I walked through Washington DC on Wednesday. I walked through the Mall, past the Capitol, down to the Trump International hotel behind its three rows of barricades. Excited, well-dressed white people were greeting one another outside, getting ready for the coronation that dare not speak its name. Like a thousand other reporters, I came here for the big story – but the story is, and always has been, America. That’s the point. And that’s the problem.
Outside Trump International, a scruffy, bearded gentleman in a Make America Great Again hat circled a pedicab plastered in American flags outside the grand hotel’s Transylvanian facade, ringing his bell for custom. I got in, since everyone else was ignoring him. His name was Michael, and he was an ex-marine, and he was exuberant. “He’s the President now, and that means something,” he told me. “When he makes his statement, ‘Make America Great Again, that means everything about America, all the good and bad that comes with being American, that’s going to be on the up again. We’ve got the right president for the times. We always get the right president for the times.”
This is the sort of conversation I’ve been having all week, Trumpian in register, empty of actual fact, but dripping with the sort of symbolism normally reserved for royal and religious events. When Americans elect a president they are electing at once a politician and a king – and that very knowledge flies in the face of everything America tells itself about itself. America is not, officially, a fan of royalty, unless you count the British royal family, who are somehow a national obsession in a country that still thinks it’s important for every child to be heavily armed in case the King of England comes to steal their lemonade.
But the iconography of kingship is everywhere. America is a fundamentally religious nation, and Americanism itself is a religion upon whose principles nobody can agree, a religion whose rituals are inculcated in every citizen from childhood by way of flags and pledges. The election of a President is not just the election of a political leader, but a head of state, someone with enormous symbolic power who holds the heart of the nation in his tiny grasping hands. You only need to observe the difficulty Americans have making fun of the President, whoever he may be. You can criticize him – rabidly so – but the mythos must not be undermined. Can you imagine anyone playing Hail To The Chief as David Cameron came into the room? America had The West Wing and House of Cards; the British have Spitting Image and In The Loop. Americans fire guns at their president, but they don’t throw eggs.
America, as Ta-Nehisi Coates observes in his masterpiece Between The World And Me, “believes itself exceptional, the greatest and noblest nation ever to exist, a lone champion standing between the white city of democracy and the terrorists, despots, barbarians, and other enemies of civilization. One cannot, at once, claim to be superhuman and then plead mortal error.” The anointing of Donald J Trump as de facto world emperor is among the most mortal errors in the short and savage history of the barely-United States, but the grand story of American Exceptionalism cannot allow this sort of error. It must, somehow, come right. Even for those who, scant months ago, were declaring the end of the American dream, are clutching for their blankets, hearing the dreadful alarm and hammering the snooze button.
America is the empire of cognitive dissonance. Its continued existence relies on the conviction that it is great in every sense, that as a nation it is uniquely democratic, uniquely just, uniquely free. In order for these ideals to sit alongside its history of genocide and conquest, the daily lived reality of racism, the evil legacies of slavery and Jim Crow, the myth of America the Great has to do a hell of a lot of work. The Obama administration did its best to resolve that cognitive dissonance by insisting that America could be not just great, but good – that the psychic wounds of the past could be soothed with ritual if not actual reparation. The genius of its strategy was to appeal to a vision of peaceful inclusivity that extended rather than inverted the story of America The Just. This strategy was also its failing, because it had reckoned without an America whose great dark fairytale involved a hell of a lot more denial.
On Pennsylvania avenue in the rushing dark, Michael and I had acquired another passenger, Tracy Douglas, a gentleman in his sixties who wanted to go to the White House and invited me to ride with him while he explained how Trump was going to return patriotism to the people. The pedicab pulled in to let a howling motorcade go by. “That’s The President,” said Douglas. He meant Obama. You could hear the capitalisation in his voice. He had no love for the Democrats – he claimed, in fact, to have worked for the Bush administration – but he still pronounced the title with reverence.
This is why so many millions allowed themselves to be persuaded, against every scrap of evidence, that Obama was not American. This is the logic of the birther movement that launched Cheeto Mussolini. It was not enough to label the first black president to be incompetent, reverse-racist or, worse still, a socialist – he was clearly none of those things, but facts have never precisely been invited to the Tea Party. The symbolic violence of the Obamas in the White House, their grace and magnamity, their sheer maddening classiness, created a cognitive dissonance that drove parts of White America quite out of its mind. They had to be Un-American.
Trump does away with a lot of this cognitive dissonance by making it alright for America to be great without being good. Great without good is making deals rather than dealing in diplomacy. Great without good is a playground bully who never gets told no. Great without good is being proud of being white. Great without good is not as discomfiting as it ought to be.
One thing I hadn’t quite clocked before I started this trip was how much the grand story of American Exceptionalism matters to the left, as much as it does to the right. How very much all but the most iconoclastic of US citizens are committed to maintaining that grand story and finding their place within it. It’s not an inherently dreadful idea, but it’s easy to twist, and today the best and most naive instinct of American progressives – their basic faith in the machinations of a democracy that is little more than an auction house for vested interests – are being used against them.
The biggest obstacles to any democratic resistance to Trump are the rituals of American democracy themselves. The pomp and circumstance of confirmation, inauguration, cabinet selection – all of it contributes to the normalisation of what ought never to have been permitted to seem normal. All around Washington DC, someone has been tearing down the signs directing protesters to convene on inauguration day – the neon posters have been clawed half-away, as if in haste.
That is not how you prepare a city for the accession of an ordinary political leader. It is how you prepare for the coronation of a king. This week, in this city, America is about to anoint an Emperor. It will take a great deal for someone to point out that the Emperor not only has no clothes, but is starring in his very own pornographic spoof of the presidential mode that plays perfectly to the auto-erotic tendency in American politics.
Moderate conservatives will be the first to normalise the new imperial nudity.. At the conventions, moderate conservatives were the most miserable people at every party, drinking with the grim dedication of funeral guests . They could summon disdain for Trump for as long as he was turning the Republican Party into his own personal reality-tv foodfight, but now he’s President, that instinctive faith in institutional authority is kicking in. They may not respect the man, but they must respect the office, The Congress, The Senate. They must trust in the ritual apparatus of American democracy to save them, or abandon that sense of normality that lets them get up and do their jobs every day, the thing that some people call sanity. This, too, is how it happens. Tyranny happens when the idea of nationhood makes resistance to tyranny impossible.
Nobody is ever finally going to agree about what America is, but there a great many Americans hold in their hearts a half-formed idea of nationhood that is incompatible with racial justice. It must not be forgotten – it must be repeated like a refrain over these four years and more – that it was racism that crowned Donald Trump. Not liberal equivocation, not leftist cowardice, not sexism, not working-class disenchantment – all of these things were and remain real but on their own they would never have stopped Hillary Clinton. White America wanted Trump to restore its pride. White America wanted a king who would pummel through its pain with his tiny entitled fists.
This is why the most heartfelt cry of anti-Trump protesters today is “Not My President”. It’s the sort of symbolic denial that would never make sense in Britain – Trump, after all, is the President. I’m very cross with Theresa May, but I’d never try to claim that she’s not the Prime Minister – she is, and that’s the problem. For Americans, though, refusing to crown Trump in their own American story has symbolic value. It’s a way of resisting the unique power of kings.
In folktales and fairytales, the king is connected to the land. A bad, reckless king makes the land sicken, the people suffer, the crops fail; a good king brings rich harvests and success in battle. This is the level on which Americans of every political background understand the presidency. The President is more than a man, more than a politician – he is a little god, and too much resistance in thought and deed is heresy. It is a heresy that Americans will have to contemplate as they stare down the barrel of four years with a vengeful cartoon narcissist, half toddler, half tyrant, squatting in the Oval Office with his evil aviary of hawks and vultures.
As Michael dropped us off outside the glowing temple of the White House. I could not help but recall the group of young activists I met last week. They, too, believed in the story of America, to an extent that surprised me. Their story, however, was different. “Someday,” the young woman who convened the group told me, “someday it will eally have mattered what we did in this time. It will matter that we fought back. That will just matter for the story of America – like, ‘did we give up?’ ‘How did we fight back?’ ‘Did we say no to fascism, or did we let it happen to us?'”