Nixon: The first president of whom A M Homes was conscious
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Kids in America

The novelist A M Homes grew up in late-1960s Washington DC amid race riots and the sexual revolution. Here, she remembers a city like no other.

The writing of a novel is an act of the imagination predicated on the belief that it is possible to invent something out of nothing, and that by sheer will and careful selection of words, details and events, one can create lives out of whole cloth. It only works if one believes it can be done – it requires a leap of faith akin to Philippe Petit walking the high wire; there is no room for self doubt. That said, a novelist develops over time, many years spent absorbing, observing, processing. And so when one is asked where a novel comes from, one is faced with a curious process of unpacking the social, cultural and personal seeds that were the fodder for the book.

I think of myself as someone who is truly a fiction writer. My stories are not thinly veiled versions of real life, they are not based on friends and family. But the books do come out of my own experience, my efforts to make sense of the world around me, both on an intimate and much larger social scale.

A novel bridges the gap between the known and the unknown – it is in that space between things that it accrues its power. The novel is not a record of what literally happened but a sketch of what may have happened, what still might happen; it is an illustration of the gap between our public and private selves. At its best, it is an illumination of who we are.

I consider my work to be deeply American – I think of it along the lines of the work of artists such as Andy Warhol and Cindy Sherman, or film-makers such as Alexander Payne and the Coen brothers – simultaneously serious and satirical.

I was born in Washington DC during a snowstorm in December 1961. My birth was illegitimate: my biological father was married with children, my biological mother much younger and unmarried. Their affair was long and tumultuous. I imagine it against the backdrop of the Kennedy era, the “Great Society” and the postwar expansion of the American Dream. I imagine their affair dipping into a fantasy world where all things are possible. I imagine my biological father with a swaggering sense of machismo, bravura about what it means to be a man, and possessed by the notion that he can have it all – “all” in this instance being a life, a wife and a mistress. My mother was a young woman trying to find herself as women’s roles were beginning to change. I imagine bouffant hairdos, cocktail parties, the loosening of the social formality of the 1950s, a feeling of prosperity and, with the advent of the birth-control pill, the dawn of the sexual revolution. For context, consider that 1961 sees the publication of Joseph Heller’s darkly comic novel Catch-22 and Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, the great novel of suburban aspiration and alienation. The Cuban missile crisis would take place the following year. These are the literary and cultural seeds that birthed me.

I grew up on the edge of Washington DC, a city unlike any other place in America: the nation’s capital, yet it had no power to govern, no vote, no senators and no voice. It was a divided city, too – by day filled with white bureaucrats who worked for the government and who left at dusk. In the 1960s, the residents of Washington were mostly black. It exploded into riots after the assassination in 1968 of Martin Luther King. In response, President Lyndon Johnson ordered thousands of federal troops to bring order. Marines with machine guns stood on the steps of the capitol; soldiers guarded the White House. The FBI director, J Edgar Hoover, suggested that the rioters should be shot. It was the largest occupation of Washington since the civil war. By the time it ended four days later there had been more than 6,000 arrests and more than 1,200 buildings had been burned. It took decades for the city to recover, economically and perhaps more importantly spiritually.

At the age of seven I was aware of a great sense of sadness, of a dream dashed, the implosion of hope and a wave of overwhelming failure. My mother was a volunteer in the DC public- school system. The children would pat her hair – so different from their own – and say, “Mrs Homes, you got good hair.” Politically active liberals, we were a family who marched on Washington and didn’t eat iceberg lettuce or green grapes because they weren’t picked by union workers. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realised that the union leader and civil rights activist César Chávez had nothing to do with caesar salad.

I got my political feet wet in 1968 working for Hubert H Humphrey’s presidential campaign. With a friend whose father was well-placed in the political landscape, I’d hunker down after school in a basement and make “HHH” memorabilia – key chains, glass ashtrays, all painted with a red, white and blue “HHH”, which we then sold door to door. We believed we could make a difference.

Our neighbours were diplomats with immunity. They parked their cars wherever they wanted – they didn’t have to pay parking tickets – their children behaved badly at school and occasionally, in a bid for attention, they stole things, like our bicycles. We could see our bikes at the top of a nearby driveway, but no one could do anything. The local police couldn’t even knock on the door and ask for their return.

Nixon was the first president of my conscious life –he loomed large in the period 1969- 74, my most formative years. We often encountered his two teenage daughters and their secret service agents as they shopped for shoes in the local department stores, and the President himself on class trips to the White House, where we played on the enormous green lawn while Nixon welcomed various heads of state.

In our neighbourhood, almost everyone’s parents except mine worked for the government. The CIA and FBI went door to door gathering information, like little old ladies collecting for charity. They wanted to know if we’d noticed anything strange at the neighbours’ houses, people coming and going at odd hours, people from other places (or did they say “races”?). There were oddities – war planes parked beneath trees in Rock Creek Park, which was just behind our house, or hippies camping out in our basement as they came to town to protest.

In 1972, Nixon made his celebrated trip to China –he described it as the week that changed the world – and when he returned a friend and I were taken out of school and to the national zoo to see First Lady Pat Nixon welcome the gift of two giant pandas. I remember a news camera being aimed in my direction and a nice news lady asking, “What do you think of the new giant pandas? Already disillusioned, I said, “Well, they’re not really very big, are they?”

My parents took me on marches against the war and to Leonard Bernstein’s anti-inaugural “concert for peace” in 1972 at the National Cathedral. It was a cold January night and we stood outside the packed cathedral on the street with thousands of others listening to Haydn’s Mass in the Time of War and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture – all of it very dramatic, and a powerful signal that something had to change.

My own social and moral development evolved alongside the American people’s growing awareness that our government wasn’t really “by the people for the people” but a series of off-the-record relationships and deals made in back rooms. The older brothers of my classmates had to register for the military draft as they graduated from high school and be prepared to fight in a war that they were opposed to. Others conscientiously objected and some left the country for a safe haven in Canada. It was a complex personal coming of age that ran parallel to a large-scale redefinition of American political culture. I was torn by the simultaneous and contradictory desire to conform, to be good, and also to claim my autonomy as an anti-authoritarian and rebel.

In our family there was a similarly complicated unfurling of history, secrets, decision making and grief – combined with flashes of hope, a fine moment of promise and a belief in a better future. It was strange time and place to be  a child: a multi-layered existence with shifting standards, exceptions, and different rules for different people.

The 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters ordered by President Nixon and the subsequent Watergate scandal had a big impact in confirming my sense of what was right and wrong. I was at summer camp deep in North Carolina, amid tobacco fields and a surprisingly deep racial divide, when Nixon resigned. The camp counsellors were crying, saying things like, “I bet my mama’s having a heart attack.” I knew that at the same time there would be a sense of celebration at home. It was at that moment I realised that Washington was not just an oddly old fashioned swampy southern town but that the decisions made there, the reverberations of one man’s behaviour, were not just local, but national and even global.

The idea that a government could repeatedly and knowingly betray the trust of the people, that a president could so misuse his power – claiming that if the president does it, it’s not illegal – unfolded alongside my own family dramas, the unveiling of secrets, deeper histories and a sense that nothing was ever quite what it seemed. The result was a sharpening of my eye and an obsession with locating the truth and finding an articulation for that space between things that defines who we are. My need to parse fact from fiction in my own family led me to be more suspicious, to want to illuminate the space between public and private, to give language to that chasm.

The actions taken by a president or fictional character resonate and carry forward through history – and remind us of the depths of our responsibility to and for one another. I constantly think about why people behave as they do and what their behaviour means to them; how beliefs are formed and what they are used to defend or explain. I remain fascinated by Nixon’s struggle; with the way, even as president, he was so isolated. By how he would stay up late into the night writing for hours on long legal pads, scratching out a logic for himself.

I am perpetually reading the culture – the social, political and economic worlds as well as those of visual art, music and literature. All of it conspires to become the stuff of fiction. Everything I write about is a hope, a dream of who were are and what we one day might be; a dream that is born from all that has come before.

A M Homes’s novel “May We Be Forgiven” is published by Granta Books (£16.99).

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, India special

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The people is sublime: the long history of populism, from Robespierre to Trump

If liberal democracy is to survive, the tide of populism will have to be turned back. The question is: how?

A spectre of populism is haunting the world’s liberal democracies. Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election, the narrow Leave majority in the EU referendum, Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election – breaking the spirit of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act passed by the government of which she was a member – and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s victory in the recent Turkish referendum all testify to the strength of the populist tide that is sweeping through the North Atlantic world. The consequences have been calamitous: a shrunken public realm, a demeaned civic culture, threatened minorities, contempt for the rule of law and an increasingly ugly public mood. If liberal democracy is to survive, the tide will have to be turned back. The question is: how?

The first essential is to understand the nature of the beast. This is more difficult than it sounds. Most democratic politicians seek popularity, but populism and popularity are not the same. Today’s populism is the descendant of a long line of ancestors. The first unmistakably populist movement in history appeared well over two centuries ago during the later stages of the French Revolution. It was led by Robespierre (Thomas Carlyle’s “sea-green incorruptible”) and the Jacobins who promised a reign of “virtue”. They were inspired by the cloudy prose of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed that mere individuals should be subject to the general will of the social whole and – if necessary – “forced to be free”. As the revolution gathered pace and foreign armies mustered on France’s frontiers, the Jacobins launched the first organised, state-led and ideologically legitimised Terror in history. Chillingly, Robespierre declared, “The people is sublime, but individuals are weak.” That is the cry of populists through the ages. Appropriately, the Terror ended with Robespierre lying on a plank, screaming with pain before he was executed by guillotine.

The French Revolution – which began with the storming of the Bastille and ended with Napoleon’s ascent to an ersatz imperial throne – has an epic quality about it missing from later chapters in the populist story. Ironically, the second chapter, which opened half a century later, was the work of Louis Bonaparte, nephew of the great Napoleon. In 1848 came a second revolution and a second Republic; Louis Bonaparte was elected president by a huge majority. He tried and failed to amend the constitution to make it possible for him to have a second term; and then seized power in a coup d’état. Soon afterwards he became emperor as Napoleon III. (“Napoleon le petit”, in Victor Hugo’s savage phrase.) The whole story provoked one of Karl Marx’s best aphorisms: “History repeats itself; the first time as tragedy and the second as farce.”

There have been plenty of tragedies since – and plenty of farces, too. Trump’s victory was a tragedy, but farcical elements are already in evidence. Erdogan’s victory was even more tragic than Trump’s, but farce is conspicuously absent. The Leave victory in the referendum was tragic: arguably, the greatest tragedy in the three-century history of Britain’s union state. As with Trump, farce is already in evidence – the agitated comings and goings that have followed Theresa May’s loss of her Commons majority; the inane debate over the nature of the Brexit that Britain should seek; and the preposterous suggestion that, freed of the “Brussels” incubus, Britain will be able to conclude costless trade deals with the state-capitalist dictatorship of China and the “America First” neo-isolationists in Washington, DC. Unlike the French farce of Napoleon III’s Second Empire, however, the British farce now in progress is more likely to provoke tears than laughter.


Picture: André Carrilho

Populism is not a doctrine or a governing philosophy, still less an ideology. It is a disposition, perhaps a mood, a set of attitudes and above all a style. The People’s Party, which played a significant part in American politics in the late 19th century, is a case in point. The farmers whose grievances inspired the People’s Party wanted cheaper credit and transport to carry their products to markets in the eastern states. Hence the party’s two main proposals. One was the nationalisation of the railways, to cheapen transport costs; the other was “free silver” – the use of silver as well as gold as currency, supposedly to cheapen credit. Even then, this was not a particularly radical programme. It was designed to reform capitalism, not to replace it, as the largely Marxist social-democratic parties of Europe were seeking to do.

Rhetoric was a different matter. Mary Elizabeth Lease, a prominent member of the People’s Party, declared that America’s was no longer a government of the people by the people and for the people, but “a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street and for Wall Street”. The common people of America, she added, “are slaves and monopoly is the master”.

The Georgian populist Tom Watson once asked if Thomas Jefferson had dreamed that the party he founded would be “prostituted to the vilest purposes of monopoly” or that it would be led by “red-eyed Jewish millionaires”. The People’s Party’s constitutive Omaha Platform accused the two main parties of proposing “to sacrifice our homes, lives and children on the altar of Mammon; to destroy the multitude in order to secure corruption funds from the millionaires”. The party’s aim was “to restore the government of the Republic to the hands of ‘the plain people’ with which class it originated”. Theodore Roosevelt promised “to walk softly and carry a big stick”. The People’s Party walked noisily and carried a small stick. Jeremy Corbyn would have been at home in it.

Almost without exception, populists promise national regeneration in place of decline, decay and the vacillations and tergiversations of a corrupt establishment and the enervated elites that belong to it. Trump’s call to “make America great again” is an obvious recent case. His attacks on “crooked Hillary”, on the courts that have impeded his proposed ban on Muslim immigrants from capriciously chosen Middle Eastern and African countries, on the “fake news” of journalists seeking to hold his administration to account, and, most of all, his attack on the constitutional checks and balances that have been fundamental to US governance for more than 200 years, are the most alarming examples of populist practice, not just in American history but in the history of most of the North Atlantic world.

There are intriguing parallels between Trump’s regime and Erdogan’s. Indeed, Trump went out of his way to congratulate Erdogan on Turkey’s referendum result in April – which gives him the right to lengthen his term of office to ten years, to strengthen his control over the judiciary and to decide when to impose a state of emergency. Even before the referendum, he had dismissed more than 100,000 public servants, including teachers, prosecutors, judges and army officers; 4,000 were imprisoned. The Kurdish minority was – and is – repressed. True, none of this applies to Trump. But the rhetoric of the thin-skinned, paranoid US president and his equally thin-skinned and paranoid Turkish counterpart comes from the same repertoire. In the Turkish referendum Erdogan declared: “My nation stood upright and undivided.” It might have been Trump clamorously insisting that the crowd at his inauguration was bigger than it was.

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The best-known modern British populists – Margaret Thatcher, Nigel Farage and David Owen – form a kind of counterpoint. In some ways, all three have harked back to the themes of the 19th-century American populists. Thatcher insisted that she was “a plain, straightforward provincial”, adding that her “Bloomsbury” was Grantham – “Methodism, the grocer’s shop, Rotary and all the serious, sober virtues, cultivated and esteemed in that environment”. Farage declared that the EU referendum was “a victory for ‘the real people’ of Britain” – implying, none too subtly, that the 48 per cent who voted Remain were somehow unreal or, indeed, un-British.

On a holiday job on a building site during the Suez War, Owen experienced a kind of epiphany. Hugh Gaitskell was criticising Anthony Eden, the prime minister, on television and in the House of Commons, but Owen’s workmates were solidly in favour of Eden. That experience, he said, made him suspicious of “the kind of attitude which splits the difference on everything. The rather defeatist, even traitorous attitude reflected in the pre-war Apostles at Cambridge.” (Owen voted for Brexit in 2016.)

Did he really believe that Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes and George Moore were traitorous? Did he not know that they were Apostles? Or was he simply lashing out, Trump-like, at an elite that disdained him – and to which he yearned to belong?

Thatcher’s Grantham, Farage’s real people and David Owen’s workmates came from the same rhetorical stable as the American populists’ Omaha Platform. But the American populists really were plain, in their sense of the word, whereas Thatcher, Farage and Owen could hardly have been less so. Thatcher (at that stage Roberts) left Grantham as soon as she could and never looked back. She went to Somerville College, Oxford, where she was a pupil of the Nobel laureate Dorothy Hodgkin. She married the dashing and wealthy Denis Thatcher and abandoned science to qualify as a barrister before being elected to parliament and eventually becoming prime minister. Farage worked as a metals trader in the City before becoming leader of the UK Independence Party. Owen went to the private Bradfield College before going up to Cambridge to read medicine. Despite his Welsh antecedents, he looks and sounds like a well-brought-up English public school boy. He was elected to parliament in 1966 at the age of 28 and was appointed under-secretary for the navy at 30. He then served briefly as foreign secretary in James Callaghan’s miserable Labour government in the 1970s.

Much the same is true of Marine Le Pen in France. She is a hereditary populist – something that seems self-contradictory. The Front National (FN) she heads was founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen – Holocaust denier, anti-Semite, former street brawler and sometime Poujadist. In the jargon of public relations, she has worked hard to “de-toxify” the FN brand. But the Front is still the Front; it appeals most strongly to the ageing and insecure in the de-industrialised areas of the north-east. Marine Le Pen applauded the Leave victory in Britain’s referendum – she seeks to limit immigration, just as Ukip did in the referendum and as the May government does now.

Above all, the Front National appeals to a mythologised past, symbolised by the figure of Joan of Arc. Joan was a simple, illiterate peasant from an obscure village in north-eastern France, who led the French king’s forces to a decisive victory over the English in the later stages of the Hundred Years War. She was captured by England’s Burgundian allies, and the English burned her at the stake at the age of 19. She was beatified in 1909 and canonised in 1920. For well over a century, she has been a heroine for the Catholic French right, for whom the revolutionary triad of liberté, egalité, fraternité is either vacuous or menacing.

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The past to which the FN appeals is uniquely French. It is also contentious. A struggle over the ownership of the French past has been a theme of French politics ever since the French Revolution. But other mythologised pasts have figured again and again in populist rhetoric and still do. Mussolini talked of returning to the time of the Roman empire when the Mediterranean was Mare Nostrum. Trump’s “Make America great again” presupposes a past when America was great, and from which present-day Americans have strayed, thanks to Clintonesque crooks and the pedlars of fake news. “Take back control” – the mantra of the Brexiteers in the referendum – presupposes a past in which the British had control; Owen’s bizarre pre-referendum claim that, if Britain left the EU, she would be free to “rediscover the skills of blue water diplomacy” presupposed a time when she practised those skills. Vladimir Putin, another populist of sorts, is patently trying to harness memories of tsarist glory to his chariot wheels. Margaret Thatcher, the “plain, straightforward provincial” woman, sought to revive the “vigorous virtues” of her Grantham childhood and the “Victorian values” that underpinned them.

As well as mythologising the past, populists mythologise the people. Those for whom they claim to speak are undifferentiated, homogeneous and inert. Populists have nothing but contempt for de Tocqueville’s insight that the ever-present threat of majority tyranny can be kept at bay only by a rich array of intermediate institutions, including townships, law courts and a free press, underpinned by the separation of powers.

For populists, the threat of majority tyranny is a phantom, invented by out-of-touch and craven elitists. Law courts that stand in the way of the unmediated popular will are “enemies of the people”, as the Daily Mail put it. There is no need to protect minorities against the tyranny of the majority: minorities are either part of the whole, in which case they don’t need protection, or self-excluded from it, in which case they don’t deserve to be protected.

Apparent differences of interest or value that cut across the body of the people, that divide the collective sovereign against itself, are products of elite manipulation or, in Thatcher’s notorious phrase, of “the enemy within”. For there is a strong paranoid streak in the populist mentality. Against the pure, virtuous people stand corrupt, privileged elites and sinister, conspiratorial subversives. The latter are forever plotting to do down the former.

Like pigs searching for truffles, populists search for subversives. Inevitably, they find what they are looking for. Joe McCarthy was one of the most squalid examples of the populist breed: for years, McCarthyism was a baneful presence in Hollywood, in American universities, newspaper offices and in the public service, ruining lives, restricting free expression and making it harder for the United States to win the trust of its European allies. The barrage of hatred and contempt that the tabloid press unleashed on opponents of Theresa May’s pursuit of a “hard” Brexit is another example. Her astounding claim that a mysterious entity known as “Brussels” was seeking to interfere in the British general election is a third.

As the Princeton political scientist Jan-Werner Müller argues, all of this strikes at the heart of democratic governance. Democracy depends on open debate, on dialogue between the bearers of different values, in which the protagonists learn from each other and from which they emerge as different people. For the Nobel laureate, philosopher and economist Amartya Sen, democracy is, above all, “public reasoning”; and that is impossible without social spaces in which reasoning can take place. Populism is singular; democracy is plural. The great question for non-populists is how to respond to the populist threat.

Two answers are in contention. The first is Theresa May’s. It amounts to appeasement. May’s purported reason for calling a snap general election was that the politicians were divided, whereas the people were united. It is hard to think of a better – or more frightening – summary of the spirit of populism. The second answer is Emmanuel Macron’s. For the moment, at least, he is astonishingly popular in France. More important, his victory over Le Pen has shown that, given intelligence, courage and generosity of spirit, the noxious populist tide can be resisted and, perhaps, turned back. 

David Marquand’s most recent book is “Mammon’s Kingdom”: an Essay on Britain Now” (Allen Lane)

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, India special