Edel Rodriguez
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Donald Trump is half-Caligula, half the Toddler-in-Chief

Michael Wolff’s book may have done little to hasten the end of the Trump era, but it’s shown the President doesn’t have a masterplan.

Searching round for a handhold – any handhold – to grasp during the broken rollercoaster ride that is Donald Trump’s presidency, I have turned to fiction. (No, not Michael Wolff’s book, don’t be mean.) Yet when the great novel or film about this era emerges, its central character surely won’t be Trump. He’s a pre-packaged parody of himself; a disarmingly camp authoritarian with so many personal pecularities it’s impossible to keep track. What’s weirder, the rumours about his Diet Coke button – or his own tweets about the nuclear button? The germophobia, or the strange pre-power obsession with Rosie O’Donnell’s weight and sexuality? The US president is impervious to mockery and immune to scandal simply because it’s impossible to conceptualise him as an adult human. He feels more like a giant untethered id haunting the West Wing; the Toddler-in-Chief, cranky because his nap is overdue.

When he first became president, there was a surprisingly durable fashion for seeing his madder pronouncements as evidence of some devilish plan. Yes, yes, explained the Serious Men of the Columns, to the untrained eye of course it looks exactly like the US president has a hair-trigger temper, poor impulse control and access to too many cable news channels. But what your humble brains can’t understand is that he is, in fact, a master tactician. See how this mad tweet distracts you from the federal government’s sluggish response to a natural disaster! Behold the skilful diversion tactic of rambling at a group of Boy Scouts about the size of the inauguration crowds!

Ironically, these attempts to rationalise the irrational did reveal something about how Trump came to power: the media failed to see what a threat he was because of a desire to demonstrate their own cleverness and insight. Most political journalism functions as a priesthood, asserting its own importance by offering insights into what a politician is “really saying” between the lines of their soundbites. Trump, however, is really saying whatever he is currently saying, even if he says something contradictory five minutes later. It would have been easier to take him at face value all along.

Take the promise of a Mexican wall, which we can now admit wasn’t some strategic masterstroke: Trump just threw out the idea in a speech and people cheered. He liked that. So he said it again. More cheers. You can dress this up as a savant-like grasp of popular opinion, but it’s like claiming a toddler who blows a raspberry and makes her parents laugh does it again because she has an intuitive grasp of how to manipulate human behaviour. She does. You probably shouldn’t give her control of a nuclear arsenal, though.

Although Michael Wolff’s book appears to have done little to hasten the end of the Trump era, it has at least killed the myth of Secret Genius Trump. “Everybody in the West Wing tried, with some panic, to explain him, and, sheepishly, their own reason for being here,” Wolff writes. “But there was palpable relief, of an Emperor’s New Clothes sort, when longtime Trump staffer Sam Nunberg – fired by Trump during the campaign but credited with knowing him better than anyone else – came back into the fold and said, widely, ‘He’s just a fucking fool.’”

With that acknowledgement made, what does a staffer in the Trump White House do next? This is where I turn to fiction – specifically, Robert Graves’s I, Claudius, which imagines the life of the future Roman emperor during the reigns of his increasingly barking predecessors.

In hindsight, it’s possible to discern the bad decisions and tolerance of norm-breaking among Republican presidents that led us to Trump. (Nixon was increasingly corrupt, Reagan was increasingly vague, the Bushes were increasingly keen to invade the Middle East.)

There’s a similar pattern with the Roman emperors. Little by little, it ebbed away: the facade of democracy, checks and balances, restraints on their power. In Graves’s telling, Augustus was over-mighty but competent; Tiberius was over-mighty, competent and viciously repressive; Caligula was over-mighty and viciously repressive, but lost the competence in a fog of insanity and by making his horse a senator. (Tell me honestly you can’t imagine Trump trotting round the Rose Garden with a Kentucky Derby winner in a MAGA cap, with Mike Pence gamely trying to signal to the rest of the party that this too is a price worth paying for those tax cuts.)

Eventually, Caligula decides he is a god – which one, he can’t decide, but definitely better than Jupiter, whose thunderbolt button is nowhere near as big as his, and his works – and summons Claudius and other high-ranking nobles to watch him parade around dressed as rosy-fingered Dawn.

The power of I, Claudius is in imagining what you, as an ordinary human, would do in such extraordinary circumstances. First, the rationalisation: yes, he’s bad, but anarchy is worse. Then the realisation: yes, he’s mad, but there’s no way to get rid of him. And finally, the reaction: the situation is now so bad we have nothing to lose.

Western democracies are set up so that final state is never reached. One of the lessons of the Trump era is how hard it is for a president to move the great oil tanker of the American state. For all the sound and fury, Trump’s anti-achievements have been limited, and usually nothing to do with him: he got a Supreme Court pick by sheer luck, thanks to the obstruction of House Republicans, and chose a candidate of whom they approved, for example.

For that reason, the temptation must be always to prop him up; the White House’s Baby Caligula can spit out his dummy as much as he likes. But look at the eyes of the people around him. They know. l

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 10 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Toddler in chief

The University Challenge final. Photo: BBC iPlayer
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Why University Challenge is deliberately asking more questions about women

Question setters and contestants on how the show finally began to gender-balance its questions – and whether it’s now harder as a result.

University Challenge has long had a gender problem. When the show first started airing in 1962, some Oxbridge colleges were still refusing to admit women as undergraduates; in the decades since, women have been consistently outnumbered by men, with all-male teams still a regular occurrence. Those women that did appear were all too regularly criticised and objectified in equal measure by audiences: notable contestants like Hannah Rose Woods, Emma Johnson, Samantha Buzzard and Sophie Rudd have experienced intense media scrutiny and criticised the sexism of the show and audiences. In recent years, sexism rows have dogged the show.

How satisfying, then, to see two women carrying their teams in last night’s final: Rosie McKeown for winners St John’s, Cambridge, and Leonie Woodland for runners-up Merton, Oxford. Both secured the majority of points for their teams – McKeown with visible delight, Woodland looking unsure even as she delivered correct answer after correct answer.

But there is another site of sexism on University Challenge, one that earns less column inches: the questions. Drawing on all areas of history, science, language, economics and culture, the questions often concern notable thinkers, artists, scientists, and sportspeople. Of course, our society’s patriarchal hierarchies of achievement have meant that the subjects of these questions are mostly men. General knowledge is, after all, a boys’ club.

Over the course of this 2017-8 series, though, I noticed a shift. More women than ever seemed to be making their way into the questions, at times with deliberate reference to the inherent sexism of their lack of cultural prominence. On 5 February, there was a picture round devoted to female composers, with contestents asked to identify Clara Schumann, Ethel Smyth, Rachel Portman and Bjork from photographs, who, Paxman explained, are all “women that are now listed in the EdExcel A Level music syllabus after the student Jessy McCabe petitioned the exam board in 2015.” Episodes have included bonus rounds on “prominent women” (the writer Lydia Davis, the pilot Lydia Litvyak, and the golfer Lydia Ko), “women born in the 1870s and 80s” (Rosa Luxemburg, Elizabeth Arden and Vanessa Bell), and the female philosophers Mary Midgely, Philippa Foot and Iris Murdoch.

Elsewhere, questions raise a knowing eyebrow at the patriarchal assumptions behind so much of intellectual endeavour. A music round on famous rock bands quoted the music critic Kelefa Sanneh’s definition “rockism”: “the belief that white macho guitar music is superior to all other forms of popular music”. Another, on opera, quoted Catherine Clement’s Opera, Or The Undoing of Women, which explores how traditional opera plots frequently feature “the infinitely repetitive spectacle of a woman who dies”. “Your music bonuses are three such operas,” Paxman said dryly, to audience laughter.

University Challenge’s questions editor Thomas Benson confirms that there has been a deliberate attempt to redress a gender imbalance in the quiz. “About three years ago, a viewer wrote in to point out that a recent edition of the programme had contained very few questions on women,” he explains. “We agreed and decided to do something about it.”

Last night’s final included a picture round on artists with works concerning motherhood (Mary Casatt, Lousie Bourgeois, Leanora Carrington and Frida Kahlo) and a music round on Marin Alsop, the first woman to ever conduct the Last Night of the Proms, as well as sets of bonuses on the American writer Willa Kather and Byzantine historian and princess Anna Komnene.

Former winner Hannah Rose Woods is delighted by the increase in such questions. “I think it’s fantastic!” she tells me. “These things are really important in changing people’s perceptions about women in the past, and the way women’s contributions to science and the arts have often been written out of history. We need to keep challenging the idea of the White Male Canon.”

Last night’s winner Rosie McKeown says that while she didn’t necessarily notice a deliberate attempt to gender balance the questions, she was “very pleased with the quality of those questions that did come up”.

“Although it wasn’t in one of our matches,” she tells me, “I thought the picture round on female composers was especially good for highlighting women’s achievements.”

For all the enthusiasm for these questions, in the studio they’re often met with blank stares. While University Challenge questions are broad and imaginatively posed, there are some reliable revision topics and techniques: from Nobel laureates and the years of their wins to identifying famous paintings and classical music excerpts. McKeown says she has been a religious viewer of the show since she was 11 years old, and admits to watching reruns of the show to prepare. Shift the kinds of answers you might be looking for, and teams may struggle.

“Do we know any female British composers?” Leonie Woodland said weakly, looking at a picture of Ethel Smyth. Trying to come up with a female Muslim Nobel laureate, one contestant desperately suggested Aung San Suu Kyi. Asked to provide a first name linking an American concert pianist with the sister of Lazarus one male contestant still buzzed in with “Daniel”.

“Even if we didn’t always get them right,” McKeown tells me, citing that round on female philosophers, which saw them pass on every question, as an example, “it was great to see so many important female figures represented.”

“I don't think the questions about women necessarily affected our performance, but it’s certainly a very good thing that they were there and I hope that they’ll arouse people’s interest in the women featured and in their achievements.”

Benson believes that it hasn’t had a significant effect on performance. “The great majority of the questions that feature women are no different to any others, in that they sit firmly within the realm of standard academic general knowledge.”

He notes that they often refer to historical and background details, citing sets of bonuses on Canadian novelist Ruth Ozeki and British physicist Hertha Ayrton, which both teams answered correctly in full. “Though Ozeki and Ayrton may not be household names, the questions are definitely answerable and deal with central themes in their work and achievements.”

It’s easy to brush off the significance of a fairly geeky Monday night BBC quiz show, but University Challenge still regularly pulls in three million viewers. In any case, a show like University Challenge has a cultural significance that outweighs its viewing figures. It helps to shape our understanding of which subjects are intellectual or important, which are history’s most notable achievements, and who is worth learning about. To ignore questions of identity is to risk intellectual laziness, relying on tired ideas of canonical figures – or worse, supremacist propaganda, privileging the achievements of white men over all others.

Quite aside from making for less predictable and more enjoyable television, by including questions on the likes of Stevie Smith, Nella Larsen, Gertrude Stein, Myra Hess, Margaret Mead, and Beryl Bainbridge, University Challenge can diversify the mental encyclopaedias of its viewers, be it a tweed-wearing 60-year-old in Leamington Spa or an 11-year-old like Rosie McKeown with her own dreams of one day competing. It has a responsibility to do so.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.