You might have noticed that there was an election in the USA last week and if you’re anything like my Dad then I suspect you’re “bloody sick of hearing about it.”
And yet… when I look on Facebook, that great national conversation where we either have raging arguments about politics or post pictures of our dinner, it seems that you’re not sick of it at all because you’re still banging on about Trump.
Due to the length of US presidential campaigns we probably get more hours of coverage about them than we do about our own general election campaigns. No other country’s candidates are examined in such detail, to the extent that we end up knowing the names of their families, but we really roll out the news programmes’ red carpet for the US. Why?
I think at this point I should show my hand. While I didn’t spend sleepless nights praying for Hillary Clinton to win, I really wanted Donald Trump to lose. He seems a particularly venal character, utterly charmless and with attitudes towards women that most of us hoped had died out at around the same time as the combover hairstyle. He’s still burning a candle for both.
So why does it matter to us who wins? Beyond the obvious fact that America is the major economic and military power on the planet, why should we care who sits in the Oval Office? Maybe you don’t, but I do and I think the reason is important.
America is a country beset by problems that go back centuries. It was built with horrific materials – a genocide committed against the indigenous people by European settlers and a foul exploitation of the lives of other human beings in the form of slavery. The legacy of both these things still haunt the country and will continue to do so for generations yet. There is no denying the violence of its beginnings and that poison only slowly fades in the national bloodstream, revealing itself still in murder rates and crime statistics or in a willingness to use force to solve a problem when other means may have worked as well.
But America is not just the violence of its begetting. It is the dream, as yet ungrasped, of what it could be. It is the lofty goals set for the country by its founding fathers that mark it out as special.
The constitution of America was a radical document at the time of its publication and remains so now. Drawing upon the work of European thinkers, and owing an enormous amount to an Englishman, one of its main architects and one of my heroes, Thomas Paine, it focuses on enshrining individual rights and locks in several checks and balances to keep the various arms of government independent of each other, preventing an abuse of power. Its first three words reveal the source from which it springs – “we the people”.
This is a document not born of kings or warlords but of the citizen. It is the ultimate expression of the enlightenment that had begun to take root in Europe and would mark out America as a place of asylum – a place where people would be free to hold any belief and be safe from persecution based on prejudice against that belief. It would make America the beacon of light that called all those who needed shelter from tyranny to its shores, a true place of asylum. In the words of Paine, that still echo down the ages, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” The founding fathers were deliberately creating a sanctuary, something that makes much of what Trump has said on the campaign trail so very un-American.
And so its struggles must be measured against its ideals. If it’s true that American foreign policy has been the greatest tragedy since the Second World War, it is also true that America has the unique power to be the greatest force for good in the world. To some extent it is, and always will be, our last great hope. We should never cease calling her to account when she fails to live up to her stated principles but we should always wish her well for she has the capacity to be the best of us.
At heart, for me, America is less a country and more an idea, a concept to be aspired towards. It is the country of Paine’s imagining – rid of Europe’s monarchies and endless wars, its religious persecutions and its tired superstitions. A new world of science, logic and respect for individualism while at the same time believing in the pursuit of the common good. That the soon-to-be keeper of the flame seems peculiarly unfit for the task should trouble us only as much as we remember that his power will pass, like all things, and during its fleeting hold will be limited by robust laws and all his personal crusades will be held in place by those checks and balances so brilliantly conceived over two centuries ago.
No writer captured this America, this dream, earlier or better than Fitzgerald, and as we worry about Trump’s stability I turn to Fitzgerald for reassurance: “The best of America was the best of the world…France was a land, England was a people, but America, having about it still that quality of the idea, was harder to utter…It was a willingness of the heart.”
For all our sakes, we should hope for an America that grows stronger both in confidence and a renewed belief in its founding values.