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Donald Trump has told America it can be great without being good

The inauguration of the new president is so fraught because America sees itself as exceptional. 

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?'"

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Italy's populist Five Star Movement (M5S) party leader Luigi Di Maio. CREDIT: GETTY
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Five Star’s “just fix it!” politics and the new age of digital populism

 In the Italian election, Five Star made radical and exciting promises – like a monthly universal basic income of around €780.

One evening in 2004, after finishing a performance of his comedy show Black Out, Beppe Grillo was approached by a tall, austere-looking man called Gianroberto Casaleggio, an IT specialist who ran a web consulting firm. He told Grillo that he could create a blog for him that would transform Italian politics. The internet, Casaleggio explained, would change everything. Political parties and newspaper editors were no longer needed. They could be “disintermediated”.

Grillo, a household name in Italy, was not particularly interested in technology but he was interested in politics. The following year the pair created the promised blog and Grillo began writing about cronyism, green issues and the power of the web to smash what he considered a corrupt, elitist and closed political system. Thousands, then millions, of frustrated Italians flocked to his site. They began using another website,, to gather offline to discuss Grillo’s latest post, and co-ordinate campaigns and rallies. It was heady stuff.

In 2007, this fledgling movement held Vaffanculo Day (which roughly translates to “fuck off day”), an event directed at the suits in charge. Grillo crowd-surfed the thousands who’d turned out in Bologna’s main square in a red dingy. Eugenio Scalfari, founder of the respected centre-left newspaper La Repubblica, wrote an editorial titled “The barbaric invasion of Beppe Grillo”.

In the age of Russian trolls and algorithmic ads, it’s easy to forget how optimistic the mood around digital politics was in the late Noughties. Occupy, the Pirate Party and Barack Obama all seemed to presage the end of tired old hierarchies. They were getting a digital upgrade: open, inclusive and more democratic. Grillo led the charge: in 2009 he declared that his band of online followers would stand in elections as the Five Star Movement. The group refused state funding, capped its MPs’ salaries at the average national wage, and pledged to publish all proposed bills online three months before approval to allow for public comment. All major policy decisions would be taken by votes on the blog, including candidate selections.

Seasoned political analysts dismissed Five Star as a bunch of bloggers and kids, led by a clown. But the movement started achieving local successes, especially in Italy’s poorer south. By 2012 there were 500 local groups and in the following year’s general election, Five Star won 25 per cent of the vote. Analysts repeatedly predicted that normal service would be resumed – but it never was.

In the Italian general election earlier this month, Five Star won 32 per cent of the vote, and 227 seats, easily making it the largest single party. (Grillo, who is 69, distanced himself from Five Star before this triumph. He remains the “guarantor”, but the new leader is 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio.) In a hung parliament, Five Star is currently in a stalemate with Italy’s right-wing alliance (the Northern League, Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the Brothers of Italy), which collectively secured more seats.

While Five Star has declared its commitment to direct democracy, many major decisions are taken by a small cadre, which has alienated some early supporters. Its occasional dalliances with power – the current mayor of Rome is Five Star’s Virginia Raggi – have been largely unsuccessful. Yet more than any other movement in Europe, Five Star demonstrates how digital upstarts can demolish years of cosy centrist consensus. Meet-ups are full of sparky, motivated activists – rather like the Corbynite Momentum – who combine online and offline techniques to deliver their message.

Five Star’s political ideas appear radical and exciting, especially to places blighted by economic stagnation. In the Italian election, Five Star promised a monthly universal basic income of around €780 for every adult.

Yet the movement’s rise also reveals the darker side of digital politics. Five Star is unashamedly populist and divisive, pitting the good, honest, ordinary citizen against the out-of-touch professional political class. Ever noticed how all populists, whether left or right, seem to love social media? Nigel Farage, Bernie Sanders, Marine Le Pen, Syriza and, of course, Donald Trump are all avid adopters. It’s partly because short, emotional messages, the populist stock-in-trade, spread so well online. Grillo frequently insults his opponents – he used to call the former Italian prime minister Mario Monti “Rigor Montis” – and new Five Star leader Di Maio recently called for the immediate halt of the “sea taxi service” that rescues migrants in the Mediterranean. There’s a receptive online audience for such content. And the blog is central to Five Star, just as Twitter is to Trump, because, it says, it allows it to circumnavigate the self-interested establishment, and deliver “the truth” straight to the people.

But the love affair runs deeper than clickable posts. The internet is inculcating all of us with new, unrealistic expectations. I call it “just fix it!” politics. Everything online is fast and personalised, answers are simple and immediate. The unhappy compromise and frustrating plod of politics looks increasingly inadequate by comparison, which fuels impatience and even rage.

Populists promise to cut through the tedium with swift and obvious answers, and in that sense they are tuned in to how we live as consumers. By contrast, centrist parties have struggled in the digital age because their watery, dull promises are weighed down by practical know-how and association with power. (“Boring! Traitors!”)

The rage of the jilted lover knows few bounds. This is the problem with all populist movements: what happens when things aren’t as easy as promised? A few days after Five Star’s stunning election result, dozens of young Italians turned up at job centres in Puglia, demanding their €780 monthly basic income. Should Five Star form a government, millions of Italians will turn up with them – and demand a lot more than a few hundred euros. 

Jamie Bartlett is the author of “Radicals: Outsiders Changing the World” (Windmill Books)

Jamie Bartlett is the head of the Violence and Extremism Programme and the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game