It’s tempting to think of the Trump presidency as a perfect storm – something brought on by a terribly timed confluence of political realities, from the inevitable left-to-right pendulum swing against eight years of Obama leadership, to the rise of online echo chambers, to an ingrained hatred of Hillary Clinton.
Yet we might be better served, argues Nick Bryant, the New York correspondent for the BBC, by imagining the climate in which Trump came to power more as a volatile “weather system”– one that had been building and brewing for decades. “It’s wrong to regard his presidency as an accident,” Bryant says. “By 2016, it had become almost historically inescapable.”
Having covered everything from the Monica Lewinsky scandal to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Bryant is well placed to know. His new book, When America Stopped Being Great, makes an argument for “the inevitability of Trump”, based on trend lines both political and economic, technological and cultural – from a Republican Party rooted in anti-Obama fervour, to the many American livelihoods left behind by globalisation, to the narcissism of reality TV and social media.
Nick Bryant at a 2014 interview with Donald Trump. Two years later Trump would be elected president. “It’s wrong to regard his presidency as an accident,” says Bryant.Credit:Courtesy of Nick Bryant
His central thesis was detailed in an augmented excerpt for the cover of Good Weekend magazine – “Mourning in America” – and Bryant discussed the tour de force piece at length this week with Good Weekend editor Katrina Strickland, for the latest episode of Good Weekend Talks. The podcast takes a deep dive into the definitive stories of the day, and also welcomed to the conversation Farrah Tomazin, a senior writer for The Age currently covering politics and culture in the United States.
“I remember before I arrived about five weeks ago, someone saying to me that being in America right now was like experiencing the Spanish flu, the Great Depression and the 1968 revolution all at once, and it does feel a bit like that,” says Tomazin. “It’s been fascinating, if not a little scary at times.”
In a country that has always had its fault lines – racial division, religious animosity, rich versus poor – Tomazin has still been taken aback by the pervading sense of division and unrest. “And then on top of that you’ve got a president who’s stoking some of those divisions, and is so willing to shatter democratic norms, and who seems on so many levels to lack the empathy or even the capacity to steer America out of the current crisis.”
A more conventional president, adds Bryant, would undoubtedly have responded differently to the coronavirus pandemic. Trump instead let his worst traits come to the fore – whether boasting about his TV ratings at the height of the crisis, or the automatic politicisation of anything and everything, most notably wearing a mask in public. “Some people regard [wearing a mask] as ‘an act of liberalism’,” Bryant says. “Donald Trump once described it as an act of political correctness.”
There is, of course, also an element of personal responsibility that comes into play. “Coronavirus has killed more than 163,000 Americans, and yet over this weekend alone you had high-end parties in the Hollywood hills that were packed to the rafters,” says Tomazin. “In South Dakota, 250,000 people gathered for a motorcycle rally, most of whom were blatantly refusing to wear a mask because it’s seen as a political statement.”
The podcast discussion examines everything from Trump doing his best Richard Nixon “law and order” impression, to the arcane vagaries of the Electoral College system. It looks at whether the voters who held their nose at the ballot box in 2016 (and voted for Trump anyway) will do so again, and what the selection of California senator Kamala Harris as Joe Biden’s running mate will mean for this campaign.
“We’re living in an age of negative partisanship, where often people vote for a party not because they like their nominee but because they hate the nominee of the other party,” says Bryant. Joe Biden, he notes, is hard to demonise. “But just because Donald Trump seems to be losing this election, it doesn’t mean necessarily that Joe Biden is winning it. And there’s still a long way to go.”
For the full feature story, see Saturday's Good Weekend, or visit The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and Brisbane Times.
Listen to more episodes by subscribing to Good Weekend Talks wherever you get your podcasts.