Friday may have been cold and rainy in Washington, DC, but in Jamaica, this is the most beautiful time of the year. Fresh out of the rainy season, the island is green and lush, the colours brilliant in the newly-abundant sunshine. With the winter winds from the north chasing away the damp heat, the air is cool and pleasant. It is a wonderful time to sit in your living room with all the doors and windows open to let the breeze blow through.
That’s where I was, eight years ago, on US inauguration day. We’d closed the offices of the think tank I ran and the staff had gathered at my house to watch President Obama being sworn in. The inauguration of the first black president had an obvious resonance in Jamaica, where many of us doubted America would ever be able to make this break with its past. November 2008’s election-night had been a time of endless phone calls as old friends reconnected, joyful tears choking the conversations. I spent hours on the telephone taking calls from Jamaican radio hosts, who wanted to keep chewing over this moment and assess its significance.
How distant that all seemed on Friday, as I sat in a flat in cold London and watched the inauguration of President Trump. As I listened to his address, and the dark picture it painted of a dystopian, windswept America ravage by ‘carnage,’ all I could think was: In a democracy, you get the government you deserve.
As incomprehensible as the Trump phenomenon is to most of us, surf the twittersphere and you’ll find many American who really do see him as their hero and saviour. Some of them are the misogynistic, racist ‘deplorables’ we progressives have felt entitled to turn into the butts of late-night comedy. But you don’t have to dig deep into the tweets to start finding good, decent people who simply feel abandoned, or overwhelmed by a world over which they’ve lost any semblance of control. For them, Mr. Trump has restored their sense of dignity.
As I have written before, many Americans do have a right to feel the system has abandoned them, because it has. The ‘Keynesian contract’ that long bound workers to owners was dismantled, leaving ordinary people to to face the cold winds of globalisation. In a transformation effected by the ‘new’ left, a rising professional class married itself to a new global oligarchy – what came to be known as ‘Davos man.’
Much as I hate to say it, given my great admiration for the man and all he represents, Barack Obama has to take his share of the blame for this. Just before inauguration day, the Jamaica Gleaner, for which I long served as foreign affairs columnist and to which I still occasionally contribute, asked me to prepare a series of articles on the transition. Although President Obama brought great dignity to the White House and also began America’s overdue transition to a world in which its influence will continue to wane, nevertheless, he threw his lot in with the Wall Street establishment as soon as he entered the Oval Office.
It’s not just Trump supporters who were angered by this. So too did the millions who turned out for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries. But despite the overwhelming evidence that the country was in an insurgent mood, Mr. Obama backed the Clintonian establishment, producing a candidate who promised more of the same. That the Democratic Party leadership had become so tone-deaf, though, reflected in part Mr. Obama’s neglect of his party during his time in office. The result is that a majority of Americans now have a President they dislike, but no party vehicle to express it. It will take years of rebuilding for the Democrats to rectify this.
Thus, Mr. Trump emerges as something of a Gestalt drawing, appearing as two entirely different people, depending on who is listening. That reflects how far apart the vantage-points of the professional and working classes have grown. America deserved better leadership than it got, and now it will get Mr. Trump for its sins.
However, the other thing which came to mind as I watched his speech was simply, Good luck. As I wrote in the final of my series in today’s Gleaner, Mr. Trump has raised a set of expectations among his followers that he will not be able to meet. I have argued before that Trumponomics is almost certainly destined to fail. It may appear to succeed for a couple of years, but then set America up for a crash.
The American left would use this time wisely to quietly return to the hustings and rebuild the party, and crafting a new message that appeals to all Americans, and not just the constituencies of the Democratic Party. Mr. Trump will fail. But that means there will be a big mess to clean up, or there will really will be carnage.