• Mark Mardell

The Elephant in the Room

Updated: Jan 18, 2021

The stands have been built, the capital will just about close down, the National Guard are standing by in case of armed insurrection. The pendulum is about to swing again in a fractious, unhappy USA, still reeling from the depth of division underscored by the Capitol insurrection. Many Americans live in fear of what they call ‘home invasion’ and this was the invasion of the home of both democracy and division. Some argue the shock of what happened has slapped some sense into the body politic.  But real change will mean dealing with the elephant in the room, not just silencing its trump. Around this time four years ago, I was about to leave Washington having completed a mad dash around the States for a series of radio pieces on Obama’s legacy. In the last one, looking to the next President, my pay off read : “Most republicans agree their country is hurtling into the unknown – where they differ is whether the ride will be exhilarating, terrifying or a bit of both.” Those two emotions could now define a critical divide in the party. It was a pity our budget didn’t allow us to stay on for Trump’s inauguration itself, but perhaps it should have done. After miles of travel from snowy Chicago to the isolated “hollers” of mining country in West Virginia perhaps his inauguration speech was all we need to know about our central question. Dark, brooding, full of menace it ripped into and ripped up Obama’s legacy. Above all, into the central historic message of his original election in 2008.  Trump had come to power by widening the chasm in American politics, and was announcing his intent to govern as the divider in chief – a disordered funhouse mirror image of Obama, who entered the White House with the promise of hope and healing. Remember how he first came to national prominence with his speech to the 2004 Democratic Conference. “Not red states and blue states but one United States” is not exactly what he said, but it is the gist of it. Biden’s immense job is turning that assertion into something like reality. His first task is healing – almost literally, as the Covid crisis takes an ever grimmer toll on lives and the economy. But it is also the overriding meta mission, to bring some version of harmony to a United States deliberately provoked and prodded to a new low of partisan division by the outgoing President. A new low? In a country that has witnessed deadly rage on the streets over Vietnam, murders and riots in a battle against civil rights, not to mention that civil war? Perhaps not. But those were about specific policies or issues - this is about a mood, a sense of distrust and dislike of the other side, a disbelief their victory could ever be legitimate. All those issues along with Watergate, Iraq, gun control and many more are in that bubbling, poisonous pot cooked up over many years in the pursuit of power.  The elephant in the room is the party with that particular pachyderm as its symbol - the Republicans. The identification apparently dates back to cartoons in the 1870’s depicting the Republican vote as a ponderous beast, prone to lumber off in exactly the wrong direction, crushing all in its path.  There is an optimistic view that the aftermath of the rampaging, destructive stampede up Capitol Hill has brought the beast to its senses. As the intoxication of the berserker fades, the party will shake its head in disbelief, will abandon aggressive populism and restore its rightful role as a Conservative defender of fiscal prudence and strong national security. There are more than a few straws blowing in this direction. Several leading sycophants have deserted Trump as this very lame duck hobbles grumpily towards the finishing line. There is nothing more ennobling than watching fawning acolytes desert a man not because he has done something outrageous, but because he has lost the power to purge and punish those who condemn the outrage. But there was principle too. Ten Republicans voted for impeachment.  Republican royalty is reasserting itself. Cindy McCain voted for Biden, saying Republicans had lost their way and it was time to “get back on track.” Her dad, although a Presidential candidate was always something of a maverick. So it is much more significant that congresswoman Liz Cheney has rallied against Trump. She’s no liberal - she regards her father, Dick Cheney as a true American hero, while many on the left see him as the evil genius behind the Iraq war. So the fact that she, the third most important Republican in the House, voted to impeach Trump is very significant.  But the idea of the Republicans sobering up and taking the pledge after a jag that ended badly is probably a fantasy. It treats Trump as an inglorious aberration, rather than a logical climax to the party’s decades long journey to the right.  Not just right wing on guns, or abortion, or any other particular policy but on identity and race. The propellent has been primaries – those run off elections to choose candidates, often in ultra-safe seats, where party activists increasingly, inevitably chose the most radical person available.  All this really goes back to America’s original sin – and as Obama points out in his recent book “A Promised Land”  the strain at the heart of American democracy -   the tension between  an aspiration for universal freedom and equality and the grubby political compromises made by a county built on racial enslavement.  For now though, we need to go back to the sixties and the Southern Strategy. The Republicans earned their nickname, the GOP, the grand old party, for being on the right side in the civil war. But Richard Nixon opted to fight for the South when Democrats put their old power base into play and abandoned the Dixiecrats, Southern Democrats, who defended the legal continuation of racism and repression in those former slave States. The Republicans gleefully moved into the gap with coded, and sometimes, uncoded messages, and flipped the USA’s electoral map. It would be wrong to see all this all as racism, pure and undiluted. But it is the core reason America hasn’t gone down the same path as European style social democracies and is the only wealthy country without proper universal health care. The transfer of power and wealth by general taxation is made easier by the psychological perception that ‘we’ are helping ‘people like us’. It’s why Scandinavian countries, socially flat and, until recently ethnically uniform, have embraced generous welfare provisions. The more divided a society the more difficult it gets, and the more political parties can increase support for an anti big government philosophy by exacerbating and highlighting this divide. As Obama writes in his recent memoirs “Accepting that African Americans and other minority groups might need extra help from the government—that their specific hardships could be traced to a brutal history of discrimination rather than immutable characteristics or individual choices—required a level of empathy, of fellow feeling, that many white voters found difficult to muster.” Reagan, despite his genial image, built on the Southern strategy stoking outrage at ‘welfare Queens’ living high on the hog at the expense of hard-working decent taxpayers.  This retoric has rarely failed the Republicans. Before I took up my post as the BBC’s North America editor in the summer of 2009 we took a family road trip down south. Switching on the TV every night in a different hotel rooms I was somewhat perplexed to watch angry town hall meeting after town hall meeting, denouncing Obama. After all, before this I’d been based in Europe where his election was seen as an unalloyed good, a potent symbol of progress and hope. What I was witnessing was the growing seeds of the Tea Party Movement, originally standing for “Taxed Enough Already”, in opposition to the new President’s bailouts, aimed at helping the USA avoid an even more crushing recession. But behind the exaggerated fear that the election of this cautious, moderate man took the States down a route which led to socialism was the feeling that the USA had, in the words of one country song, stopped being ‘what it used to should be, what it ought to be”. As one man told me much later at a South Carolina cattle fair “there’s something about that Obama I don’t like. Can’t put my finger on it”. I think I can.  The Republicans did all they could to block Obama’s agenda, on general principle. The party of ‘no’ became the party of “Hell, NO !”  As I left Washington in 2014 I made a documentary battling the perception that the Tea Party had faded away. It was, I argued because they had won, taken over the Republican party lock, stock and several smoking barrels. This steady drift to a politics based on identity and nostalgia is the root of Trump’s ‘make America great again’ movement. What must worry Joe Biden is not just those willing to riot to make it a reality but that almost 47 % of Americans voted for him.  Paradoxically the number of African Americans and Latinos among them could mean the Republicans have a future based on conservative principles aside from crude nativism. But it will be a battle. If Trump sticks around and tries to stay as the leader of a MAGA movement it will further divide his party and make life even more awkward for more moderate Republicans. But there aren’t many of them and future alternative leaders are still going to want to appeal to the same base and the same base instincts. They may be more sophisticated – I don’t want to tempt fate by suggesting it would be hard to be cruder and nastier – but they are likely to lean heavily on the politics of nostalgia and division. The question isn’t so much whether a leopard can ever change its spots, as whether an elephant can learn to forget. In Kipling’s “Just So’ tale of how the elephant got its trunk, its nose is pulled into that distinctive shape by a crocodile. Undoing the work of years of, not just evolution, but deliberate tugging by nativist alligators will be as hard as shrinking an elephants trunk. It really would mean, to coin a phrase,  draining the swamp, until the alligators no longer have any traction.  

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