Wednesday, 9 November 2016

The Sound of the Trump

For the second time in a year, I'm writing on a day we hoped and prayed would never dawn.

Early this morning in the small hours, I had a dream-like notion that something bad had happened. Floating in the no man's land between wakefulness and sleep, you don't quite know what state you're in. Idly I turned the radio on, thinking I would be asleep again within minutes, reassured that Hillary Clinton was winning in Florida, North Carolina and Ohio. I couldn't quite make sense of what I was hearing. But it soon became clear. Terribly clear. Ominously clear. I was awake, and behold, it wasn't a dream.

So Donald Trump is now President-elect. I can scarcely take it in, if I am honest. That this man has been elected to the Presidency is what we told one another a year ago, a week ago, a day ago could never happen. But it has, against all the odds. What can I add to the global outpouring of report, comment and interpretation on this extraordinary day in American politics?

I don't need to rehearse the worries and fears many of us feel today. Whether it's immigration, the economy, climate change, international relations, human rights, healthcare, diversity or just basic respect for human beings (especially women, people of colour, the disabled and the LGBT community), Mr Trump has already said enough during a dreadful campaign to give us a thousand reasons to be afraid. His statesmanlike words this morning were well chosen, but they have to be judged in the light of the bullying and contempt that has run through his speeches. It's not that he's a novice, untried in a publicly accountable leadership role and without any experience of elected office or military service. It's the sheer want of political and social argument, respect for other people and any sense of persona truth-seeking that I am alarmed about. We should be seriously rattled.

But here are some more personal thoughts on a dispiriting and sombre day.

First, let's remember the millions of decent Americans who could not with integrity vote for Donald Trump. I include in that not only Democrats but a significant number of Republicans as well, all people who saw through Trumpery and had a larger, more generous and altogether more noble vision of their country and its place in the world. They will be bitterly disappointed today. We need to stand in solidarity with those men and women and encourage them not to despair, but to be robust in challenging the new regime so that it is held to account. We want Mr Trump to be a good president for the sake of his people, but we don't wish him a long honeymoon. He has too much work to do, too many bridges to build, too many wounds to heal.

Secondly, many people, including Donald Trump himself, have seen this outcome as an American Brexit, big time. That's true up to a point. Populism has found its voice against the sneered-at political establishment like it did here. There's been the same disdain for evidence, for the hard facts that ought to lead the making of a case rather than follow it. We've seen the same absence of any serious analysis or argument. We've witnessed the same belligerence against those who dared not to see things through the Trump lens. We've had the same sorts of myth-making brazenly propagated as truth with the result that millions of people  have been hoodwinked. All this has become familiar to us over here during the referendum campaign. 

But the parallel isn't quite exact. Half the American population (indeed, probably slightly more) did not endorse Mr Trump just as 48% of UK voters did not choose Brexit. Those men and women whom I spoke about just now will live to fight another day. If they want to, they can vote Donald Trump out of office at the end of his first four year term. You can do a lot of harm in four years but the beauty of democracy is that every so often, you get to unseat your elected representatives if they don't deliver. There could be another incumbent in the White House in a relatively short while. If the nation has been injured meanwhile, steps can then be taken to heal the damage.


Brexit, however, can't be reversed, at least, not in a short or medium timespan. "Brexit means Brexit" as we have been endlessly reminded. When we leave the European Union, it will be for good, and on whatever terms we have negotiated in the coming two years. So as a political event, a permanent Brexit is more far-reaching in its effects than a wayward election whose consequences, apart from the catastrophic, could one day be undone.

I'm not in the least sanguine about this. Donald Trump is perfectly capable - not least because he is new to public office - of wreaking havoc in national and international affairs. We know what the global threats are, and a time could arise when unstable situations reach a tipping point. War, the breakdown of trust in civil society, the fragility of currencies and banks, climate change - all these could reach a crisis that could bring about irreversible change. It doesn't have to happen through malice. Mistakes, lack of judgment and mere innocence can join forces to create a perfect storm. The reckless tone of some of Trump's speeches combined with his inexperience should make us very afraid - not just of what he could instigate, but how he could misread and mis-respond to external threats whether real or perceived. If the lack of restraint in his rhetoric is followed by a similar deficit in his actions, that would be deeply concerning

It's a case of hoping for the best while preparing for the worst. But I have faith in the good sense of the American people not to tolerate abuse of high office through vanity, self-regard, croneyism, contempt for others, 
taking needless risks or riding roughshod over the common good. They can comfort themselves that electorates are notoriously fickle. They can already look forward to and start planning for 2020 with far-sighted 20/20 vision. And they will. Of that I'm sure. 

One more thing. The Trump mantra "let's make America great again" - like Farage's "give us our country back" - are facile slogans to feed the baying mob. They are easy speeches that "comfort cruel men", to raid a hymn by G. K. Chesterton. What they come down to is power and wealth. Donald Trump's campaigning message has been that wants to put the world in its place, wants America to be admired and looked up to deferentially. But thoughtful people know that what makes a nation truly great is not its wealth or power. It's the character of its people. "Righteousness exalts a nation" says the Book of Proverbs. Only that kind of greatness is worth cultivating, whether in the United States or Great Britain. And maybe ethical and moral greatness understands what it means to step down from the high pedestal in order to promote the welfare of others by washing their feet. "Whoever would be great among you" said Jesus " must learn to become a servant."

Early this morning I tweeted from Shakespeare's Tempest. I quoted the desperate cry of the mariners in Scene 1: "All lost! To prayers, to prayers! All lost!" It wasn't meant ironically: if we are people of faith, we shall surely be praying for America and for Donald Trump. What should we pray, you ask? Where do I start? How about praying that he will be a quick learner? He will need to be if he is to acquire as soon as possible the skills of statecraft in a world that is infinitely more complex than the crude binaries that pepper his speeches. And that he'll surround himself with good 
people fit for sound government. And that he'll treat people respectfully. And that he'll cultivate humility and even, from time to time, swallow a dose of healthy self-doubt. And that...

Above all he will need wisdom if his leadership is to have real authority. King Solomon's prayer for wisdom at the start of his reign (1 Kings 3) would be a good place to start. I've even put last Sunday's sermon about Solomon on the web to help him. 


  1. Thank you, Michael. We are teetering between anger at the deceit and ugliness of the campaign, and heartbreak at the result, and haven't really digested what this will mean for our country. But given the fact that more Americans voted for HRC than Trump, meek acceptance of further outrages is not in the cards, and as you say 2020 will come soon. Prayers much appreciated! Anne McIntosh

    1. You may have my prayers, Anne. All the best in the future.

  2. I don't know if you see Jonathan Sacks' weekly comments on the Torah (you can subscribe by email at his website;) but this extra piece came in, yesterday, originally in Friday's Guardian. It's archetypically soaked in his wisdom and humanity.