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31 January 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:26pm

Trump has lowered the bar so far we’ll need a submarine and a digger to find it

Who gets a cheer for keeping Guantanamo Bay open?

By Nesrine Malik

There’s an old episode of South Park called “Raising the Bar” where everyone’s behaviour starts degenerating dramatically after Cartman decides that he would rather use a mobility scooter than lose weight. His shamelessness spirals out of control as he and other mobility scooter users start suing companies for not making their restrooms accessible, and the general cultural and societal degeneration culminates with Cartman and Honey Boo Boo dualing in a spaghetti wrestling match on the White House lawn. To save the country, director James Cameron decides to go on a hunt for the bar, which has become so low he concludes it can only be found in the depths of the ocean. Despite being told that the bar is only metaphorical, he embarks on a deep sea voyage and after reaching 50,000 feet, actually finds the bar and raises it. As the bar rises above the watermark, everyone at the White House spaghetti wrestling match stars to feel disgusted with themselves and Michelle Obama intervenes and re-establishes standards by beating up Cartman and smashing up his scooter.

This episode, rather than any philosophy, research, or panoramic historical perspective, is the best lens through which to view and understand our current political climate. Yesterday, in his first State of the Union address, Donald Trump did broadly three things – he managed to read an autocue without going off script, he made some incredibly basic and poorly expressed appeals to generic “American” values like working hard (Why is that an American value? Are there any countries where not working hard or wanting to make a better life hard is a cornerstone of their national identity?). He pointed to a black welder in the audience who is benefitting from a “tax cut raise” to make this point. Secondly, he made characteristically aggressive and incendiary references to the American flag, chain migration and immigrants as criminals, topping that all off with a pledge to keep Guantanamo Bay open.

Finally, he made out that he had turned Americans into some sort of super race saying that:

“Over the last year, the world has seen what we always knew: that no people on Earth are so fearless, or daring, or determined as Americans,” Trump said. “If there is a mountain, we climb it. If there’s a frontier, we cross it. If there’s a challenge, we tame it. If there is an opportunity, we seize it.” If there is a prison where we can torture illegally renditioned inmates outside the parameters of the Geneva Convention, we will open it! 

All were met with a combination of standing ovation and loud applause. Who cheers keeping Guantanamo Bay open? At best it is a horrific necessity that exists in a legal vacuum. Such little pressure is there to close the Bay that even Obama, ISIS cuddler and Islamist apologist in chief didn’t close it. Why were they cheering? They cheered because the bar is now so low that even keeping an extra-judicial prison open is now an achievement.

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During the address last night, I started fantasising that with every applause for a sentence read without going off the rails, with every rapturous reception, with every unquestioning swallowing of Trump’s casual lies and dog whistled racism and xenophobia, James Cameron was hunting deeper and deeper for the bar, heroically sinking further into the dark water in a one man submersible. And that just when Trump was going to announce something truly horrific and his entire audience was poised to leap to their feet in Third Reichian ecstasy, James Cameron would raise the bar above sea level. The spell would break. Suddenly people would look confused and then angry, hissing and booing before walking out of the room.

Instead what happened was that the bar sank even lower, it is now subterranean. You’ll need a submarine and a digger. The Washington Post, rather than going with that really happened which was “Trump Gets Through Speech Without Throwing Excrement At Audience”, headlined its summary of the speech with “A Call for Bipartisanship” (later changed to “A ‘new American moment” ” Read, “See? Quote marks! Not us!”). The New York Times went with “President Issues Appeal For Unity In State of Union”. The Wall Street Journal’s was ‘Trump Takes On a New Role During Address: Optimist”.

I genuinely thought I might have dozed off or not paid attention enough because I could not recall any of these headlining olive branches. But then I realised what had happened. That was the address trailer. It was what the White House had released to media outlets before the speech, billing it as an appeal for unity, and so in that hypnotic low bar trance where if nothing goes massively disastrously wrong, where there is no cussing or praising of racists or abuse of the media, many just went with the brief even though the speech did very little of that. “In fact”, says Ron Elving of NPR, “scattered throughout the 80-minute speech were several moments that might qualify as outreach. But if you blinked, you might have missed them.”

This is the challenge we keep crashing into and failing to meet. Offering respect to an office and an institution that has been voided by its occupants. Donald Trump is the president of the United States. But he is still Donald Trump. It is an optical illusion. We think we are watching centuries old ceremonies elegantly trimmed with pomp and circumstance, but what we are really constantly witnessing is a spaghetti wrestling match on the White House Lawn.

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