“We provide Warrior Care”. That is the motto of the Walter Reed Army Medical Centre which treated Donald Trump for COVID. All the medical care he needed was available in the White House but the Walter Reed must have been irresistible to the Commander-in-Chief, whose ‘bad feet’ plus the good timing of his college years during the Vietnam War allowed him to dodge the Draft. Trump didn’t much like it in hospital though. Let’s be honest, the spectacle he made of his short stay added to the joy of nations.
The little retinue of Walter Reed doctors in white gowns were particularly enjoyable stepping out to present their evasive bulletins on the President’s health, for all the world like the spoof Busby Berkeley routine ‘Springtime for Hitler’ in Mel Brooks’ The Producers. The only thing missing was Trump sashaying down the steps under an arch of stethoscopes. He made up for this omission with an outing in his everything-proof Presidential limo, and then by a rather poor Mussolini impersonation on the White House Balcony.
“The spectacle”, wrote the French Marxist philosopher, Guy Debord, in his 1967 Society of the Spectacle, “is the ruling order’s non-stop discourse about itself, it’s never ending monologue of self-praise”. This was uncannily clear and prescient for a practitioner of a school of philosophy that specializes in incomprehensibility.
From 2004, Trump’s narcissism found a perfect outlet modelling tough commercial competitiveness in reality TV. The Apprentice, followed by The Celebrity Apprentice, gave him a distinct national profile. By 2016, he was ready for campaigning by means of spectacular political entertainments, his rallies, with catch-phrases , audience participation, super-charged emotion, sundry villains and, of course, himself as hero. While the rallies have deep roots in popular entertainment, Trump’s use of tweets ensured almost permanent attention in a modern medium. The man who felt shunned by old money in New York, ridiculed by Obama, was able to voice the feelings of the forgotten, angry American white male, modelling his dream of success, living out misogynist sexual fantasies and promoting aggressive xenophobia. Trump is part old fashioned music hall artist, part modern troll, part sociopath. He knows, quite literally, how to make a spectacle of himself.
By the time of Trump’s irruption into Republican politics the scene had already been set by the growing power of infotainment. As Rupert Murdoch once said of his News Corporation: “We are in the entertainment business”, entertainment that smuggled in arbitration of the key social and political issues of the day. The communications revolution, which resulted in social media providing news in ever briefer, un-nuanced form, only accelerated the process. Spectacle in all its manifestations, news, advertising, entertainment, projected Trump and his rally performances as an iconoclast speaking powerfully to the condition of his political base. He had only to strut onto the campaign set to grab a national audience - and a big international audience. Around the world people turned on their televisions for the frisson of watching the horror film that was American politics.
The merging of politics and entertainment in 2016 was not entirely new and certainly not unique. Ronald Reagan’s success in the 1980s was a notable earlier example, an experienced Hollywood movie actor who became Governor of California, then 40th President of the USA playing the nation’s elderly uncle. The story has it that Nancy would listen to Ronnie practicing his lines every evening for those impromptu avuncular speeches the next day. Yet Reagan’s star career path appears almost routine compared to Volodyar Zelensky’s cameo performances on the world stage. Zelensky played President of Ukraine in the Ukrainian TV comedy series Servant of the People, and was elected President of Ukraine in real life in 2019 and then unwittingly became a key player in the attempted Trump impeachment. 73% of Ukrainian voters in the second round elected a man with no political experience whatsoever in the hope that as President he might -unusually - turn out to be ‘servant of the people’.
Turning to Britain, it is impossible to gauge how much Boris Johnson’s jokes and jolly japes entertained voters and contributed to his political ascent. It clearly did him no harm. Neither did his political entertainment column in the Daily Telegraph, his seven appearances on Have I Got News for You and the platform provided by becoming Mayor of London. He shares Trump’s skill at making a spectacle of himself, and some of his attributes. But he is a very different professional performer, modelling the national stereotype, the wry, humorous amateur, and skillfully playing his English audience. If and when Trump is out-of-office, Johnson’s carefully mussed-up hair, rumpled suits, Latin tags and attempt at Churchillian rhetoric will seem even more pathetic than endearing.
The pandemic has revealed both Trump and Johnson’s fundamental incapacity to meet the demands of high office. Entertainment and spectacle as politics may have begun to lose their allure. What Ken Livingstone’s said to an interviewer, a week before the London mayoral election in 2012, is dawning on the British public. “This isn’t a race to elect a chat-show host”, he pointed out. The public in the USA and Britain are becoming more aware that governing takes skill and not the skills of a stand-up comic. We may be entering a new era when dull competence, perseverance and fortitude of the Clement Atlee variety are respected again.
A diet of gas-lighting, social media, computer games and data theft risks encouraging fatalism, the citizen as helpless spectator. In the UK, COVID and BREXIT, on top of politics as spectacle, has accelerated withdrawal into private life. But community spirit and social action in reaction to the virus, Black lives Matter, proliferation of groups helping the poor, immigrants and asylum seekers, are signs that civic responsibility and a concern for justice have survived, somewhat battered, the first round of the pandemic.
A Biden victory with Democrats controlling the Senate could surprise everyone by dramatically changing the political and social landscape of the USA, unleashing a wave of political energy with a domino effect around the world. “Spectacle is the sun that never sets over the Empire of modern passivity”, Debord wrote ex cathedra in 1967. It must have sounded even more portentous in French at the time. Then came the events of 1968. The prodigious outburst of both spectacle and modern activism that 1968 brought suggests Debord is wrong. It is too early to give up and hide under the duvet.
See TheArticle 27/10/2020
“Migrations, more than ever before, will play a pivotal role in the future of our world”. At present, however, migration is affected by the “loss of that sense of responsibility for our brothers and sisters on which every civil society is based”. Europe, for example, seriously risks taking this path. Nonetheless, “aided by its great cultural and religious heritage, it has the means to defend the centrality of the human person and to find the right balance between its twofold moral responsibility to protect the rights of its citizens and to assure assistance and acceptance to migrants”.
Pope Francis Fratelli Tutti (40)
Until now it is fish and subsidies bedevilling our inglorious EU non-membership. But migrants are coming back in our news. They may soon be back in our ferries if Priti Patel has her way. It seems an age since 2016 when the spurious threat of the EU enabling millions of Turks to move to Britain was used to discredit free movement of people. But the burning of Moria refugee camp holding 12,000 people on the island of Lesbos brought the EU’s own internal crisis to a head. How should responsibility for migrants be shared?
Here in the UK, Government, Brexiteers and their tabloid advocates inhabit the echo chamber they created where asylum seekers and undocumented migrants seeking a better life are framed as a bi-product of criminal traffickers, or as mere numbers and migration itself as an ‘existential’ threat . A good year for the Home Office is when migrant numbers drop. A good story for the media in August this year was when 1,500 people in dinghies landed on the Kent coast, providing some colourful footage and a ‘crisis’ headline. Similarly pictures of Moria refugee camp at Mytilene in its grey abandonment and charred ruin, probably torched in despair – another Greek island we won’t be holidaying. But the fire also raised the question why responsibilities for migrants are not being shared amongst EU members.
Ending the free movement of people from the EU into the UK was supposed to solve problems not create them. But the need for workers from abroad with a range of skills has not gone away. The UK faces growing problems staffing social care, a persistent shortage of NHS medical staff, not enough brickies, and a lack of seasonal agricultural labour that has left produce rotting in the fields. Meanwhile Priti Patel as Home Secretary is formulating a harsh national policy against unplanned migration with no apparent concern for the wellbeing of future undocumented arrivals.
Unlike Britain which never had a Christian Democrat Party, much of the EU has been somewhat influenced by Catholic - and Lutheran - values. Amongst the EU’s smaller nations, many would point to the influence of the Irish as leaders in the life of the Commission and Parliament. Amongst the large nations Germany and France have dominated. The million, mostly Syrians, let in by Angela Merkel, a Lutheran pastor’s daughter, are now beginning to contribute to life in Germany. Ursula Van der Leyen, a bilingual French-German speaker, veteran of Angela Merkel’s CDU cabinet, now President of the Commission is an exemplary product of this culture. ‘Saving lives at sea is not optional”, she said in her recent State of the Union address. “And”, making clear her other preoccupation, “those countries who fulfil their legal and moral duties or are more exposed than others must be able to rely on the solidarity of the whole European Union”.
Pope Francis often enters the fray promoting Christian values. Here he is talking to Jesuits about migrants in September 2016: “each of them has a name, a face, and a story, as well as an inalienable right to live in peace and to aspire to a better future for their sons and daughters”. They are “no different”, he said, “than our own family members and friends”. Perhaps it is because Catholics believe the Holy Family left their country as refugees fleeing Herod’s violence that the Church is in a polite stand-off with the fallen angels of governments and their policies towards migrants and refugees. Perhaps it is a simple matter of proclaiming Christian values.
But on migration, the EU Commission is failing to hold the line between concern for the human rights of the individual refugees and migrants against accommodation of the populist concern to keep them out. A concern which seems out of proportion to the actual amount of migration taking place. In 2019 some 4.7% (about 21 million) of the population of the EU were – already - legally resident non-EU nationals. The member states received 2.6 million new arrivals that year. Asylum applications were 698,000, down from their 1.28 million 2015 ‘crisis’ peak. There were only 142,000 illegal border crossings, compared to 1.82 million in 2015-2016. Yet 1,500 arrivals from France to our shores two months ago caused something akin to panic.
Bear in mind that migration retains its corrosive capacity to undermine the European project through arousing nationalist and populist intransigence. Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, has just lost a case taken by the Commission to the European Court of Justice on the detention of refugees on the Serbian-Hungarian border. The Czechs, Poles and Hungarians, accustomed historically to people coming into their countries as brutal and destructive invaders, have pulled up the drawbridge and are unlikely to budge. Their bishops, on the whole, have sympathy with their government’s reluctance to receive and integrate refugees despite contrary direction from the Pope. A fault-line in the EU is widening.
To deal with it, a couple of weeks ago, the Commission of the European Union produced a German-inspired policy proposal for member states, a New Pact on Migration & Asylum. It is a comprehensive document which deals systematically with migration, asylum, integration and border management. Despite protestations of concern for fundamental rights, and the principle of non-refoulement (the forcible return of refugees or asylum seekers to a country where they are liable to persecution), the goal of the proposal is to restore the crumbling cohesion of the EU by reducing migrant numbers.
The New Pact proposes that ‘processing’ at borders is to be made more efficient and speeded up with the aid of an expanded FRONTEX, the EU border and coastguard agency. States that don’t want to welcome refugees are given the option of taking responsibility for their removal from Europe. Proposing ways to increase the number of ‘returns’ (read deportations) is clearly a response to populist pressure. Attempts to warehouse people in third countries, on ferries, distant islands, anywhere they can be detained legally in limbo are set to continue.
The UN declared 2016 the deadliest year for civilian casualties in Afghanistan, 11,418 killed or injured. But deportations from UK, Germany, Greece, Sweden and Norway (with big differences in numbers sent back) rose between 2015 and 2016 from 3,290 to 9,460, many to Afghanistan and conflict zones. The figures do not indicate concern for the plight of returned migrants and failed asylum seekers. In response nine major Europe-wide Christian organisations set out a concise protective set of “Recommendations for Humane Returns Policies in Europe”. No sign of it having made any significant impact on the New Pact document though it must certainly have reached the Commission. Nor any sign in the New Pact’s management model of attention given to increasing opportunities for legal entry except possibly the future creation of a EU agency for asylum. Meanwhile The UK is formulating its own national immigration policy negligent in its provision for the welfare of undocumented arrivals, its inhumanity intermittently breaking cover.
The New Pact now has to pass through the EU structures. It deserves to be mauled in the European Parliament. Scores of reputable international organisations working with refugees have already condemned it. It tries to fulfil one value championed by Popes, that of ‘solidarity’, but solidarity between those privileged to live in the European Union. It ignores the Global Common Good. It is cruel and it won’t work.
See also TheArticle 02/10/20
On 7 October 2016 the Washington Post printed the story of Presidential candidate, Donald Trump, recorded boasting to a TV host about his lewd behaviour with women. The leading lights of the Republican Party went into damage limitation discussions that included the possible dumping of Mr. Trump. According to super-star journalist Bob Woodward, Vice-Presidential candidate Mike Pence let the Republican National Committee know that he would be willing to take Trump’s place. He was up for it. But Trump brazened it out. Four years later America’s Evangelical Christian Vice-President must be wondering if God is having another try at making him President.
Would it be so bad if Pence became the Republican candidate? It depends where you stand in the USA’s culture wars - but there will certainly have been many viewers who will have watched his performance against Kamala Harris last night, and who would have liked what they saw. Pence is in many ways a personification of Middle America, a good Catholic lad, altar boy at St. Columbus Catholic Church in Columbus, Indiana where he attended the parochial school, and one of six children in an Irish-American Democrat-voting family. They weren’t poor but by Washington standards not rich either.
In 1978 aged nineteen, following a not uncommon religious trajectory, Pence was called at a Kentucky evangelical music festival to ‘give his life to Jesus’. During the 1990s he described himself as an evangelical Catholic but began attending the Indianapolis Grace Evangelical Church, one of the mega-churches, with his wife. There is nothing phony about his faith. His support for the full raft of social conservative positions on sexuality is sincere. He follows Billy Graham’s advice, not attending events serving alcohol without his wife and not travelling alone with another woman (an old rule incidentally for Catholic priests).
Folksy Reagan and responsible Bush senior at that time did not seem so vastly different from the Democratic Party. He began his political career in 1988 as a Republican by losing the election for a Congressional seat to the Democrat contender. In 1992 Pence began trying to reach a wide audience in Indiana by anchoring a local radio Conservative talk-show. Like Trump a media profile did the trick. In 2001 he was elected to the Congress to represent Indiana’s 2nd congressional district and moved on to become Governor in 2013.
After 2009 when the Tea Party Republicans emerged as a force, his earlier religious conversion became a more important political asset. He happily hitched his waggon to the Tea Party movement and described himself as “a Christian, conservative and Republican in that order”. During 2015-2016 he backed Texas Senator Ted Cruz, a Southern Baptist with a similar evangelical school background and views, for Presidential candidate and then talked Trump into selecting him as his running mate, quite an achievement.
During Obama’s two terms as President the evangelical caucus within the Republican Party felt themselves discriminated against by ‘anti-religious’ Democrats and the Washington elite. When Pence tried to enact legislation in Indiana enabling businesses to refuse services to gay customers, pressure from several quarters forced him to amend it. Pence’s argument that this was a matter of religious freedom did him no harm amongst conservative evangelical and catholic voters. Neither did his support for school prayers, his attempts to curtail sex education and his advocacy of censorship of pornography. In the words of Richard Land, President of the Southern Evangelical Seminary, Pence was ‘the 24-carat-gold model of what we want in an evangelical politician”.
But what could be expected from a 24-carat gold evangelical politician? The grim expression on his face while Trump rambled on behind podium after podium gave some indication that he has not found the role of abject, loyal Trump defender pleasant. But in public he espouses the full litany of right-wing Republican or Trump positions, from Climate Change denial and support for the gun lobby to opposition to immigration and ‘Obama-care’. He has voted accordingly. Far from dealing with his personal faith in the manner of John F. Kennedy, dissociating public position and policy from private religious belief, the evangelicals around Trump see the White House as the engine room of the United States’ salvation in a permanent conflict between the children of light and the children of darkness.
The religious contribution to the Trump team’s ideological armoury is not negligible. In 1996 Pastor Ralph Drollinger and his wife Danielle founded Capitol Ministries “to create disciples of Jesus Christ in the political arena throughout the world” at the same time insisting: “we stay away from politics and concentrate on the hearts of leaders”. The pastor leads a weekly Bible study in the White House for the President’s entourage. This is the religious world Pence inhabits. Dollinger believes that the USA is in dire straits and doesn’t think it can be turned around ‘if we don’t have almost a benevolent dictator’. Who can he be talking about?
The other deeply worrying aspect of the evangelical influence in the White House is how much Pence – and Pompeo as Secretary of State – conflate their faith assumptions with foreign policy. Israel features both in the Bible and within the critical geo-political problems besetting the Middle East. Christian Zionism brings the two together with Israel at its heart. But relying on biblical verses on Israel such as ‘those who bless her bless us’ as the rationale of US policy shows scant regard both for how to read the Old Testament and how to frame a Middle East policy. Even worse, the role of Israel in the Book of the Apocalypse and in the final war before the Second Coming of Christ it describes encourages potentially catastrophic belligerence towards Iran.
It is surprising that during the radical papacy of Francis Pence may now be signalling a return to the Catholic fold. He had a long, one hour, and apparently warm meeting with the Pope in January this year. Were the ballot box and the ‘Chinese virus’ to bring him to the Presidency, let’s hope that, if a nuclear war between Israel and Iran threatens, he doesn’t believe it’s the end of the world and he will be beamed up to heaven in The Rapture.
And let’s pray that he goes back to the boring-old Catholicism he learnt at St. Columbus Church School where faith and reason go together.
‘We shall be as a shining city on a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.’ Words of the Puritan lawyer, John Winthrop, in 1630 as he sailed to America in the Arbella on his way to becoming Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony.
The city on a hill is not shining brightly today. Both political parties in the USA have been hitting the dimmer-switch on democracy. The level of voter suppression practised by the Republicans has recently amounted to a war on the young, the poor and, especially the non-white, voter. This has included, quite apart from gerrymandering, making registration as difficult as possible, selective cancelling of voter registration, making black citizens access to the polls intimidating and time-consuming and finding creative ways to invalidate likely opponents’ votes. Add to this in 2016 a bombardment of advertisements, influenced by personal data, targeted at African-American votes to deter them from voting. Doubtless to be repeated. Trump is now deploying the full repertoire of voter suppression, and more, to stay in power.
Since 1870, when the Fifteenth Amendment to the US Constitution was passed, denial of the right to vote based on ‘race, colour or conditions of servitude’ has been prohibited. But in many states the Fifteenth Amendment was honoured in an ‘unremitting and ingenious defiance of the constitution’. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1965 Voting Rights Acts which came at the price of much African-American blood-shed and sacrifice during the civil rights movement allowed the Federal Government to regulate electoral practices in 16 states. These were mostly in the Deep South, where fewer than half of the state’s ‘minority voters’ were registered to vote. Any future Jim Crow voter measures would have to pass ‘pre-clearance’, scrutiny by the Federal Government’s Ministry of Justice. Voting rights seemed more secure.
In 2013 and partly by way of reaction to Obama’s Presidency, the case of Shelby (a county in Alabama) v Holder (the Federal Attorney- General) reached the Supreme Court. The court found 5-4 that the protective pre-clearance clause in the 1965 Act did not apply in contemporary circumstances, opening a Pandora’s box of Republican tricks to reduce the number of African-American, young and poor voters, and finding procedural ways not to count their votes when they did vote.
The magnitude of the voter suppression that the Republicans have been trying to perpetrate is not immediately apparent. A kind of noble patriotic omerta reigns. Defeated US politicians do not shout about the illegality or injustice of their opponents’ electoral practices. After he lost his challenge to George W. Bush, out of respect for the Supreme Court, poor Al Gore slipped into the ozone layer of public life without a peep. Condemning unlawful electoral practice is simply not done at least not by Democrat leaders. Trump has no such scruples.
No omerta, though, for Greg Palast, a zany, trilby-hatted ferret of an investigative journalist who has been down several holes and come out with a rabbit the size of Wallace & Gromit’s Were-Rabbit. Palast’s How Trump Stole 2020, a popular- press collage of outrageous cases of electoral malpractice illustrated by Ted Rall’s cartoons, is a treasure trove of hard won data on voter suppression from several states including the key swing states of Ohio, North Carolina and Wisconsin. The Republican enemies of democracy featured are the former Governor of Ohio, Jon Husted, and Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, along with the then Secretary of State for Kansas Kris Kobach.
There are two major ways of removing large numbers of voters from electoral lists. First to claim they have moved out of state or county and the second that they are double-registered. One of the biggest scams was invented by Kobach. He produced a list, spread across states, of 7.2 million potential alleged ‘double-voters’ - people with names common amongst ethnic groups such as Jackson, Brown, Mohamed and Rodriguez. Hence Trump’s repeated tweets about electoral fraud. The list was used for cross-checking names, allegedly recurring in different states, and then purging them on the grounds they had moved out of county or state while remaining on their original register. And this linked further to listing ‘inactive voters’. This was taken as evidence to show that those claimed to have not voted in two previous elections had moved house out of state or county. This contravenes the 1993 National Voting Registration Act which says failure to vote is not a reason to cancel a registered voter.
The list simply ignored differences in middle names, and those purging them failed to follow the recommended procedure of checking against social security numbers. Purges of this kind took place in swing states such as North Carolina.
Palast ferreted out the voter lists used by the Governors and Secretaries of State controlling elections and then had the names and addresses individually checked using accurate and current data held by Amazon and Ebay for deliveries. He discovered that Kobach was disseminating a list that was inaccurate on an epic scale. Following an earlier purge of half a million voters, Ohio’s Husted, during the lead up to the 2016 election, purged a further 426,781 voters. In the case of Georgia 340,134 of these ‘absentee voters’ still lived at their home address in the state or country they were alleged to have left. Those who moved house within their own neighbourhood or country were also struck off (the poor were over four times more likely to move locally compared with the average American). Overall, this eliminated 1 in 7 African-American voters. In early 2020, Georgia purged another 120,000 voters. Wisconsin trying the same game is fortunately running into legal problems. Its Supreme Court is hearing arguments in a lawsuit that would see 129,000 removed from the voter rolls on grounds they’d moved from their registration addresses. The nation’s top experts in address verification, including the official licensee of the US Postal Service, says that a minimum of 39,722 “movers”, mostly African-Americans, had not moved. Trump won Wisconsin last time by 23,000 votes.
The 2002 Federal Help America Vote Act created a ‘provisional ballot’ available to voters whose eligibility to vote is challenged. For example in some states a gun licence is a valid ID while a student’s university ID is not. Under the Help America Act a direct-mail form has to be sent them; the different boxes have to be filled in carefully and returned. This is exactly the sort of communication that’s likely to be binned, mislaid or accidently spoiled. If the document actually reaches the correct recipient and is sent back correctly, there is no guarantee the provisional ballot will be counted, and you can guess in which states they aren’t.
Now COVID has increased the electoral importance of postal ballots; it means voting according to instructions avoiding the many possible technical errors that can cause a vote to be rejected, and getting your vote counted – (eight states require double verification).* You can guess who will negotiate the electoral chicane most easily and who won’t. Given that Trump won 2016 by 74 Electoral College votes while Clinton won the popular vote by 2.9 million, and given Trump’s narrow victory in swing states still subject to voter suppression, Biden has a much higher hill to climb than the opinion polls indicate. And he won’t find a shining light at the top. Rather a President claiming massive voter fraud and determined to cling onto power at any cost.
As for the scale of voter fraud throughout the United States, the total number of documented cases of double voting in 2016 was four.
*For state control of postal balloting see “Letter from America: How to Rig an Election” 15/09/2020
See “The Scandal of US Voter Suppression” TheArticle 25/09/2020