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Jemima Khan meets Nick Clegg: “I’m not a punchbag – I have feelings”

The NS guest editor Jemima Khan talks to the Liberal Democrat leader about life on the far side of power and what it’s like to be a cut-out.

Nick Clegg and I smile genially at each other across the table of a standard-class train carriage. He is on his way to his constituency in Sheffield to talk about manufacturing. Pale-faced, pale-eyed and so tired he appears taxidermied, he looks like he could do with a holiday, except he's just had one – skiing in Davos with his children as the Libyan crisis escalated (for which he was lambasted).

Nick Clegg is the Tim Henman of politics: a decent man for whom Cleggmania represented the peak of his career, his Henman Hill moment. Then he became the Deputy Prime Minister and, shortly after, an effigy.

The carefree, cloud-cuckoo days of opposition, when he had a platform and little criticism, are long gone. At last year's Liberal Democrat spring conference, a fresh-looking and ebullient Clegg had gesticulated and boomed: "We see the same old broken promises. No wonder people feel let down." A year on, he was less combative, more ambivalent. His many critics pointed to his own broken promises and let-down voters.

Clegg concedes that it has been a "very sharp transition". "Of course it has had a dramatic effect on how I'm perceived, the kind of dilemmas I have to face," he says. "I don't even pretend we can occupy the Lib Dem holier-than-thou, hands-entirely-clean-and-entirely-empty-type stance. No, we are getting our hands dirty, and inevitably and totally understandably we are being accused of being just like any other politicians."

His point – and it seems a fair one – is that the British public voted, no one party won and that coalition government, by definition, is a compromise. "A whole lot of things are happening that would just never in a month of Sundays have happened without the Lib Dems there," he says. The morning of our meeting, he claims to have "squeezed out of [George] Osborne" a promise of a green investment bank, not simply a fund. "We've done more on liberty and privacy," he adds, "in the past ten months than Labour did in the past 13 years."

All this has done little to dilute the vitriol of his opponents. John Prescott has likened him to Jedward, the risible and tuneless twins from The X Factor. Ed Miliband has called him "a tragic figure", one too toxic to share a platform with ahead of the referendum on the Alternative Vote. Clegg insists that none of this bothers him. "I see it exactly for what it is. [Ed] is a perfectly nice guy but he has a problem, which is that he's not in control of his own party, so he constantly has to keep his troops happy and he thinks that ranting and raving at me is the way to do it."

Since joining the government, and in particular since his U-turn on university tuition fees, Clegg has had dog mess posted through his door and been spat at in the street. It must upset him. "No, well look, I'm a human being, I'm not a punchbag – I've of course got feelings."

He pauses. "Actually, the curious thing is that the more you become a subject of admiration or loathing, the more you're examined under a microscope, the distance seems to open up between who you really are and the portrayals that people impose on you . . . I increasingly see these images of me, cardboard cut-outs that get ever more outlandish . . . One thing I've very quickly learned is that if you wake up every morning worrying about what's in the press, you would go completely and utterly potty."

After ten months in government, he has a guardedness that did not exist in the days when he told Piers Morgan he'd had roughly 30 lovers. These days he is tightly managed. I have already had a pre-interview briefing with one adviser, and now Clegg's version of Andy Coulson, who is sitting to his right, is busy taking written notes of our interview, as well as recording it. When Clegg gets sidetracked, he prompts him, head down, pen poised over notebook, deadpan: "You were talking about what you've achieved . . ."

Everyone seems painfully aware that my task as interviewer is to catch him out, to get him to say the wrong thing. Clegg's task, like all politicians, is to rattle off rhetoric, to be evasive and as uncontroversial as possible, and to fill up the tape with unquotable patter.

All of which makes interviewing him excruciating. He continues: "What we've achieved so far . . . I think just having a government with two parties in it is already such a big new thing. I know it has been born in a blaze of controversy because of the difficult economic decisions we've had to take . . . but if we're lucky, people will look back on it in 20 or 30 years' time as quite a normal thing in British politics that politicians can actually agree with each other from time to time.

“That in itself is quite big and radical. In the week or two leading up to the general election, every single newspaper was screaming from the headlines: 'A hung parliament will be a disaster, coalition politics will be a disaster. Nothing will get done.' And the extraordinary thing is that now we're being accused of almost exactly the reverse – of doing too much."

Of doing too much? Or of being too Tory? Clegg's dilemma is that, on the one hand, he is in danger of being seen as too close to David Cameron and the Conservatives, and losing credibility with his party and voters. On the other hand, he can't be too distant, because that would be damaging for the coalition and a gift for the opposition and the press, which is constantly looking for rifts.

Before the election, Clegg let it be known that he had turned down an invitation to dine with the Camerons at their home in Notting Hill. He wanted to maintain a distance. Perhaps wary of looking like he fits too easily into the port-swilling, waistcoat-wearing Bullingdon Club set, he is still keen to present Cameron as more working partner than friend.

“We don't regard each other as mates and actually I don't think it would be a particularly healthy thing if we tried to become personal mates," he says. "I don't think a coalition works unless you have a very careful balance between mutual respect and civility and also a certain hardness, as at the end of the day you are representing different views."

I've heard that they play tennis together. "No, no – well, er, I think we've played one game of tennis. Of course we meet from time to time but it's always basically to talk about what we're doing in government."

Who won?

“Ah no, that's a state secret," he jokes. (Cameron won.)

Earlier, at my pre-interview briefing, Clegg's adviser Richard Reeves, the former head of Demos, characterised being in the coalition as like being in a marriage – you both get to know instinctively which are the no-go areas.

Clegg concedes that there are "some areas where we flatly disagree" with the Tories, such as on Europe ("I think you can't make sense of this world unless you work together with other folk in the European neighbourhood") and taxation ("Our reflexes as Lib Dems are to try to give tax breaks to people on middle or lower incomes, whereas traditionally they are more interested in trickle-down economics"), but denies that there are "no-go areas". "Look, we're on completely opposite sides of the fence on the AV referendum."

He refuses to concede that signing the pledge to vote against an increase in university tuition fees before the election was a mistake. "That would be a cop-out. I did it. And I have a rather old-fashioned belief that you've got to stand by what you've done and take the consequences, good or bad." He insists that it was not one of his main manifesto priorities anyway. "I didn't even spend that much time campaigning on tuition fees."

Instead, he says, he spent "every single day and every single interview talking about the four things that were on the front page of the manifesto – namely the pupil premium, two and a half million quid for disadvantaged kids; changing the tax system, so you don't pay tax on your first £10,000; political reform; and sorting out the banks and rebalancing the economy."

That's all very well, but given that the Lib Dems are only ever likely to be in government as part of a coalition, how will he deal with pledges made in future election campaigns? Will there be pledges with caveats, depending on which party he clambers into bed with next? "I think that we need to be clearer about what are the really big, big priorities."

After his capitulation on tuition fees, there are many who now fear that nothing is sacred for the Lib Dems. He denies this. "If the Conservatives wanted to become as authoritarian as Blair and New Labour, I wouldn't have it – but it wouldn't happen, as it couldn't happen with us in [the coalition]."

Clegg is emphatic that he will not allow the Tories to disempower the Lib Dems' much-loved European Court of Human Rights. The problem with being in a coalition government is that it acts as a gag. There are times in the interview when Clegg looks so pained as to remind me of Colin Firth in the opening scenes of The King's Speech, particularly when issues of Rupert Murdoch and phone-hacking come up. I know what he'd have said if he were in opposition. The Lib Dems were always very critical of the Cameron-Murdoch cabal. Some Lib Dem MPs were victims of phone-hacking by the News of the World.

“My thoughts are," he begins haltingly, "that it has all come out much more into the open since the police investigation . . . and I think, you know, since those days it is becoming much more out there, and quite rightly. I've always said that the police have got to investigate and the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] have got to take action. Look, I don't follow every twist and turn . . ." His press secretary looks up for the first time.

What of those, such as the Labour MPs Chris Bryant and Tom Watson, who believe that the Murdochs have too much power and influence over politicians? There's a long pause. "I think that the days when newspaper barons could basically click their fingers and governments would snap to attention have gone," he says.

Clegg is exceptionally loyal to David Cameron – I expect he is a loyal man by nature, not design – but there's a fine line between being loyal and sounding plain disingenuous. So, what does he think of the dinner party hosted over Christmas by News International's chief executive, Rebekah Brooks, at her Cotswolds home, attended by the Camerons and James Murdoch?

“I don't know anything about Oxfordshire dinner parties," he says. Of course he does. Everyone in politics knows about the get-together of Brooks, Cameron and Rupert Murdoch's son, and most agree that the timing of it was inappropriate, given that there was a criminal investigation under way over phone-hacking in the Murdoch empire, as well as ongoing negotiations with the regulatory authorities over the ownership of BSkyB.

“Well, I'm assuming that they weren't sitting there talking about News International issues," says Clegg. "Look, you're putting me in a very awkward spot. If you've got an issue with it, speak to Dave. I don't hang out in Oxfordshire at dinner parties. It's not my world. It's never going to be my world."

He looks pained. I feel sorry for him and I can't help telling him so. I was married to a politician and I remember the constant self-censorship and, in my case, the gaffes. I get the impression that Nick Clegg is an honest, straightforward man in a dishonest, unstraightforward world, in which nobody can say what they really think.

An interruption offers some blessed relief. A beaming middle-aged woman who has spotted Clegg on the train passes a note to his aide. It reads: "I couldn't resist such a unique opportunity to say, 'Stick With It!' The vast majority of us think the coalition are doing the right thing. We know it's tough but it's very necessary. All the best."

The press secretary looks triumphant. Clegg looks momentarily less beleaguered. He thanks the woman graciously and just as I am wondering if it was a set-up, Clegg jokes that it was. He often gets support from the public, he says, but the difference is that these days people whisper their congratulations, "as if it's a guilty secret saying anything nice about Nick Clegg". He should watch those slips into the third person – an early sign that a person is losing touch with reality.

Clegg was a strong opponent of the war in Iraq and for that he earned many supporters. His backing of the "surge" and British forces' continued presence in Afghan­istan is therefore surprising. There are rumours, which he denies, that he wanted to call for an immediate withdrawal of troops but that the former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown, an ex-marine, persuaded him not to.

“In a sense," Clegg says, "we have brought our ambition to a much more realistic level. We've now got an exit date, which we didn't have before, and a much better set of weapons on the ground. And crucially you've got the British government saying to [President Hamid] Karzai – who I had dinner with recently – this cannot be won militarily. Once you're in that far and you've had that many people die and be maimed, I think it would be morally questionable to cut and run overnight."

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the real reason we continue to pour money into a war with no clear goals – and continue to line the roads of Wootton Bassett – is so that those in power will be able to keep on claiming that "they did not die in vain".

“Look, it's never perfect. It's not a neat world," says Clegg. He is above all a pragmatist for whom coalition, foreign policy and life are a balancing act. He accepts that there are moral problems with supporting Karzai's government, which has no authority outside the Afghan capital, Kabul, and which, according to the Transparency International corruption index, was last year the second most corrupt in the world. "Exactly – that's where it gets messy and imperfect."

Clegg is pleased to have "got more balance into the debate on Israel in the party". While he is "undimmed" in his criticism of Israel's illegal settlement activity and his "absolute horror of what is a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza", he stresses that "Israel has legitimate security issues in a region where there is a threat to its existence".

He denies that there is a fundamental incompatibility between the west's rhetoric about democracy and our need for oil. "Do we have vital economic self-interest to keep lights on? Yes. Do I think that should be won at the cost of always being on the side of people who want to express themselves and want democracy? No."

He refuses to be drawn on whether he thinks it was bad timing for Cameron to tour the Middle East on a "UK trade mission"- a euphemism for peddling arms to despots – at a time when there are widespread protests in favour of democracy in the region. He will say, though, that the business of selling arms represents "a horrendous dilemma".

That we have sold arms to repressive regimes – tear gas grenades to Bahrain, armoured personnel carriers to Saudi Arabia, crowd-control ammunition to Libya – is "of course wrong", he agrees. "That's why we've suspended scores and scores of export licences. What guarantee do you have when you export product X to country Y, who seem totally hunky-dory, totally peaceful, and what happens when the country goes belly up? What we're doing is pragmatic rather than pure."

Even the language Clegg uses is moderate and qualified, interspersed with phrases such as "kind of" and "on the other hand" as well as rhetorical questions and unfinished sentences. He's unhyperbolic and ambiguous in a way that must be alien to most Tories. Whereas Cameron strikes me as a man with almost no self-doubt, Clegg seems more self-questioning and less bombastic. I suspect that he is as accom­modating and good at compromise in his marriage as he has been politically.

He smiles for the first time when he tells me that his Spanish wife, Miriam, has "got wonderfully strong opinions". It's clear for a start who chose the names for their three children, Antonio, Alberto and Miguel Clegg. They are being brought up as Roman Catholics, even though Clegg has said he is an atheist. The children are bilingual, speaking both Spanish and English fluently.

At one point, it was assumed that Miriam would be the one with the big career and he would be the thinker and take care of their children. After his eldest son was born, Clegg says: "Miriam was in a particularly intense period of her career and I was in a particularly relaxed period of mine . . . coming to the end of my time as an MEP, so I was very, very involved. I wasn't the primary parent – Miriam would get very annoyed if she were to read that – but I was very involved and you carry that on with you."

He has successfully managed to keep his family out of the spotlight, "to create a firewall" between his world and theirs, although he worries constantly that "what I am doing in my work impacts on them emotionally, because my nine-year-old is starting to sense things and I'm having to explain things. Like he asks, 'Why are the students angry with you, Papa?'"

Clegg refuses "to play politics" with his children, or to say whether or not they will go to a private school. While he's not "ideologically opposed to fee-paying schools existing", he is offended by the notion that it would be his decision alone, rather than one he would reach with Miriam. "I go: hang on a minute – what century are we living in?"

The same applies to what he might do in the future. He certainly does not want to be in politics all his life. "I think that's deeply unhealthy. I look at those people that got into politics when they were 16 and are still at it in their late sixties and think, 'My heavens above!'" Judging by the most recent opinion polls, he may not have the luxury of choice. Either way, he says, Miriam has made "masses of sacrifices putting up with me and politics" and this will be something they decide on together. He'd like to think, though, that he would go into education.

He is besotted by his "three lovely boys" and is most proud "by a long shot" of the family life he has created with Miriam. They manage to lead a relatively normal life, "not in a bunker in Westminster", and he tries to pick his children up from school and put them to bed at night at least two or three times a week.

He regrets that sometimes he doesn't always get the balance right, which makes him "quite miserable" and unable to do his job properly.Sometimes he has to tell them white lies if he is stuck in a meeting. At home, in the evenings, he likes to read novels and says he "cries regularly to music."

I receive a snapshot of his family life when, after the interview is over, I am invited to dine with other journalists at Chevening, the grace- and-favour house in Kent that Clegg shares with William Hague. Clegg arrives two hours late – he's been in protracted discussions over Libya – and looks corpse-like with exhaustion. The contrast with his vibrant, pretty wife, with her big bawdy laugh, could not be more stark. His children seem delightful – and delightfully normal.

Clegg has been accused of selling out, of providing a yellow fig leaf for the Tories' less attractive bits. But I expect that he would see opting out of the coalition or leaving politics altogether as the biggest cop-out of all. He is not consumed by politics – he has a fulfilling life away from Westminster – but he seems to have an old-fashioned sense of duty and believes that, without him there in the cabinet, the Tories would be up to far more of their old tricks. He might well be right – but will he be so easily forgiven by the voters?

“I have a faintly romantic belief that if over five years I just keep steadily trying to do the best I can, with all the difficult dilemmas we face, with not very much money, all those kinds of things . . . we will kind of come through. I think if people see that someone is trying to do the right thing and maybe they're not entirely succeeding, they kind of will go with you. And that's all you can do."

He suddenly looks very, very sad. A week later I glimpse him on television, on the front bench on Budget Day. Cameron sits to his left, looking ruddy and shiny, straight off the playing fields, ready for an interminable life of "Yeah, yeah, yeah" in the Commons. Clegg, by contrast, looks like he's in black and white – lost and out of place.

Later that evening, I get a text from his press secretary, offering me "a full copy of the note that lady passed on the train". He thought I might like it for my piece, "in case it needs some colour".

Jemima Khan is associate editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

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From FDR to Donald Trump – the decline of the American empire

Trump wants to “make America great again”, but as Great Little America.

The founding fathers of the United States sought to avoid the perils of monarchy – especially absolute monarchy. So they came up with the idea of a president who in certain respects would be absolute, in order to get things done, yet not in others. He (or she) would be beholden to Congress for laws and finance, and subject to the Supreme Court in terms of interpreting the US constitution once it was written and agreed. There would be term limits and a new election every four years.

With a number of hiccups (and there have been many, mostly notably the Civil War), this system of government has done astonishingly well – for America. And not badly for the rest of the world, either. With the advent of the Second World War and the development of the atom bomb, the US was, in effect, compelled to become an empire in all but name. It therefore became important to abide by President Franklin D Roosevelt’s simultaneous development of a “new world order”, as he called it. Eight other nations have acquired nuclear weapons (the UK, Russia, China, France, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea). By virtue of its economy and naval and air force reach, however, the US has remained, for better or worse, the leader of the pack. It is the only one enjoying global respect for its humanitarian ideals and its willingness, if necessary, to fight with coalition partners and actively defend them where necessary (even, arguably, where unnecessary).

Why, then, is Donald Trump, the 45th US president, so anxious to dismantle this achievement? The president, to be sure, is answerable to those who elect him (or her). This has produced a strange situation. A media that gave the former reality TV personality and property developer carte blanche to rant, rave and entertain us during his 2016 election campaign has now largely – and venomously – turned against him. This has led the president to complain repeatedly of “fake news” and a conspiracy by and in the media to bring him down. “No politician in history,” he has tweeted, “and I say this with great surety, has been treated worse or more unfairly.”

Behind the shouting, however, there are deeper factors at play in America and beyond. As a historian-biographer who has studied the presidency since the US became an empire in all but name, let me briefly point to a few.

First, the empire. Trump did not create the American empire. He knows nothing of its creation, does not read history and would be happy to see it collapse under its own weight, as the British, French and Dutch empires have collapsed in his lifetime. Brexit appealed to him as a deliberate casting-off of the kind of responsibilities and ideals that he scorns. In pulling the US out of international accords, trade agreements and so on, he is proudly carrying out an “Amerexit” – to “make America great again”, but as Great Little America.

***

Whether this is wise or not is being debated in Washington, DC, and elsewhere. Isolationism is not new in American history, however. The US Senate refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, or approve American membership of the League of Nations in 1920. Backed by Congress, President Warren G Harding opted to put an end to lower tariffs and seek protectionism from foreign trade in the early 1920s; by the following decade, world trade had plummeted by almost two-thirds. Moreover, as European nations struggled with fascism and communism, the US electorate became profoundly insular and anti-immigrant, led by the America First movement.

It was only the Pearl Harbor attack and Hitler’s declaration of war against the US in December 1941 that changed the American consensus. That Roosevelt was able to move Congress and public opinion to embrace global responsibilities was a kind of miracle, especially for Jews and those countries the US liberated from Nazi or Japanese occupation. Such idealism was always a tough sale, but FDR’s efforts to ramp up the American war economy changed history.

As even Stalin acknowledged, the war against the Wehrmacht would have been lost without US mass production not only providing 12 per cent of Soviet war needs in resisting Hitler, but feeding the world economy and arming a huge American military in the air, at sea and on land. This enabled it to launch, against British fears and objections, the contested amphibious cross-Channel assault of D-Day – and, later, using the newly developed atomic weapons, to crush the Japanese empire, which continued to commit atrocity after atrocity in China and the Pacific.

The burgeoning of the US economy as the war was fought and won – as well as its commitment to free world trade – was then used to cover a multitude of American domestic and international sins, including the persistent cries of isolationists, anti-immigrants and trade protectionists.

In creating the United Nations in 1945 as a more effective international peace and security organisation than the League of Nations had been, Roosevelt established at least the framework for the diplomatic international discussion of global issues. For a variety of reasons – the Iron Curtain, the Chinese Civil War, on­going colonialism – the president’s concept of global security that would be guaranteed not by the US alone but by four major countries (America, Russia, China and the UK) did not come to fruition. Yet the principle behind his concept did survive – becoming a world order guaranteed by the US and the Soviet Union, backed by supportive lesser nations.

Despite hot moments, successive American presidents – Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George HW Bush and Bill Clinton – largely followed this “world order” script. However, with the economic ascent of post-Mao China, the fall of the USSR and the growing Shia-Sunni conflicts and internecine wars in the Middle East – often inflamed by impetuous American intervention – the notion of a stable world order began inevitably to wobble. It was only kept alive by a septuagenarian UN, an ageing Nato alliance and an elderly bipartisan American consensus, expressed in the abiding willingness of Congress and the majority of voters to take ultimate responsibility for world security. Not, however, by the 45th US commander-in-chief.

The American empire, in other words, was created by a single American commander-in-chief – arguably the greatest leader in American history – and is now being systematically dismantled by another American commander-in-chief.

***

Scond, the economy, stupid. That mantra, written on blackboards in Governor Bill Clinton’s campaign headquarters when he was running for office in 1992, was chalked up to remind staffers of what the public most wanted to hear: namely his ideas on economic growth and higher pay.

Clinton’s attempt to provide health care for all proved a fiasco in 1993, but his economic measures and his tax increases on the rich defied Republican warnings of doom. The American economy boomed – the more so thanks to increased, not decreased, international trade and trade agreements. Behind the economic scenes, however, the world economy was bound to tilt towards other, more populous nations offering cheaper labour, especially in Asia – and it did. This would inevitably affect the world order.

President Clinton’s surpluses in the 1990s were quickly squandered by his successor, George W Bush, whose response to international Islamic terrorism was to attempt a late-imperial demonstration of unilateral military might, while perhaps hoping to get more oil. It didn’t work, all but bankrupting the exchequer in Washington, while its rising rival China expanded its economy without limitation.

With the continuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the bills were due for payment. The US economy crumpled and, despite Barack Obama’s attempts to pull back from expensive dead-end foreign struggles, the underlying global economic shift towards Asia brought its predictable consequences in America. As incomes failed to rise in the same way as they had over the past seven decades and the great postwar US economic ascendancy approached its limit, suffering from unsustainable national debt, the centre would no longer hold.

Loud-mouthed Tea Partiers vowed to “kick out the bums” in Washington, DC – “bums” who were not providing the same well-paid jobs for relatively uneducated workers that such voters and their parents had enjoyed in America’s postwar heyday. White, male, formerly reliable working-class Democratic voters, in particular, found themselves humiliated by a professorial black president.

The blame game had thus started in earnest, with varying culprits burned in effigies: from Wall Street, on one hand, to federal regulators on the other. Moreover, with President Bush allowing the ten-year Clinton-era taxes on the rich to expire, and President Obama unable to get a Republican Congress to restore them, economic inequality in America bred not just contempt but hatred. Thanks to a Supreme Court decision allowing companies to back political parties and initiatives without financial limit, Obama’s Democratic successor-in-waiting was compelled to seek funds sufficient to face down a rising Republican campaign-finance juggernaut. As a consequence, Hillary Clinton was not even able to blame Wall Street, her backers, for the rising inequality in the nation.

“Stronger together” was the best mantra that Hillary Clinton’s campaign could come up with: she nobly allied herself with LGBT advocates and myriad underprivileged supporters. Yet it was not enough, at least under the American electoral college system, and the most unlikely of candidates – Trump, a maverick “businessman”, real estate mogul and TV personality who had appeared on a popular programme, The Apprentice, and bewitched fans and the press with his unpredictable behaviour, policy stands and refusal to make public his tax returns – ended up in the White House.

***

Neither candidate, however, had dared to tell the bitter truth: that America could not be made “great” again, because this was no longer 1945. Or 1955. Or 1965. Or the years that followed, up to the end of the 20th century. As Roosevelt warned in a message to Congress in January 1944, the year before he died, America needed a second bill of rights, lest economic inequality split the nation and, as it had in Europe in the 1930s, result in “the spirit of fascism”.

Roosevelt’s policy – “the foreign policy that we have been following, the policy that guided us at Moscow, Cairo and Tehran” – was based on the common-sense principle best expressed by Benjamin Franklin on
4 July 1776: “We must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

Somehow the world did “hang together”, more or less, after Roosevelt’s death. It is now under increasing strain, as a new cold war with Russia threatens, chaos consumes the Middle East and North Korea sabre-rattles in the East. With a diminishing American economic share of the world pie and its citizens fighting with each other to protect or increase their own share of the remaining domestic pie, the US is unlikely to remain a willing or even able guarantor of peace and trade abroad.

As Roosevelt noted, “Unless there is security here at home, there cannot be lasting peace in the world.” He saw domestic security as closely linked with the willingness of Congress to provide for the many, not for the few.

America, in other words, is hurtling today towards Second World status. It lacks a leader who possesses any idea of how to prepare the nation for the changing structure of the world; a world in which Americans will have to share their relative decline more equitably at home, or face ever-worsening social and political fragmentation and conflict and diminishing authority abroad.

Blithely indifferent to this, the president resembles, in the view of many historians, the emperor Nero, fiddling while Rome burns. He lives in a Trump family cocoon, contenting himself with scoring points against his enemies on Twitter: “fake” Americans, since anyone who does not admire the Dear Leader is a fake American.

The realistic idealism that Roosevelt once inspired – and that subsequent American presidents carried like a baton in a relay race towards the future – has vanished from both of the main political parties. In consequence, the US may well revert to the Dust Bowl from which Roosevelt once rescued it.

***

This leaves, third, the matter of the president’s personality – the purview of the biographer, or, in the current case, psycho-biographer. Many psychiatrists have pointed, in private, to the similarities between Donald Trump and Richard Nixon, despite their different childhoods. But they are permitted to say nothing. Why? Because the American Psychiatric Association (APA), which has 37,000 members, issued what is in effect a gag order – the “Gold­water rule” – in 1973, a few years after Senator Barry Goldwater sued Fact magazine for diagnosing him as being unfit to be president and won. Thereafter, no APA psychiatrist has been allowed to publish an attempted diagnosis, or warning, of any public figure’s mental functioning, lest they bring opprobrium on the profession.

Given President’s Trump’s widely acknowledged unfitness to serve either as president or commander-in-chief, owing to his instability, this has been something of a millstone in American presidential politics. Observers have thus increasingly been turning to biographers, who have no gag rule. Though seldom trained in psychiatry, modern biographers spend years investigating the lives of their subjects, whether alive or dead. Among such subjects, Nixon is currently receiving the most attention in America, since the unpredictability of his character, his erratic behaviour, his contempt for ethical norms and his willingness to invite impeachment by Congress make him somewhat of a ringer for the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

I count myself among them. Recently opened records have verified what I and other historians have averred: that “Tricky Dicky” deliberately sabotaged, or “monkey-wrenched”, the Paris peace talks to end the Vietnam War during the presidential election campaign of 1968, hoping to close the deal himself if he, not Hubert Humphrey, was elected. Nixon was elected but found that he couldn’t close the deal, with consequences that proved fatal for tens of thousands of Vietnamese and Americans. He asked his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, to portray him in negotiations with the North Vietnamese as a loose, atomic-armed cannon, in order to try to get the enemy to negotiate. It didn’t work.

Ironically, by the end of his presidency, Nixon became such a loose cannon that his staff, it is widely believed, removed the nuclear authorisation codes from the briefcase – the so-called nuclear football traditionally carried close to him by his military aide. In addition to holding secret slush funds, Nixon became obsessed with his critics, targeting individual protesters, opponents and even political scientists for burglary followed by character assassination – including the break-in at Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office to discredit Ellsberg as mentally deranged for leaking the “Pentagon Papers”. (The psychiatrist’s filing cabinet is now displayed at the National Museum of American History in Washington.) Not content with this, the president’s “plumbers” then broke into the offices of Nixon’s political opposition, the Democratic party, at the Watergate. This time, they were caught.

***

As the secrets of the Trump campaign and his administration’s malfeasance concerning Russia slowly leak out, and a federally appointed attorney seeks to investigate “Russiagate”, the 45th president’s reactions replicate those of the 37th president, Nixon. These comprise a deeper and deeper determination to lie and threaten his way out, including firing the head of the FBI James Comey; threatening to remove the justice department’s special counsel investigating the matter, Robert Mueller; threatening to fire the attorney general, Jeff Sessions; and even suggesting that he would pardon all those involved – including, if necessary, himself. (Richard Nixon notoriously claimed to David Frost: “When the president does it, that means it is not illegal.”)

Will it work? It is arguable that the Watergate investigation tipped Nixon, who was already mentally unstable, into his ultimate mental collapse, leading to scenes that no playwright could invent, from asking Kissinger to kneel and pray with him by the White House elevator to telling the American public at a televised press conference that he had “never profited from public service”, had “earned every cent” and had “never obstructed justice” – all demonstrable lies – and finally that, contrary to all indications, he was “not a crook”.

Ring a bell? Only eight months into the Trump administration, there are signs that those gagged psychiatrists who had grave worries about the president’s “aberrant behaviour” were spot on – and that Donald Trump is nearing a similar breakdown. He has been circling his wagons and appointing more and more military personnel to defend him, both from his opponents and a White House staff rendered chaotic by
his inability to provide consistent presidential leadership. At times, the White House has seemed like a kindergarten without a teacher in charge: at war with its own Republican Party, Congress and anyone who does not believe in the demi-divinity of the Dear Leader.

The effect of all this on America’s status in the world is significant. Indeed, it is as if, at times, the rest of the world is trying to take the strain of a leaderless America and refusing quite to believe that this is
happening. But it is.

There is, fortunately, increasing resistance across the nation to Trump’s destructive agenda towards health care, the environment, energy, education, research and immigration policies – an agenda that Roosevelt described, in 1944, as that of men (mostly) with their heads “buried deep in the sand”. Thus far, the country has therefore avoided the route taken in Germany in 1933 (especially in terms of Gleichschaltung): namely a Trumpification of all political power in the US, including both houses of Congress and the Senate, as well as the Supreme Court.

The reality is that the political strains inherent in the winning Republican Party coalition – one that combines Tea Partiers, the religious right, the Grover Norquist anti-tax lobby, disaffected miners, super-rich outsiders such as the Koch brothers and white supremacists (the “basket of deplorables”, as Hillary Clinton called them), along with the largely right-leaning, wealthy “1 per cent” in America, who once labelled Roosevelt as a “traitor to his class” – were bound to make the various factions turn on each other in an America that is contracting, not expanding. And especially when it is “led” by a narcissist – a self-obsessed maverick who seems interested ultimately only in his own family’s fortunes.

The reckoning, however, will surely come, affecting the world as well as American voters. A new formulation of the “world order” will have to take place if nuclear war is to be avoided. President Trump may well be forced to resign under the 25th Amendment to the US constitution, on the grounds that he is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office”.

***

That outcome will not, however, change the dynamics of the global economy and the inevitable decline of the American empire. Besides, by whom will the 45th president be succeeded? Richard Nixon’s place was taken, after the forced resignation of Spiro Agnew as vice-president, by Gerald Ford, who was perhaps the most underrated and kindest of all American Caesars since the Second World War.

Donald Trump’s place in the White House, by contrast, would be taken by a strange, Tea Party-aligned, right-wing, anti-federal government, anti-immigrant amnesty, anti-abortion, anti-Medicare, anti-smoking regulation, anti-environmental protection, anti-federal social security, anti-campaign reform, pro-Iraq War, pro-mandatory minimum prison sentencing, Christian fundamentalist vice-president: Michael Richard Pence.

“Be careful what you wish for. You may receive it,” is an old saying – one that we would do well to remember as we pick over the tea leaves. And pray perhaps that, faute de mieux, the Democrats can find a new
version of John F Kennedy: a leader who will inspire his fellow Americans to pull together, not apart; to adapt to, not flee, the realities of the modern world, be they environmental, economic, scientific or political; to pursue greater equality, not less. And to work with, not against, America’s long-time coalition allies such as Nato to safeguard the security of the world.

Nigel Hamilton is a senior fellow at the John W McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies, University of Massachusetts. He is the author of “American Caesars: Lives of the US Presidents from Franklin D Roosevelt to George W Bush”

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit