WE were in the US when the presidential election took place. It was a shattering, shocking time – people crying in the street, terrified children asking their teachers if their father or mother would be deported or if they would be taken away from their “moms” and the Canadian government’s immigration computer system crashing under the volume of inquiries
We totally understood the shock that everyone we met expressed at the result, that the world’s only real superpower was to have as its president for the next four years a reality television star and sexist serial groper with an apricot quiff, followers that included ultra-right racists, neo-nazis and members of the Ku Klux Klan, and a serious Twitter habit.
Yet I don’t really know why this came as a shock to anyone who has observed American “culture” in the past two or three decades, and specifically the infantilisation of society. If you are a regular reader of Celia Walden’s acerbic observations in the Telegraph on life in LA you will instantly know what I mean. It’s a culture that over-protects children, celebrates neurotic hygiene, “clean eating” and “superfoods” over healthy eating and common sense, promotes cartoon characters as heroic role models, mocks learning and intellectual achievement, fails to spot product placement in everything from mainstream news to sitcoms and elevates “myself,” the self and the selfie above community, society and engagement with the world outside our individual bubble.
The end result is a country full of toddlers having tantrums, throwing their teddies out of their turbo-charged strollers (no prams these days) and screaming about what they want and when they want it and bawling their spoiled little heads off when things don’t go their way.
The president-elect is a man who is so thin-skinned that he takes to Twitter to respond with insults and childish moans to every satirical joke, late-night comedy sketch, critical newspaper columnist or movie star.
Meryl Streep, as Steve Rose commented in The Guardian, really got to Trump with her criticisms of his “performance.” Rose points out that you can call Trump sexist, racist, homophobic and a bully and it is all water off a duck’s back, but criticising his performance – ”that’s gotta hurt.” Trump always wanted, but never received, an award for The Apprentice. Consequently he mocks the Emmies, as he mocks anything and anyone he doesn’t like or agree with.
He is, in effect, the natural and probably inevitable result of the dumbing down and infantilising of so much of American life. And it is part of the extremely conflicted personality that the US presents to the outside world and would see if it metaphorically looked in an honest mirror.
On the one hand it is a society of temper-tantrum toddlers. And on the other it is a country rich in everything from resources, landscape and wildlife to great universities, towering intellects and noble aspiration.
With friends and family all over the States – in New York, Virginia, Arizona, Nevada, Florida and California – we have travelled extensively and met people in all walks of life, from rural traffic cops stopping us because our hire car didn’t have the right plates to chefs in top restaurants, from Bush-supporting right wing creationists to ardent Bernie Sanders fans, from metropolitan artists to people living in the poorest communities on the Louisiana bayou or Native American reservations in South Dakota.
We have talked to people in bars from Oakland to Key West, and enjoyed food with friends, family or total strangers in eateries from fast food joints on interstates to country hotels. We have had fascinating conversations, exchanges of ideas and experiences which have made a lasting impression on us. We have also had to be careful to avoid the difficult topics – politics, religion, climate change, creationism and evolution, issues on which some people we meet have views with which we profoundly disagree, but on which it is obvious they will not countenance any argument or discussion.
We have experienced unfailing kindness and courtesy, generosity of spirit and warmth of welcome, but also a profound ignorance of the outside world. Many people we have met have had no idea where the UK is on the world map, nor any grasp of life outside their county, or at most their state.
There are many in America, as here and in many parts of Europe, who feel cut off from the “elites” who run the government, the economy and society. These alienated, disenfranchised groups and individuals switch off both literally and figuratively from anything that will challenge them, unless it is someone who speaks “their language.”
The tragedy is that so many have been fooled and bamboozled by manipulators who are merely another facet of the entitled elite. Marine le Pen, Nigel Farage and Donald Trump are no more representative of or sympathetic to the real lives of people in the rust belt, the depressed steel and coal communities of the North East of England or the sprawling run-down banlieues around Paris than an Ivy League lawyer, millionaire old Etonian or champagne socialist.
Maybe in the currently fashionable statement of pragmatic acceptance, we should say: “It is what it is.” But perhaps that’s where we have to start. Challenge the bland acceptance, push back against the apathy, protest against the dumbing down and infantilisation of our culture and stand up for what we believe in. Believe in something.