work out, just where Obama sits. I think Obama's big mistakes were made in the first twelve months. I think his response to the financial crisis was the wrong one. I think he went the way Wall Street basically wanted him to go, when he may well have gone a more radical route and said, my sympathies are with the victims with this, not with the perpetrators. But I think there he lost a historic opportunity to contest the ground with working class America.

As a Democrat, it didn't make sense, not that one expects a lot from the Democratic Party. Obama's failure to really pursue more social policy and to stand up to sort of corporate America left that dispossessed Rust Belt, working class, lower middle class cohort of the population to the Tea Party.

Archival tape -- crowd chanting:

USA! USA! USA! USA! USA!

DON:

I went to the first weekend of Tea Parties, and a more kind of decrepit bunch of misfits and ne'er do wells and grizzlers you’ve never met in your life.

Archival tape -- crowd chanting:

Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!

DON:

It was quite impossible to imagine that they would in a very short time, basically take over the Congress. They were sort of proto-fascist organisations, in the sense that it was the alienated and the dispossessed, who felt that they'd been betrayed, that everyone had walked away from them and were happy to attach themselves to anything which made them feel like that they weren't the wretched of the earth. I think that's pretty much as it's described. I mean they really reduced the American story to a story of white possibility and denial of that possibility.
It was a powerful political feeling.

I think it's really quite an important distinction, you know. It's the universe of feeling that politics enters at certain times, and I think that's where it is now. And that's what Trump works on. Not on reason, but on the realm of hurt… grievance… betrayal.

Appalling as he's been, it's a kind of trap to think that when he's gone, the problem will be over to the United States, because the very fact of his existence is proof of the underlying problems. And how they can be resolved is pretty hard to see since they've been there really from the beginning.

RUBY:

We'll be back in a moment.

[ADVERTISEMENT]

RUBY:

There's a line in your essay for The Monthly, and I'll quote it to you: ‘Without myth, great men cannot fulfil their destiny nor great nations theirs.’ Can you tell me what that means in the context of Trump's America?

DON:

Well, I think he really… he works on myth. I mean, Americans are inclined to believe in magic, in phenomenal things happening, in miracles, aliens, visitations of one kind of the other, all these sorts of things. But, you know, the freakish, transformative power of capitalism. Now Trump sort of works in that world.

Archival tape -- Trump:

We need somebody that can take the brand of The United States, and make it great again. It’s not great again.

DON:

That slogan, that abomination, ‘Make America Great Again’ is literally working on myth, but it's also working on a kind of dog whistle deceit that the America that is alleged to have existed not so long ago, where there weren't all these pesky other minorities making their voices heard - a Hollywood America, John Wayne's America.

Archival tape -- Trump:

We need a leader that can bring back our jobs, can bring back our manufacturing, can bring back our military...

DON:

It's a mythic realm. A fantasy.

Archival tape -- Trump:

And we are going to make our country great again!

DON:

It's the America when, as imagined, these people basically had the show to themselves.

RUBY:

So in the context of that mythic realm… I want to talk more about the divisions that underpin America.

DON:

Well, where do you start? We think of the complexities of the Australian Federation, multiplied by several thousand for the complexities of America. Think of this as a multicultural, ethnically diverse country, multiply by the same number for America. So there are all sorts of divisions.

The Eastern Seaboard versus the Midwest with Appalachia in between, there’s the two seaboards. The urban and rural. North and South even more dramatically; the unresolved racial divide of the civil war. You have the emancipation of the slaves, and within no time at all, you have Jim Crow taking over in the American South.

You have apartheid, segregation, terror, running way into the ‘50s and ‘60s. So there's a racial divide that's never been resolved. And a really powerful adjunct of that, in a way, is the division between Washington and the states. That is, the attempts by the state to nullify federal law regarding race. The sort of voter registration rorts that are now being practiced, and have been now for the last fifteen or twenty years, are a continuation of that old divide between federal authority and state authority.

RUBY:

And what do these divisions mean in the current moment - when neoliberalism has convinced Americans of all persuasions that profit and self-interest are the motives that should define them?

DON:

Yeah well this is the sort of power of mythification, if you like.

When Reagan says it's morning in America - brilliant line - he's really saying: you’re all now free to think as like, act as you like, to liberate your energies or ingenuity and become great American entrepreneurs. And I'm going to get the state out of your lives. I'm going to get taxes out of your lives. I'm going to give you over to what is the real American way, which is largely unrestrained free enterprise. And by the time Clinton gets the job, the idea is so deeply embedded, if you like, in the political commentary, that Clinton put up very little resistance to it.

Archival tape -- Clinton:

Today we celebrate the mystery of American renewal. This ceremony is held in the depth of winter. But by the words we speak, and the faces we show the world, we force the spring.

DON:

Bush, of course, although he has trouble pronouncing the word, when he's not going on about Iraq, he's going on that entrepreneurialism.

Archival tape -- Bush:

The purpose of good policy in Washington should be to unleash the entrepreneurial spirit of the country

DON:

Hillary comes up with her health plan, which bombs...

Archival tape -- Hillary Clinton:

Right now we’re at 90% health insurance coverage. So I want us to get to 100% but get costs down, and keep quality up.

DON:

The Republicans by then have a strategy of total blanket opposition to anything that comes out of a Democratic mouth.

Archival tape -- Trump:

It’s only getting worse. In ‘17 it implodes by itself. Their method of fixing it is to go back and ask Congress for more money. More and more money. And we have right now almost 20 Trillion dollars in debt...

DON:

No one’s actually saying, hang on, this isn't what America is like.

There has always been this other side about the-father-knows-best communitarian ideal. The solidarities of working class movements, other solidarities across the country, are all in a sense forgotten. It becomes, sort of, a case of ‘don't mention these things’.

RUBY:

And do you think that the Coronavirus will change at all the power of this belief in the individual, and self-interest?

DON:

It might. I think it has created a problem for Trump, because it's pretty hard to look at the figures and say he's done well - you know, 123,000 and counting… dead. And I think it’s sort of really been hard for him, given his absolutely stupefying narcissism to sound like he cares much about the dead.

Archival tape --

When you test, you find something is wrong with people. If we didn’t do any testing, we would have very few cases.

DON:

And when people are having a certain amount of existential angst, he’s sounding the usual Trump bugles, like ‘why don’t you go home and inject some Lysol for your Coronavirus?’

Archival tape -- Trump:

And then I see the disinfectant, where it knocks it out in a minute. One minute. And is there a way where we can do something like that by injection inside or almost a cleaning...

DON:

I think he's got ground to make up. He's criminally fluffed the whole thing, but also his demeanour has not really been quite what I think the middle rung of American society likes much. The question is whether they're going to buy Joe Biden as an alternative. And that might be a bit of a problem.

RUBY:

Mm. So, Don, what does happen next? What happens at the next election?

DON:

I wish I knew, you know, I'd put money on it.

What we do know will happen is that the old divisions will not be readily healed.
They've never been healed in the past. They're particularly exposed and bleeding at the moment.

Biden might be a sort of Band-Aid for a while. And you should never underestimate the powers of American transformation. But through all its transformations, these divisions have never gone away.

Perhaps the greatest danger at the moment is a gathering feeling that it is in decline. There's a feeling that America is running itself into the ground, and that it's failing.

RUBY:

Don, thank you so much for your time today.

DON:

Thanks, Ruby.

RUBY:

That was Don Watson on Trump’s America. His cover story for The Monthly magazine is on sale from today.

[ADVERTISEMENT]

RUBY:

Also in the news —
90 new cases of coronavirus have been reported in Victoria over the weekend, most of them locally acquired.

Victoria is currently conducting a testing blitz, with more than 11,000 people tested across the ten priority suburbs in Melbourne's north and south-east

The Vicorian Premier Daniel Andrews yesterday said that no lockdown measures would be imposed in Melbourne's hotspot suburbs, until further results of the testing blitz were in.

The number of cases of coronavirus world-wide has now passed 9.8 million.

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am, see you tomorrow.

As Donald Trump comes to the end of his first term, it is clear he has benefitted hugely from America’s divisions - in fact, he is the perfect expression of them. Whatever happens next, those divisions will remain.

Guest: Writer for The Monthly Don Watson.

Listen and subscribe in your favourite podcast app (it's free).

Apple podcasts Google podcasts Listen on Spotify

Share:

7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem.

Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief.
Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

New episodes of 7am are released every weekday morning. Subscribe in your favourite podcast app, to make sure you don’t miss out.

Tags

trump america politics donwatson




Subscribe to hear every episode in your favourite podcast app:
Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsSpotify

00:00
17:13
253: Donald Trump didn’t drop from the sky