The valorisation of a twisted kind of compulsory patriotism has driven out sense. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Tweeting a picture of a house is not an act of class warfare, whatever the Sun says

The way that Emily Thornberry has been treated, both before and after her departure from the shadow cabinet, shows that our political class is beyond repair.

This is me giving notice: the UK is a fucked state. Our political class is beyond repair, and the lazy slide into populist right-wing bigotry signalled by Ukip’s victory in the the Rochester and Strood by-election is probably irreversible. Not because Ukip are in any sense great, because Ukip are just the evil ventriloquist’s dummy from Richard Attenborough film Magic with a posse, but because everyone else in politics is terrible. Labour are terrible. The Conservatives are terrible. The Lib Dems would be terrible, but they’ve shrivelled to a vestigial appendage of the Tories and will soon wither and drop off. And most terrible of all is our political media, which has spent most of the last 24 hours hounding a Labour MP for tweeting a picture of St-George’s-cross festooned house with a white van in the driveway in the constituency of Rochester & Strood.

That’s all Emily Thornberry did. Just shared a picture, with the fairly redundant comment “Image from #Rochester”, presumably to aid those who thought an actual miniature terraced house had appeared on their screens rather than an image of one. Now, who knows what Emily Thornberry was thinking as her thumb swiped the tweet button. Maybe, deep in her secret soul, every pixel really was imbued with the subtext “Oh my word how common” – although since Thornberry was raised on a council estate, she seems an unlikely vector for snobbery. Maybe it’s a coded missive of anti-patriotism, and if you say all the words in the tweet backwards, you’ll discover the subliminal message “I hate the Queen, shit on the flag”.

It’s unlikely, sure, but is it really as unlikely as the following scenario? Thornberry spotted a house decked out as jingoism mansion in a constituency on the verge of electing a nationalist candidate, and thought, “Hey that tells us something about the political atmosphere, I’ll show it to my followers.” Oh no, that’s actually quite plausible. Never mind, though, because the cavalcade of bellendery that is the UK political news cycle was already in progress. First: the outrage! Oh the outrage. The mortified lobby journalists, grieving this assault on our national dignity. “It’s hard to think of much more toxic [than] mocking patriotism,” said Tom Newton Dunn of the Sun, who apparently hasn’t heard anything about those Westminster child abuse allegations knocking around.

Then: the desperately scrambled response from Labour! Which, Miliband’s Labour being Miliband’s Labour, has managed to be abject, craven and totally unsuccessful. Thornberry had to apologise, and then she had to resign her shadow cabinet position, because democracy is simply incompatible with tweeting a picture of a house. And Ed Miliband had to renew his man-of-the-people credentials, which he did by saying Thornberry had made him “angrier than he had ever been”. Yes, banking crises he can tolerate. Massive desecration of the public sector merely irks him. But snap a Rochester residential property, and by God you’ll see his mean side.

Sky News asked Miliband “how he feels” when he sees a white van, because really, what is politics about if not our feely-feely-feelings? “What goes through my mind is respect,” said Miliband, probably closing his eyes and clenching his fist with emotion. (My dad drives a white van for work. Do you know what goes through my mind when I see it? “Bloody hell, I wonder how many Dairy Milk wrappers he’s got in the footwell this time.”) But still the maw of news would not be satisfied, and the Sun drove Dan Ware, the occupier of the house – now rechristened White Van Dan  and with Dan’s white van, newly decorated in Sun decals, to stand outside Thornberry’s house and demand even more of an apology for tweeting a picture of a house.

In the run-up to the Rochester by-election, Ian Dunt pointed out that the story here was one of a left that had lost its voice. In the aftermath of the 2008 crash, we truly could have seen the “social democratic moment” that Miliband’s been so keen on invoking. People wanted redistribution – polling still shows that the public believes austerity has been unfairly implemented – and all that was needed a few years ago was for someone to show the electorate what fairness could look like in practice. But Labour failed, and in the breach of their incompetence, we got scapegoating and insularity. We got Ukip. Now look where we are: bigotry on the march and press-enforced compulsory patriotism. I don’t even want to think about where we’re going.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

Getty
Show Hide image

Donald Trump ushers in a new era of kakistocracy: government by the worst people

Trump will lead the whitest, most male cabinet in memory – a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

“What fills me with doubt and dismay is the degradation of the moral tone,” wrote the American poet James Russell Lowell in 1876, in a letter to his fellow poet Joel Benton. “Is it or is it not a result of democracy? Is ours a ‘government of the people by the people for the people’, or a kakistocracy rather, for the benefit of knaves at the cost of fools?”

Is there a better, more apt description of the incoming Trump administration than “kakistocracy”, which translates from the Greek literally as government by the worst people? The new US president, as Barack Obama remarked on the campaign trail, is “uniquely unqualified” to be commander-in-chief. There is no historical analogy for a President Trump. He combines in a single person some of the worst qualities of some of the worst US presidents: the Donald makes Nixon look honest, Clinton look chaste, Bush look smart.

Trump began his tenure as president-elect in November by agreeing to pay out $25m to settle fraud claims brought against the now defunct Trump University by dozens of former students; he began the new year being deposed as part of his lawsuit against a celebrity chef. On 10 January, the Federal Election Commission sent the Trump campaign a 250-page letter outlining a series of potentially illegal campaign contributions. A day later, the head of the non-partisan US Office of Government Ethics slammed Trump’s plan to step back from running his businesses as “meaningless from a conflict-of-interest perspective”.

It cannot be repeated often enough: none of this is normal. There is no precedent for such behaviour, and while kakistocracy may be a term unfamiliar to most of us, this is what it looks like. Forget 1876: be prepared for four years of epic misgovernance and brazen corruption. Despite claiming in his convention speech, “I alone can fix it,” the former reality TV star won’t be governing on his own. He will be in charge of the richest, whitest, most male cabinet in living memory; a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

There has been much discussion about the lack of experience of many of Trump’s appointees (think of the incoming secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who has no background in diplomacy or foreign affairs) and their alleged bigotry (the Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, denied a role as a federal judge in the 1980s following claims of racial discrimination, is on course to be confirmed as attorney general). Yet what should equally worry the average American is that Trump has picked people who, in the words of the historian Meg Jacobs, “are downright hostile to the mission of the agency they are appointed to run”. With their new Republican president’s blessing, they want to roll back support for the poorest, most vulnerable members of society and don’t give a damn how much damage they do in the process.

Take Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general selected to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Pruitt describes himself on his LinkedIn page as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda” and has claimed that the debate over climate change is “far from settled”.

The former neurosurgeon Ben Carson is Trump’s pick for housing and urban development, a department with a $49bn budget that helps low-income families own homes and pay the rent. Carson has no background in housing policy, is an anti-welfare ideologue and ruled himself out of a cabinet job shortly after the election. “Dr Carson feels he has no government experience,” his spokesman said at the time. “He’s never run a federal agency. The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency.”

The fast-food mogul Andrew Puzder, who was tapped to run the department of labour, doesn’t like . . . well . . . labour. He prefers robots, telling Business Insider in March 2016: “They’re always polite . . . They never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex or race discrimination case.”

The billionaire Republican donor Betsy DeVos, nominated to run the department of education, did not attend state school and neither did any of her four children. She has never been a teacher, has no background in education and is a champion of school vouchers and privatisation. To quote the education historian Diane Ravitch: “If confirmed, DeVos will be the first education secretary who is actively hostile to public education.”

The former Texas governor Rick Perry, nominated for the role of energy secretary by Trump, promised to abolish the department that he has been asked to run while trying to secure his party’s presidential nomination in 2011. Compare and contrast Perry, who has an undergraduate degree in animal science but failed a chemistry course in college, with his two predecessors under President Obama: Dr Ernest Moniz, the former head of MIT’s physics department, and Dr Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist from Berkeley. In many ways, Perry, who spent the latter half of 2016 as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars, is the ultimate kakistocratic appointment.

“Do Trump’s cabinet picks want to run the government – or dismantle it?” asked a headline in the Chicago Tribune in December. That’s one rather polite way of putting it. Another would be to note, as the Online Etymology Dictionary does, that kakistocracy comes from kakistos, the Greek word for “worst”, which is a superlative of kakos, or “bad”, which “is related to the general Indo-European word for ‘defecate’”.

Mehdi Hasan has rejoined the New Statesman as a contributing editor and will write a fortnightly column on US politics

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era