Letter from America: The Donald Trump Phenomenon / London Revisited
By David Fedo
The interminable American Presidential campaign, with its debates, caucuses and primaries, started many months ago, but except for the as-yet-tepid rivalry in the Democratic Party between favourite Hillary Clinton and long-time Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, the only race really worth watching is that of the controversial real estate mogul Donald Trump running against the other dozen or so feckless Republicans. (The actual final election, by the way, isn't happening until November.)
As most of the world likely knows, Trump, now 69 years old, is a millionaire many times over, the result of his vast commercial real estate investments and holdings, including hotels, casinos and golf courses. He was also the obnoxious host behind TV's popular but wretched 'The Apprentice'. Trump's father, Frederick, also in real estate, gave his precocious and headstrong son a head start in the business and, after graduation from the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania, Trump was soon on the road to becoming a genuine and mostly overbearing tycoon.
On the campaign trail, Trump – he of the blond bouffant – is given to making outrageous comments on everything from President Obama, the nuclear deal with Iran, the Affordable Health Care Act, immigrants in general, and Muslims and Mexicans in specific – and, as David M. Shribman puts it in The Boston Globe (January 3, 2011), on "the bodily fluids of women". Shribman adds that this is "only just for starters. His tirades would be almost laughable if he did not seem to have won the hearts (not apparently the minds) of many Americans."
So what's going on here? Has the country come unglued?
David Frum, in his thoughtful article called 'The Great Republican Revolt' (published in The Atlantic magazine for January–February 2016), has a reasoned answer to the above questions:
Trump has indeed been riding high in the polls, but of course he will still need to prove his strength in the caucuses and primaries which start this February. Still, not everyone is now buying his blather or his schtick.
In a blistering op-ed piece called 'Why I Will Never Vote for Donald Trump', published in the New York Times (January 14, 2016), Peter Wehner, a long-time Republican apparatchik, begins by asserting that Trump "would be the most unqualified president in America." Wehner complains that Trump "has repeatedly revealed his ignorance on basic matters of national interest," including "the three ways the United States is capable of firing nuclear weapons (by land, sea and air)." Trump, writes Wehner, "has no desire to acquaint himself with most issues, let alone master them." His "pronouncements and promises," says Wehner, "are nativistic pipe dreams and public relations stunts."
Among many others, Wehner cites Trump's "erratic, inconsistent and unprincipled" temperament as "even more disqualifying" for his seeking the Presidency. His "legendary narcissism," according to Wehner, "would be comical were it not dangerous in someone seeking the nation's highest office." Yet in mid-January, heading into the Iowa caucuses and then the New Hampshire primary, Trump maintained top or near-top readings in the polls. Somehow, his buffoonery has attracted strong support from prospective voters who believe that his mantra – "Let's make America great again" – is more than just empty words. Go figure.
Trump is a very wealthy man, but he has never before run for political office. His lack of knowledge about how the US government functions, let alone his insufficient understanding of the politics which undergird it, are glaring – even painful – to observe. Thus for example, when he insists that he will build a wall restricting Mexicans from crossing the US southern border – and get the Mexican government to pay for it! – he is naive to the point of incredulity. So is his professed desire not to permit Muslims to enter the country. Like some of the other Republican Presidential candidates – especially Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, his closest current competitors – there is a clear xenophobic undercurrent to Trump's bombast. That, and with his (and their) refusal to call for the allowance of Syrian refugees into the US, there is a kind of mean-spiritedness as well.
President Obama, in his final State of the Union address to Congress on January 12, deplored this hostility: "When politicians insult Muslims," he declared, "whether abroad or our fellow citizens, when a mosque is vandalised, or a kid is called names, that doesn't make us safer. That's just not telling it like it is. It's just wrong."
But there is also another plausible reason given for what Kevin Mahuken (in the January 6 New York Daily News) calls Trump's "gravity-defying candidacy". Americans, Mahuken writes, do not know "the fundamental concepts of their history and political system." The so-called "Nation's Report Card" for American history and civics reports that "A pathetic 23 percent of 8th graders scored at or above proficiency in civics, and only 18 percent did so in American history." The poor scores do not stop there. Mehuken continues: "If you were taught to revere the First Amendment and its bedrock guarantee of religious liberty, you would condemn the suggestion that we might have to ban Muslims from entering the country."
Trump has appeal because Americans are often known to demand simple answers to complex questions. (Think of President George W. Bush and Iraq.) And if many Americans lack the intellectual grittiness (or patience) to work through the complexity of serious challenges, like threats from ISIS, racism, and economic inequality in the homeland, this makes Trump's popularity among his followers less mysterious.
Will Trump win the Republican nomination this summer, and go on to face Clinton or Sanders in the November general election? Or will he fall by the wayside, a figure more akin to the American circus showman P.T. Barnum (as he has been termed by the American actor Samuel L. Jackson)? At this point, with months to go, the Donald Trump Phenomenon is still too uncertain to call.
The 18th-century English polymath, dictionary compiler, and wide-ranging literary critic Samuel Johnson once famously insisted to his biographer James Boswell that, "No Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford."
Johnson's assertion still – more or less – holds, as I discovered once again late this past autumn on a trip that combined both pleasure and business. There are still some unavoidable shortcomings to London, including weather that is often cold and rainy, but it's amazing to me that, well over 200 years after Johnson's passing, London remains one of the most interesting – and civilised – great cities on the planet.
What makes it so – a place so alive that it subdues the best of such diverse cities as New York, Berlin and Shanghai?
Part of the answer is in the uniqueness of the various neighbourhoods and districts of this increasingly diverse city. Each has its own public triumphs and hidden secrets, whether it's Kensington, Chelsea, Piccadilly or Whitehall. But on this last visit we (my wife Susan and I, accompanied by our good British friend Una) spent a chunk of our time in and around Southwark, that area south of the Thames River, and a place filled with history both new and old. A picturesque walk from Tower Bridge to London Bridge, and then a crossover via the latter, will take one over to the pile known as Southwark Cathedral, the old Anglican parish church of John Harvard; he was baptised here before he emigrated to Massachusetts in the early 17th century and helped found the University named after him. There is a chapel honouring Harvard in this venerable cathedral, which has its roots as a medieval Augustinian priory. A stained glass window celebrates the dramatist William Shakespeare, some of whose plays were performed in what was the nearby Old Globe Theatre.
Around the corner from the towering cathedral is an attraction of a different kind. It's the famous Borough Market, which in several historical locations near its current site has been doling out fresh meats and fish, an extraordinary variety of vegetables and fruits, cooking oils of various kinds, wines and craft beers and other beverages, and gifts and items related to the preparation of food. Although eager customers have been coming to the Borough Market since at least the 13th century, the current incarnation goes back to 1851, with refinements and renovations continuing well into the 21st century. It's a destination that has long been a favourite of locals and tourists alike; despite the crowds, the ambience is welcoming, even entertaining.
A short walk from the Borough Market is a memorable Spanish restaurant called Tapas Brindisa, where in good weather (it was raw and rainy the day we visited) one can sit outside in the sun and enjoy the wine and the exquisitely prepared dishes, and watch the world go by. With a tapas menu, of course, it is possible to experiment more liberally with a variety of offerings. I especially enjoyed the Spanish meatballs, perfectly dripping with a tangy sauce, and the firm and tasty shrimp. The service was also superb.
But the eye-popping piece de resistance in Southwark is for me the "new" building in Southwark aptly named The Shard, or sometimes "Shard of Glass" or "Shard London Bridge". Standing beneath this 95-story architectural splendour is a stunning experience; the building, designed by the celebrated Italian architect Renzo Piano, seems to be a dazzling pyramid climbing its way to the sun. Most of the construction on the building, the fourth largest in the European Union, was completed in 2012. The country of Qatar provided some of the funding. The Shard includes a hotel, offices, restaurants and an open-air observation deck, among other facilities. Tall buildings can be ugly and sometimes appear to be misplaced in their neighbourhoods, but the Shard seems to fit in with its smaller neighbouring structures. Its 11,000 panes of glass were glazed to allow the sky and the sun to be reflected "so that the appearance of the building will change according to the weather and seasons." The Shard is a brilliant piece of work.
One last note: strolling over from Southwark for a visit to the National Portrait Gallery, near Trafalgar Square, we were surprised to come upon an 1817 oil painting on canvas of a pensive Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles, who a few years later would help turn Singapore, then a sleepy fishing village, into what would become a bustling commercial port. The painting, by English portraitist George Francis Joseph, hangs high on a wall in Room 19. The youthful-looking Raffles, dressed in a black suit, conveys an intelligent authority. For Singaporeans traveling to London, it's a depiction worth seeking out.QLRS Vol. 15 No. 1 Jan 2016