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