Founded on a lie: Trump’s debt to George Washington

The finger of history: Donald Trump

Every nation needs its foundation myths. They are a way of communicating core values to succeeding generations.

The story of George Washington and his father’s cherry tree is revered in the United States. As the story goes, the six-year-old future president was given a hatchet as a present by his father.

Young George promptly took the axe to his father’s favourite cherry tree. When asked what had happened, George said: “I cannot tell a lie, I did cut it with my hatchet.” Rather than beat the boy, his father hugged him and told him that telling the truth was worth more than a mighty forest.

As the world prepares itself to witness the inauguration of Donald Trump as 45th President, we would do well to ponder the importance we place on truth in the modern age.

Trump plays fast and loose with it.

Some believe the grandstanding showman will present a new face to the world when he swears the oath of office next week.

Leopards don’t change their spots. As president-elect, Trump has behaved no differently to the obnoxious foul-mouthed carpet-bagger he was on the campaign. He will be the same in the Oval Office.

This will be a government driven by whim. Yes most politicians are self-seeking. But few take it to the level of Mr Trump.

Sigmund Freud, the celebrated psychoanalyst, believed our minds were controlled by three forces. The ego, the super ego and the id.

The id is untamed and instinctive, it is the wild child that sees the world only through its own eyes; the super ego is driven by convention and rules, it is the voice of our parents telling us to go to the naughty step. The ego is the bit that tries to find a course between the two extremes.

Mr Trump’s personality transcends ego and super ego.

Anyone who has spent time with a three-year-old child will recognize the signs of arrested development evidenced by the president-elect’s stream of invective on twitter, his abuse of vulnerable individuals who cross him, and his knee-jerk responses to perceived slights.

In his totemic Gettysberg Address, Abraham Lincoln talked about “government of the people, by the people, for the people” and he promised that it “would not perish from the earth”.

This weekend we stand on a precipice. The people have handed the keys of the free world to a man clearly unfit to hold office.

Trump’s term will be one of government by the id, for the id. The rest of us will not get a look-in.

The people who elected him will come to regret their ill-judged vote. But in the meantime, the American political system will need to find a way of minimizing his impact, and the world will have to work round him until the voters come to their senses and elect a president fit for office.

As for George Washington and his hatchet … well, the story was made up by his biographer Mason Locke Weems who knew what his public, hungry for information about Washington, wanted to read.

If anything was an omen of what was to come, the cherry tree myth (for myth it is) prefigured the post-truth society by a couple of centuries.

***

Apparently I once told Martin McGuinness that he looked cute. He had phoned the Irish News to complain that a picture – used to illustrate a story about him – was deliberately chosen to make him look like an idiot.

It is a common complaint of politicians, and truth be told journalists sometimes take pleasure in using a particularly unflattering photograph.

Telling him he looked cute in the picture was a feeble excuse, and disrespectful. (Disrespect is another journalistic trait.) And I apologize now. Given this was the early nineties, and the job he had then, it was also somewhat fool-hardly on my part. The then editor thought I was both brave and stupid.

Whatever you think of Mr McGuinness’s politics and his past, there can be no question that he has served the people of this island – nationalist and unionist – well. He was a distinguished Minister for Education, and he has performed the role of deputy First Minister to the best of his ability in very difficult circumstances.

Nationalists are well used to slights. But in refusing to work with him, the DUP has done its own people and its country an enormous disservice. So much could have been achieved with good will. Ten years on, all the DUP has to show for its tenure is a pile of ash.

The article first appeared in The Irish News on January 13 2017

It’s farewell to the Year of the Celebrity Cull

 

Death where is thy sting: Carrie Fisher

The New Year is something I hate with every fibre of my body. While most of the world is celebrating, I prefer to take to my bed with a hot water bottle.

One of my least cherished memories of my teenage years is being unwillingly dragged from my bed by my father, just past midnight on January 1, and forced to join in a rendition of Auld Lang Syne.

I’ve never much liked Robert Burns, and this particular ditty is a song I would happily consign to Room 101.

I don’t know whether my intense dislike of this hedonistic festival is down to a desire to hold on to the past, or a refusal to embrace the future. It may be both.

Now well into middle age, I have too much of the former and not enough of the latter.

New years mean uncertainty, and somewhere inside this moderately intelligent being, there’s a catastrophist struggling to get out – a little mad merchant of doom capable of believing the crackpots who claim the end of the world is nigh.

The world was supposed to end last July – the 29th to be exact – when End Time Prophesies (a YouTube channel dedicated to doom and gloom) claimed a megaquake would destroy the planet.

If it did, I didn’t notice. But maybe I just wasn’t paying attention.

***

Democracy is a funny thing. It is now clear that even if she lost the election, Hillary Clinton won the vote. She ended up almost three million votes ahead of Donald Trump.

If 100,000 votes had gone the other way in just three US states, she would have won. Yet it is the Twitter-mad billionaire who will be inaugurated President of the United States next month.

Now if ever there was reason to believe the end of the world is nigh, this is it. In office many leaders go mad. He has a head start. Trump has already hacked off the Chinese, the Mexicans and most of Nato.

Vladimir Putin, a Cold War throwback, appears to be a soul-mate. I suspect Trump will do a deal with Putin to carve up the globe, replacing embassies with a string of casinos built by Trump and run by Russian oligarchs.

My nerves are steadied only by the memory that we have been here before.

Ronald Reagan was once seen as a threat to global stability. He is now regarded as one of the finest presidents in US history (largely I suspect because he believed in doing as little as possible.

While there were scandals, not least the Iran-Contra affair – the illicit support of rebels in Nicaragua, it is also the case that the tyranny of communist dictatorship was reversed during his watch.

Marx (who has a lot to answer for) once observed that history repeats itself, once as tragedy, twice as farce. The farce is about to begin.

****

I’m glad I am not a celebrity. If it becomes known for anything, 2016 will be known as the Year of the Celebrity Cull.

As I write, the world has moved on from grieving George Michael. I have never watched Star Wars, but I warmed to Carrie Fisher when she appeared on the Graham Norton show earlier this month.

A heart attack carried her off on the way back to the States. She was a mere 60 years old. Then her mother Debbie Reynolds followed suit. Like Michael, Fisher had been through the mill. (There is always a price to pay for celebrity.)

I am sure celebrities have died in previous years. But this is the year it became fashionable: David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, the Artist formerly known as Prince, Gene Wilder, Alan Rickman, Jean Alexander, Muhammad Ali, Andrew Sachs, Victoria Wood and Ronnie Corbett to name just a few.

The tear I shed was for Liz Smith, nana in the Royale Family (the creation of Caroline Aherne who also died this year). Nana was not a celebrity but the embodiment of the generation that made me and mine: hard-working, working class women who put others before themselves.

***

One thing I can confidently predict for the new year is that the Renewable Heat Initiative at Stormont will continue to be a feature in 2017. The 108 Assembly members will continue to produce copious supplies of hot air at a cost of more than £40 million in the coming year. Most of it will disappear into Ian Paisley’s mythical ‘blue skies of Ulster’.

***

Whatever 2017 brings, let’s hope we survive it. Happy or crappy, have a good one.

  • This article first appeared in The Irish News on 30 December 2016

Is Europe ready for the Great British Cake-Off?

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Theresa May: the Marie Antoinette of Brexit

Pity Marie Antoinette. She was born to greatness, but she has gone down in history as a spoilt woman indifferent to the struggles of her people.

Utter the phrase “let them eat cake”, and Marie Antoinette springs immediately to mind. The original is: “Qui’ls mengent de la brioche.”

Brioche is what they eat in Mayfair instead of a white sliced loaf.

It is one of the inconveniences of history that stories like this often don’t stand up to scrutiny. It is unlikely the French queen uttered the phrase.

Long before her silken shoes touched French soil, the philosopher Rousseau had already attributed the saying to another princess.

Who said the post-truth society is a modern invention?

There is another story that suggests she was merely reminding people of an existing law. If there was no bread for the poor, bakers had to provide brioche at the same price. Try that out in Marks and Spencer if they run out of Nutty Crust, and see how far you get.

As you can see, European politics and cake go back a long way.

The British, being more pragmatic than French consorts, had a different perspective on cake. For much of the past 500 years the advice has been: “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.”

Somehow or other, in recent months the phrase has been turned on its head. In a manner emblematic of the debate over Britain’s place in Europe, the negative has conveniently been dropped.

It is now government policy that you can have your cake and eat it. All round Whitehall, ministers are stuffing their faces with Mr Kipling’s Bakewells, fondant fancies and Battenbergs.

I grew up in a world where there were consequences. We don’t seem to live in that world anymore.

We were promised there would be no negative consequences of a vote to leave European: we were promised millions for the NHS; we were promised an end to low-pay jobs; we were promised we would be safer and more secure.

And now we have been promised all the cake we can eat.

This level of hubris has not gone unnoticed in Europe. They have made it clear you cannot enjoy the benefits of the club while paying reduced fees.

Every mention of having cake and eating it, stiffens the resolve of Europe to drive a hard bargain when Britain finally triggers Article 50.

I always thought Rule One of any negotiation is don’t antagonize your opponent. Rule 2 urges you to go for win-win.

But Britain does not think the rules apply to it. Vaingloriously clinging to its imperial past, Britain believes it is ‘too big to fail’. We’ve all heard the clap-trap: ‘Europe needs us more than we need it”; “We can enjoy the benefits of a free market without free movement of peoples”; “The world will beat a path to our door.”

Rule Britannia, Britannia waives the rules.

As Theresa May learned to her cost in India, the world has moved on. India was unimpressed by the prospect of closer economic ties to Britain. The economic sun is setting on the west.

The future belongs to India, to China and, if it gets its act together, to Africa. Protectionist America under Trump will only hasten the decline.

Mrs May presents herself as reason personified. But the truth is that she has yielded to the lunatic right, championing the Royal Prerogative over the primacy of parliamentary democracy.

With the breathtaking arrogance we have come to expect from this unelected government, this week Mrs May held two fingers up again to her European allies during a carpet-bagging trip around despotic regimes in the Middle East.

Speaking in Bahrain – a state which makes Cuba under Castro look like a model of democratic rectitude – Mrs May dismissed talk of hard and soft Brexit. “What we should be looking for is a red, white and blue Brexit.”

As a citizen of this disunited kingdom, I know I have a vested interest in there being a successful negotiation that minimizes the damage to the economy.

Yet there is something in me which hopes that Europe makes Britain pay for its arrogance, its hubris and its act of political selfishness.

The UK has holed itself below the waterline. Am I prepared to go down with the ship? I might be, just to see the smug smile wiped off the face of the captain and her crew as they sink below the waves.

Now pass me the fruit cake – no, not Boris you fool.

  • A version of this article appeared in The Irish News on 9 December 2016

The material world moves online

Shoppers reach for television sets as they compete to purchase retail items on Black Friday at a store in Sao Paulo, Brazil, November 24, 2016. REUTERS/Nacho Doce

Any colour as long as it’s black

My son does not do shopping. The sight of a shopping centre is enough to send him into a slough of despond and, to be fair, there’s not much there to keep him occupied.

He has grown out of toy shops, his obsession with Game has gone now that games software has moved online, and he doesn’t do fashion. Like my late father, he doesn’t see the point in having multiples of the same thing. One T-shirt and pair of jeans is enough for any man.

On the face of it, this is a welcome rejection of materialism. But the world has changed – and nowhere more than retail. Away from the high street, there’s a whole new world of consumerism along the superhighway. And that’s were he shops.

On Black Friday, the digital high street comes into its own. Why have a fist-fight in Tesco for a shoddy mass-produced television set, when you can buy one online.

On the web you can spend money without being aware of it. You don’t even have to pull your wallet out of your pocket. One-click shopping liberates cash from your account at the push of a button.

My heir, Mr Convenience, has adapted to this new world with ease. His computer – built from parts delivered by white van man – is powerful enough to take a rocket to the other end of the solar system. Captain Kirk would be envious of the kit.

I am old-fashioned enough to still think Amazon is a river running through rainforests, and to envisage Amazonians as a ruthless band of female warriors.

But times have moved on. It is the source of steady stream of brown paper packages rivering through our letterbox: computer parts; exotic Japanese manga; and stuff that passes these days for entertainment – hi-tech toys and electronics.

Being of a certain age, and unsympathetic to the virtual world, I usually raise an eyebrow and grunt indifferently when a package arrives for him.

When a particularly large parcel arrives I give off about the material world. (Though truth be told, hypocritical me is just as materialistic – it’s just that my materialism tends to come in the form of books, black vinyl and Mozart operas on DVD.)

My son has developed a way of ignoring me: it’s the noise-cancelling headphones that screen me out. If only I’d had them when I was his age.

I could have done with a set when my dad was delivering his weekly Saturday night, post-pub, lecture.

About a month ago a particularly large box arrived. It sat in the hall until he came home from college. I ignored it the way a cartoon character ignores a ticking bomb.

Like many modern families we live in our own little bubbles: my daughter in Facebook-land, my wife absorbed in monster TV franchises on her tablet, and my son in that no-go area known a teenager’s bedroom.

Only I live in the real world (or so I claim). So it took time for news to reach me that the box contained a state-of-the-art virtual reality headset – not one of those £10 jobs you put your phone in.

It’s reassuring to know that his student loan is going to good use. My frugal wife was apoplectic. I took the news in my stride. He is studying applied computing after all, so it could be regarded as a legitimate expense.

But my inner snob surfaced. Disdainfully I resisted the temptation to go and look at it.

Last weekend I relented and tried the damn thing on. His home ‘screen’ opens in a bedroom by Van Vogh – you want walk around it. I did not know my son was into the impressionists.

Then he took me to the outer edge of the earth to witness a solar eclipse, I was able to fly over Africa, and then drop into the heart of Florence beside the Duomo, rendered in 3D. I could walk to the café where we had cappuccino on the last evening of our visit there in July.

And then we headed to the shores of Lough Neagh – Lurgan is not yet rendered in 3D (was it ever?), but I was able to hover over Kilwilkie, and see the North Circular Road stretch round to the high school.

When I caught sight of St Colman’s cemetery where my parents are buried, I was home again, with a flood of memories – happy and sad – and my eyes welling up.

There’s nothing virtual in that: just a new way to tap into precious memories. Black Friday. Where’s the Amazon link to those headsets?

  • The article first appeared in The Irish News on November 25 2016

Trump’s hostile takeover of America succeeds

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President-elect Trump routs the liberal establishment

White van man is on the march. Trump’s victory in the United States presidential race is a victory for disaffected white men – opinionated, racist misogynists – who have decided to give the establishment a kicking.

One thing is for sure, 2016 will go down in history as a watershed year. First Brexit and now Trump, reactionary forces are in the ascendant. The liberal consensus – that has dominated post-war politics – is broken.

Mrs Clinton was a flawed candidate. She carried baggage, was too close to corporate America and failed to connect with the voters. But she was the standard-bearer for liberal values and should have won. Her victory would have secured President Obama’s legacy – so he is a big loser too.

The FBI did Clinton no favours, but its intervention over her private emails only confirmed unease already there.

Like Brexit, the campaign bombed in part because those who had most to lose did not get out and vote. The working class, African Americans, millennials and women failed to give Clinton the backing she needed, and deserved.

But this was not the only reason for Trump’s triumph. He successfully mobilised voters who previously did not function as a group. Older white males gravitated to him. With his leering and hubristic bar-room campaign, he became their standard bearer.

There have been suggestions that Trump the president will be different from Trump the candidate.

But there is no reason to believe that this leopard, who scapegoated vulnerable groups to win the White House, will change his spots. Hubris, and his enormous ego, will always rise to the surface. Trump cannot help himself, he behaves like the spoilt reality TV celebrity he is.

He put on a show to win the White House; and he will ensure the show goes on. Trump will govern using the script of The Apprentice.

America has made its choice, and has a right to pick who it wants as president – even a complete amateur who has never been tested by high office. But this election is not just about America. What happens in the only remaining superpower resonates around the globe.

The world is now a more dangerous place. Volatility is the enemy of peace and security; and the leadership of the free world will soon be in the hands of an unstable demagogue.

And Trump has his doppelgänger. In Russia’s President Putin, the leadership of the unfree world is also controlled by a man who cannot be trusted – a man who believes self-preservation is the same as the national interest.

So where from here? It’s hard to see how the genie can be put back in the bottle.

Those who voted Trump and Brexit imagine there are simple solutions to complex problems. But there are no easy answers, it will take time for that to sink in. Trump will disappoint.

In the meantime, the left must find its voice again. It must find a way of reconnecting with the electorate. And it must find a champion who has a vision of a world that is positive and inclusive.

The hard right has successfully crafted a narrative that presents liberals as an out-of-touch elite. It has demonised migrants. And it has tapped into the nasty underbelly of petty nationalism.

The last time these forces were abroad, Adolf Hitler rose to power.

Trump is no Hitler. But as the rising tide of violent racism in post-Brexit Britain has demonstrated, there are risks that the demons that destroyed Weimar Germany will be unleashed. 

I hope I am wrong. But on this morning after the night before, it is difficult to dispel pessimism.

President Obama was elected with “Hope” as his one-word slogan. With Donald Trump’s election, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here,” has become the catchphrase of modern America.