2016 might have been the year of political shocks, but this week was where those shocks became reality – both here in the UK, and in a more real sense, in the US.
Today marked the inauguration of President Donald J. Trump, an amazing feat for all of the wrong reasons and a staggering reminder that complacency of the political establishment and the public at large can result in populist overthrow right before our eyes.
Trump’s speech was perhaps more polished than I’d expected, with the claims that he’d written the thing on his own being perhaps just another addition to his cacophony of lies that led him to the job in the first place, but it was far from poetic. Inaugural addresses have a history of painting a vision of America that the people can cling on to and make their own:
- “We are not enemies, but friends… Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.” – Abraham Lincoln, 1861
- “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” – John F. Kennedy, 1961
- “The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.” – Barack Obama, 2009
But for all of Trump’s repeated assertions that his administration will put the people back in charge of America, there was little vision and precious little action in a speech that sowed the seeds of a nationalistic “America First” term.
America’s recent history has been defined by its role in maintaining world order and building bridges at home and abroad to build the more prosperous union between peoples and societies. That’s what America has stood for for generations. Trump’s Presidency is the first since the Great Depression to see America voluntarily step back from that, building literal walls between the country and the rest of the world in a vain effort to “Make America Great Again” by a yardstick as indefinable as “I’ll tell you”.
And what will fill the vacuum? Russia’s presence is rising in the East with it’s invasion of Ukraine and involvement in Syria, and we all know about how friendly Trump and Putin are – leaving all allegations of election tampering aside. Germany might be the best candidate for a new world paragon we have, but with the EU still stuttering along trying to sort out the way forward towards a Europe for all it’s hard to see the country being able to mount a serious challenge at influencing world power any time soon.
President Obama’s time in office saw America become a more socially progressive country, and it played key roles abroad in tempering conflict and encouraging trade. It didn’t all work out, but his intentions have to be lauded.
When it comes down to it, Trump’s intentions aren’t clear, and what we have heard has been worrying and downright dangerous for American values and the safety of the world that has sat in its guiding hand for sixty years and more. The next four years are going to be trying times and there’s no guessing how it will turn out.
Here in the UK, our own leader Theresa May made her own pitch for the future with her long-awaited Brexit plan being announced on Tuesday.
To her credit, we now know far more about what a UK exit from the EU will look like, but what I was surprised by was the devotion to the idea that the UK is special and would get a good deal from the EU just because.
In a 12-point plan, we learned that “hard Brexit” was going to the be the course we set – with an exit from the European single market realising the worst economic fears we were warned of before the referendum. We also learned that we would pay to have “access” to this market, essentially meaning that although millions voted to Leave the EU to stop handing money over to Brussels that we’d be doing it anyway and receiving less back in return.
Our date with destiny and EU negotiators may be at hand soon, as May insists Article 50 and our EU departure will be triggered by the end of March, and from all indications we’ve seen they won’t be interested in making a deal that works best for Britain, and rightly so.
The EU represents over 700 million people to the UK’s 60 million, and their total and per capita GDPs are higher than ours – so economically speaking, the UK has very little cards to play other than a large financial and services sector, both of which could be weakened dramatically by Brexit. The idea that the EU needs us is wrong on so many levels.
So, the UK looks set to be cut adrift from Europe and our staunch ally of the US looks to be “shuttering up” on the other side of the pond from us. It’s going to be a lonely time and a tough time for the UK to reassert its place in the world like it hasn’t had to since before the Age of Empire. And at the helm is a Conservative Government that is ideologically slashing public services despite falls in living standards, real-term wage value, the value of the Pound and rises in costs of living. The UK sees very little prospect of a reset in its next election either, with the opposition Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn floundering in the polls unlike any other in living memory with internal disputes and internal politics trumping the needs of a nation that is suffering.
In a sense I am frightened at what the world has become in the space of the last year and what it may yet become. Britain and America, little and large on the world scene for decades since World War II, have turned their eyes inward when the struggles of global warming, the refugee crisis and international strife are more real than ever. Would Churchill and Roosevelt have approved of anything we’ve seen in the last year? Not a chance.
As unpredictable as the future is, I’m not worried about being destroyed by nuclear fire, or being bankrupted by a Brexit gone badly wrong – I’m worried about the millions of people who will have their futures kerbed by the forces of fear, xenophobia, anger and scepticism that look set to take hold on both sides of the Atlantic. Society is at its best when it works together, across nations and across oceans, and brings out the best in people. Looking inward, nationalistically, like Britain and the USA are at the moment, is not a step forward but a giant leap backward.
Whatever happens in the next few years, those that oppose what people are doing to their country and their world need to keep making their voices heard and show that there is an alternative that will work for people and build our society back to one that looks out for people and reaches out a hand of friendship.
Whether this is through blogs, protests, or even seeking independence to form a more socially just country, there are options there that need to be looked at and fought for so that the mess we’re in doesn’t become the norm.
I don’t know what was going through Trump’s mind as he stood on the steps of the US Capitol today and looked over the vista before him as Lord and master of what he surveyed, but at the very least I hope that for one second of his time up there he bore a thought of humility and respect for the role he now plays not just in America, but the world.
The truth is though, I’ve stopped believing in such things, and that I can’t see my cynicism fading any time before January 20th, 2021.