Donald Trump’s Europe trip has come and gone. While we can all be grateful he did not announce the creation of a new Fourth Reich right there on Normandy Beach – admit it, you thought it was possible, didn’t you – he reminded us that even in this rapidly declining age, the president of the United States can always be counted on to go lower.
“Trump navigated two reasonably focused and restrained days in London,” reported CNN after the British leg of the journey concluded and Trump was wheels-up for France. “The President, who usually indulges his disruptive and norm-shattering personality, has been a picture of decorum.”
“Picture of decorum” is what makes that art, as does “reasonably.” Possibly even as those words were being typed, Trump was calling beloved actress and all-around badass Bette Midler a “washed-up psycho” on Twitter. This was after he called the mayor of London a “stone-cold loser.” Memo to Trump: Anyone who wears a tux like that on any night other than Halloween probably shouldn’t be throwing stones.
Midler, to her eternal credit, invited Trump to go slam his “dick in a door.” If you don’t love Bette Midler, please love Bette Midler. That being said, wow, CNN. Trump did not comprehensively decompensate in public like he does most other days of the year, and you’ve got him “focused and restrained.” Way to take the bait.
The man is not “disruptive” or “norm-shattering.” He is an oaf who has never listened to the word “No,” and believes rules are little more than a stick to beat others with. David Bowie was disruptive and norm-shattering, and an actual genius. Donald Trump is just another rich white American man for whom cultural and procedural restraints, not to mention laws, are an inconvenience. He doesn’t ignore them; he literally doesn’t understand why they should exist for a man of his race and station.
“The decorative colonnades and gratuitous reflecting pools and endless gaudy sconces,” writes David Roth for Splinter News, “the all-upholstered-everything interiors that somehow still offer no comfortable place to sit, all those overstuffed corridors connecting gilded banquet chambers to other grand and uninhabitable spaces, the sheer stuffy tackiness of his various pretenses – if there’s any sort of precedent for the grandiose style that Trump prefers, it’s royalty.”
There, as Hamlet said, lies the rub. Trump’s two-day grip-and-grin with the royal family, swaddled in all the pomp and circumstance that involves any state visit with the Queen and her offspring in her sprawling palace, held a mirror up to uncomfortable truths some in the US are struggling to digest. Specifically, the concepts of race, financial standing and the power wielded in white, male hands are under deep discussion in ways the powerful are audibly disturbed by.
Much as some would like to think otherwise here in the 21st century, the racism and worship of aristocracy that was baked into the founding of the U.S. remain alive and well. Donald Trump is merely the most vivid, perhaps inevitable iteration of the phenomenon. Like a blister on the skin when an infection comes to a head, he stands in full view even as the disease runs rampant through the body politic.
I have written in this space about the awesome power mythology holds over the American mind, and Trump’s fawning obeisance to British royalty is another chapter in that long tale. He is not alone in this, of course; “royal watching” is big business in the U.S. “It has been alive pretty much since 1776,” Boston University associate professor Arianne Chernock told CNN last year. “Pretty much as soon as we severed ties, we were back to being fascinated – captivated really – by the royal family.”
“Captivated” is an interesting word choice. “Captive” would be more accurate. A huge swath of the problems the U.S. suffers on matters of race, wealth and power were injected into this country by British colonizers and their aristocratic system. The royals were the 1% ten dozen generations before Occupy sat down in Zuccotti Park, and their social and economic mores came over the Atlantic right along with the tea, the soldiers and the enslaved people.
The Revolution did not immediately change this, of course. Any student who ever had an honest U.S. History teacher knows the U.S. Constitution contains language that sets the value of a Black man’s life at 3/5ths that of a white man in order to serve the interests of slaveowners. The Declaration of Independence likewise endorses the slaughter of Native North Americans as a patriotic necessity for obtaining freedom. Abigail Adams had to remind her Founding Father husband John to “remember the ladies” as they crafted the new nation, but of course that didn’t happen. In no way whatsoever did “All men are created equal” pertain to people of color, women or the poor.
The poison runs deep. “When Americans think of the renowned English Enlightenment thinker John Locke, what comes to mind is how Thomas Jefferson tacitly borrowed his words and ideas for the Declaration of Independence,” writes Nancy Isenberg in White Trash, her exhaustively researched exploration of early colonial history. “Locke was a founding member and third-largest stockholder of the Royal African Company, which secured a monopoly over the British slave trade.”
And so much for the Enlightenment. Freedom and the pursuit of happiness were available if your skin was the right hue and you owned land or title. Everyone else was expected to spend their lives prostrate to a gruesome Calvinist division of labor and power that demanded the masses work themselves to death for the enrichment of the aristocracy.
Certainly, many of the worst elements of British colonialism have been reformed since then, as the genius of the Constitution is its allowance for national self-improvement. Those improvements, however, have come only after a protracted struggle and a price paid in blood, and have not nearly cleaned out the Augean stable that was and remains the British colonial mindset.
We prepare to celebrate the centennial of women’s suffrage amid the astonishment that more than half the country has only been allowed to vote for 100 years. In a growing number of states, women are losing legal control over their own bodies. For people of color, the movement toward freedom has taken far longer, and even now the freedoms gained from the Civil Rights Act are being ruthlessly rolled back at the highest levels of government. Demagoguing the “other” to win elections is as old as the country itself.
A nation where the principle of inequality was the bedrock of its very foundation, even with all the improvements obtained at great mortal cost, was bound to cough up someone like Donald Trump sooner or later. Thankfully, those improvements also brought forth generation after generation of people ready to demand and fight for rights they were never meant to have under the nation’s origin idea. This is as true today as it has ever been.
The British colonial founders, suffused with their British colonial preconceptions on the value of each and every human life, didn’t mean it when they wrote “created equal.” But they signed their names to it, public servants swear an oath to it, and when someone like Donald Trump comes into power and seeks to tear up that progress because he believes he is American royalty, we the actual people must rise in defense of the freedoms we have gained.
Call it the New American Dream. It’s as real as royalty and twice as strong. The Revolution never ended.