Sean Bell: After four years of Trump, what have we learned?

“Some – generally those who entered 2016 with rather fixed ideas about political reality, and never got over the trauma of those ideas’ defenestration – may look back and struggle to believe that any of it happened at all. Others – the many, many others who have suffered loss, pain and persecution at the hands of the administration – will have no trouble bitterly remembering that it did.”

IT IS 14 JANUARY, 2019.

With most White House staff furloughed due to a government shutdown, visiting national college football champions the Clemson Tigers arrive at the highest office of the land to be greeted by the President of the United States and a buffet provided by McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s. Standing proudly before several hundred lukewarm, individually wrapped meat patties – piled together as artfully as possible, sweating greasily under the light of golden candelabra – the president talks about patriotism.  

It is a spectacle of gilded decadence and cheap trash, married in perfect harmony. It makes no sense in any circumstance but this. It is gross and ill-conceived and almost perversely American. It is, in essence, Donald Trump. As David Roth would later write: “It felt like a dream and it looked just like a dream Trump himself would have, but it was no dream.”

It is 23 September, 2020. According to Johns Hopkins University, the United States’ Coronavirus death toll has just passed 200,000. Since its first case was recorded in January, more than 6.8 million are known to have been infected throughout the US – more than in any other country in the world.

Less than two weeks later, after months of greeting the global pandemic he had effectively disengaged from with a mixture of blustering scepticism, anti-Chinese rhetoric and the endorsement of medicinal bleach, the president himself will be diagnosed with Covid-19 and make his recovery in a luxury suite at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, attended by a team of taxpayer-funded doctors.

Earlier that year, in what may be his last State of the Union, Trump assured those left alive: “We will never let socialism destroy American healthcare.” His eventual medical bill, suggests the New York Times, would cost the average American citizen at least $100,000.

Whatever transpires in the US presidential election today, these moments and many others – pathetic and terrifying, tragicomic and absurd, unexpected and yet weirdly predictable – which characterised the first and perhaps only term of Donald Trump’s presidency will not be lost, no matter how many tears in rain may be shed. Some – generally those who entered 2016 with rather fixed ideas about political reality, and never got over the trauma of those ideas’ defenestration – may look back and struggle to believe that any of it happened at all. Others – the many, many others who have suffered loss, pain and persecution at the hands of the administration – will have no trouble bitterly remembering that it did.

Having accepted that – if not forgiven it – what have we learned from four years of President Trump?

Many learned to know fear; others – generally those who lived less insulated lives prior to 2016 – learned that the fears they lived with daily could easily be fulfilled. Progress in battles against racism, misogyny, xenophobia, anti-LGBT+ hatred, poverty, inequality and the environmental destruction of the world can be reversed far more easily than advanced – something Trump’s cabal knew from the outset, and perhaps the only part of their agenda they have pursued with some form of grim competence.

Uniformed agents of the state can turn up at your door and drag your children away to be caged, while pundits earnestly debate precisely what you call a camp in which certain people are concentrated. The rule of law is enforced by a bloated, malicious, openly discriminatory apparatus of militarised morons whose overwhelming instinct for self-preservation is the greatest advertisement for police abolition yet accomplished. When fires start, there is no guarantee they will ever stop.

As most of those on the sharp end of these American realities already know, none of these things began with Trump. Those who came to know them only over the past four years should not betray those who knew better and earlier by forgetting that knowledge if and when the presidency changes hands.

Curiously, we learned very little about Trump himself, because it turns out there was very little to know. Upon ascending to the presidency – perhaps to the annoyance of those who ascribe a semi-mystical status to the office – Trump did not evolve into some unforeseen, unpredictable final form; he remained the same loud, oafish, personality-deficient walking caricature he had been for the bulk of his public life. Over the course of decades, his only progression was that his long-extant racism and vulgarity were no longer restrained by the trappings of a game show, or cameos in ‘90s sitcoms and children’s movies – arenas which were apparently more conducive to the illusion of dignity than American politics.

In the early days of his presidency, certain observers speculated or even hoped that a suitable challenge or disaster – the kind that usually comes with a bodycount – might shock Trump into acting more ‘presidential’. These signs of desperation did little more than highlight the enduring American delusion that the office of the presidency itself is somehow invested with virtue and dignity, to which the occupant can only bring pride or shame. The logic of this falls apart, of course, when the occupant is defiantly shameless. Those who regard the White House with a quasi-religious, Sorkinesque reverence may never forgive Trump for providing such a crass aesthetic contrast with their jealously guarded fantasies, but that will likely make them only more determined that his successor plays the role properly.

Those less invested in such theatrics may have learned to treat the presidency itself – along with the American political system which proved so vulnerable to Trumpian exploitation – with some overdue cynicism.

Meanwhile, Trump’s relentless, self-promoting overexposure has probably killed not only whatever novelty his lower-tier ‘celebrity’ once retained, but arguably ended the idea that celebrities inveigling themselves in politics is even remotely cute. In bygone decades, imagining Elvis Presley in the White House was an entertainingly dystopian thought-experiment; in 2020, the prospect of Kanye West seeking the office while the world burns is familiar enough to inspire nothing but contempt.

Perhaps most visibly, over the course of Trump’s first term, many people learned to grift. Grifting is nothing new, of course – a substantial section of the US economy depends upon it. But the unanimity with which so many rushed to embrace their various hustles, all whilst assuming the pose of embattled crusaders in bizarre and troubled times, is arguably unprecedented.

Such grifters, in one twisted way or another, owed their career to Trump’s rise: not so much those who flitted in and out of the president’s inner circle – they may have taken advantage of the context Trump provided, but creatures like Steve Bannon and Roger Stone were grubby cartoons on the make long before they fell into Trump’s orbit – but all those who adapted, with post-apocalyptic haste, to profiting from the collective trauma of Trump’s election. Seemingly overnight, the #Resistance gave birth to a stream of born-again, self-proclaimed experts in everything from Democratic strategy to Russian counter-intelligence, who have learned nothing from the last four years except for how to sell conspiracy theories and unearned confidence to American liberals left lost and afraid after 2016. With any luck, those who fell victim to them first time round have since learned to recognise a con when they see one.

Across the aisle, those who made their bread within American conservatism found their own grifts a little more challenging. For eight years, they had cast the Obama administration – with its milquetoast commitment to business as usual, accessorised by incremental, easily-reversed reform – as a benighted age halfway between Soviet communism and Sharia. Upon Trump’s unexpected victory, in spite of the sloppy-drunk triumphalism of the GOP base, America’s right-wing commentariat needed to find a way of presenting the new administration as fighting a war on all fronts against overwhelming odds. Meanwhile, the small (but inevitably well-paid) coterie of Trump-critical conservatives – the kind of bow-tied limpets who signed off on a million dead in Iraq, but drew the line at uncouthness – needed to get in on the scam once it became clear that, while they might not like Trump, they actually agreed with pretty much everything he did.

And so, lest anyone erroneously suspect that Trumpism in power should be the chief concern of those living and bleeding under its heel, the grifter class was quick to warn of dangers emerging not from the ruling government and the forces it represents, but rather those equally nefarious agents arrayed against it. The alt right that had appeared as such a strange and unknown component of Trump’s base in 2016 were soon being echoed by self-proclaimed ‘classical liberals’, with whom they grew to share a fantasia of terrors: a rampaging terrorist army know as ‘Antifa’, the bloodthirsty revolutionaries of Black Lives Matter, and insidious, bodysnatching phenomena infecting the minds of the young and unwary, such as ‘identity politics’, ‘critical race theory’ and ‘cancel culture’. These, we were asked to believe, are the real horrors in the age of Trump. The moderate but consistent success of this gambit suggests we are unlikely to hear the end of such bullshit, regardless of who emerges from the election victorious – it has proven far too useful to far too many powerful people.

Many of these grifters were either embraced, exposed or some combination of the two by the media, ‘mainstream’ or otherwise, whose own grifts were far older and more codified. Despite Trump’s infamously combative relationship with any section of the press that veered from delivering the first draft of hagiography, the Trump years were initially pretty good for the fourth estate: they had plenty to write and rage about, and a chance to flatter themselves as a civilisational necessity; ‘democracy dies in darkness’, apparently. However, as the task of exposing the Trump administration’s misdeeds became more pressing, the precarious, degenerating condition of professional journalism in the 21st century became harder to ignore. Placing this sacred enterprise in the hands of conglomerates, private equity firms and capricious billionaires may, upon reflection, not have been the wisest move. As much as Trump would no doubt love to take credit, American media was in terminal decline long before anyone first uttered the phrase ‘fake news’. To save it, lessons must not only be learned, but acted upon.

The American Left has had an intellectually fruitful four years, which may sound like an optimistic gloss until you remember you cannot eat intellectual fruit. I retain my lonely opinion that the socialist and progressive Left in the US is in a healthier state than its counterparts in the UK; the loss of Bernie Sanders to Joe Biden for the Democratic nomination forced them to confront the necessity of mass-movements, the limitations of electoralism and the perils of party politics in a way many British socialists have largely avoided since the end of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership. More relevantly, the American Left in its current incarnations has spent four years on the frontline of the struggle against Trump. Those dismissed by their liberal contemporaries as unrealistic and unhelpful have at this moment the most real-world experience in confronting Trumpism’s various ugly manifestations at street level. All that they have learned during this time may yet prove necessary – especially if, as some fear, the election result inspires recriminatory violence amongst Trump supporters.

As for the Democratic Party, it is hard to say what they have learned. ‘If at first you don’t succeed’? Should this week signal the end of the Trump era, and if any lessons from that time have been absorbed on the other side of America’s two-party system – the one norm which, strangely, no demagogue or upset ever seems able to threaten – it will be in spite of stubborn resistance from a party machine that fears change more than anything. Rather, a Biden victory would be trumpeted as the corrective measure for a reality that went off-script, and a repudiation to the dangerous notion that a candidate should indulge in such vices as ‘inspiring voters’ or ‘offering them things they want’. With that, Democratic grandees can settle back in the rosy glow of their achievement – a sense of satisfaction which should last until the point we see precisely what kind of monster Trump’s erstwhile base puts their faith in next time round.

Beyond that, there is only the United States itself. Neither I nor anyone else can say what it has learned through these long, strange years, or where it stands – glance at social media as the night goes on, and you will no doubt be greeted by the usual farce of people sitting in Glasgow and Edinburgh, confidently holding forth on turnout amongst Florida Latinx voters or the electoral intricacies of the Farm Belt. I’ll spare you that, for now. Instead, I wonder what, if anything, the rest of us have learned about the US.

America makes its own decisions – insofar as its electoral system allows – but the rest of the world has to live with them. This has been the case for longer than most of us have been alive, and it has predictably hardened certain perspectives in the international community, such as it is. There is ample justification for that; there are places in this world where the application of American foreign policy, and the violence which attends it, do not noticeably alter from one administration to the next. As my colleague David Jamieson pointed out earlier this evening, Trump has been a reliable handmaiden for the wheezing juggernaut of the American Empire, much as some of his critics would like to deny it.

Within living memory, our political discourse saw much concern – some in good faith, some not – about the possible conflation of American policy and the American people, and the prejudices which might be inspired as a result. Nevertheless, over the past four years, I believe – I hope – that those who have lived, suffered and died under Trump have generally not been forgotten or dismissed as complicit by those who have witnessed their plight from afar. When I think of the past four years, I think of American friends in New York and California who have endured as best they can, as well as those who made new homes here, and now find it painful to think of where the places they grew up.  

To some extent at least, the shock of Trump reminded us that his administration has been a disaster for both the world and the American people, with whom opposition to Trump should be an act of solidarity. Anyone who thinks otherwise should try explaining that to those mourning the many thousands of Americans dead from a plague the present Commander-in-Chief could not be assed to address, or anyone brave enough to contend that Black lives matter to a police state all too willing to demonstrate their counter-argument.

Regardless of who wins today’s election, the dangers facing those people – and the world they are a part of – will not suddenly and conveniently vanish, like the end of a bad dream. They may be embodied, in forms familiar or unforeseen, by a new administration just as readily as the old. Nothing ends that easily – except perhaps the world.

Whether we learn that lesson is up to us.