Hard times in the land of plenty

Most people know someone a bit like Donald Trump. The only unusual thing about him is the huge amount of money that he inherited. He parades his faults shamelessly. I would be reluctant to talk to him at a party, let alone vote for him. The polls suggest that many people gave him their vote with a caveat of disapproval. I do not believe that he has persuaded millions of Americans to turn their backs on tolerance, to reject democracy in favour of a tyrannical regime of US nationalism. It is not credible that large numbers of Americans twice voted for the dignified, articulate but flawed Barack Obama, and then decided that what they really wanted as President was an obnoxious, dictatorial plutocrat. Trump has not changed anything. He has exploited something.

I think someone like Trump might have been elected, if they had stood, at any point in my lifetime. I do not think that he has gained power by creating a popular movement. I think that he has tapped into deep dark feelings that have existed in America for a very long time, and then, on top of that, he has been assisted by some unusually good luck. Although I expect him to support his regime by Twitter control of a mob rather than by constitutional means, neither he nor his mob are unstoppable.

There is still a large US majority for decency. Americans revere their Constitution more than they do their politicians. The authors of the Constitution were well aware of the need to prevent the rise of a tyrant. They had read Plato’s Republic, with its warnings about the dangers of populism. The present situation is serious but not hopeless, because Trump will be hampered by American respect for the Constitution. He does not ride on a massive wave of newly formed fascist sentiment.

Three of my favourite American songs reflect different aspects of the nation’s anger:

1. Uranium Miners’ Boogie by Riley Walker and his Rockin-R-Rangers

Trump’s rhetoric evokes an America that was once great, an imagined America of his childhood seen through the eyes of the painter Edward Hopper.

Uranium Miners’ Boogie is an authentic blue-collar artefact from that time. I discovered it whilst Googling the modern singer-songwriter Ryley Walker. The record was a regional hit when it was released on Walker’s own Atomic record label in Utah in 1954. The label was yellow to reflect the colour of yellowcake uranium. Evidently it was the high point of Riley Walker’s musical career. He quit the music business in 1958 and drove trucks until 1984. He died in 2001.

The record remained popular in the uranium-mining region of Utah for many years. Like a lot of great folk music, it celebrates the lives and work of its intended audience:

Way out in the state of Utah, Grand County and San Juan

They dig the yellow stuff that makes the atom bomb

Uranium miners’ boogie, uranium miners’ boogie

It’s uranium miners’ boogie, they’re dig digging all day long

The safe and secure industrial America described by Riley Walker was a chimera, its confident optimism oblivious to the ominous implications of the line ‘They dig the yellow stuff that makes the atom bomb’. The medical consequences of their work and the military consequences for the world were overlooked because the atom bomb was the heroic technology that had ended the Pacific War. That happy and blinkered state could not and did not persist. It depended on a naiveté that cannot return.

2. Hard Times In The Land Of Plenty by Omar and The Howlers

The industrial rust belt is not a new phenomenon, and it was prefigured by the rural Dust Bowl of the 1930s. This song from 1987 articulated American blue-collar anger over inequality during Ronald Regan’s Presidency. Omar and the Howlers are a Texan band who I saw when they were touring to support the release of this record. They were supporting another, much more famous, band from Austin, the Fabulous Thunderbirds. I had never heard of them before that gig, and I was really impressed. I described them at the time as being like Credence Clearwater Revival fronted by Wolfman Jack. They still tour occasionally. Judging by interviews that I have read, I am not certain that Omar Dykes would necessarily regard himself as a liberal.

The taxman says you gotta pay more money.

When you’re already broke, you know that just ain’t funny.

You gotta rob Peter to pay back Paul

Used to stand up straight, but now you got to crawl.

Hard times in the land of plenty.

Some got it all and the rest ain’t got any.

3. Strange Fruit by Billie Holliday

This song is about racism, but it also touches on political persecution. It was written in 1937 by Abel Meeropol, a New York teacher turned songwriter. After fellow Communists Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for espionage in 1953, Meeropol and his wife adopted their two sons.

Meeropol wrote the song in reaction to the famous and awful photograph of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in 1930. The song has been recorded countless times, but Billie Holliday recorded the definitive version. Racism and xenophobia are threads in American life that just do not go away. Murders that have the distinctive characteristics of lynchings continue to occur in the USA today. The modern Black Lives Matter movement highlights killings of Black people by police.

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,

Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Dark and troubling threads of insecurity and angry bigotry are always there in America. They are not new. They can be addressed and the rise of the far right can be halted. It just requires the rest of us, in America and elsewhere, to speak out and to act.

The fight back started even as the Inauguration took place. It is heartening that Trump has unwittingly mobilised a huge section of the American public, especially women, who find his attitudes completely unacceptable. Their mobilisation has been supported by demonstrations led by women across the world. There is plenty to be hopeful about in the face of the gathering clouds.

Perhaps equally important, Trump has immediately betrayed his vulnerability through his rage at reports of a low turnout for his inauguration. His defensive response included a strange suggestion that God might have kept the rain at bay just long enough to let him speak.

Trump’s brittleness makes him weak. It will also make him dangerous if he ever acquires the power of a Stalin. He has threatened reprisals against journalists who displease him. The press may not be popular, but they are vital. The last American tyrant-in-the-making, Richard Nixon, was brought down by a newspaper.

We have to show some discipline and solidarity. We are that body of opinion that believes in social justice and equality, and values personal integrity above personal power. We include many US Republicans and British Tories, as well as parts of the liberal left in both countries. We can win by democratic means, but we have to speak out and organise. The marches are a start, but we have to be in this for the long haul.