An old joke in New York newspaper circles imagined Armageddon as reported by the city’s rival rags. The pre-Murdoch New York Post, then owned by the genteel leftist Dorothy Schiff, pitched to the interests and sympathies of its core readership: “End of World: Jews and Negroes Suffer Most”. What brings this to mind is the headline that runs across the top of this morning’s ink-and-paper Times:
Democrats, Students and Foreign Allies
Face the Reality of a Trump Presidency
Can’t you just savour the dilemma facing the Times men, women and persons who drafted those few words? So many victims set for the gibbet, so little space on one front page to list them all. What of all the other groups allegedly destined to be ground beneath the Trump jackboot? What of environmentalists and homosexuals, Muslims, Mexicans and sundry other swarthy sorts, unionists, bureaucrats, women, the elderly, universities, endangered species, entire cities, the US legal system and perhaps, as any Times editor worth his organic, non-iodised sea-salt would have put it had space permitted, the very fate of the planet itself?
The sense of shock, of appalled and near-bilious dismay that such a man could have beaten Saint Hillary is everywhere as I write, a scant twenty-four hours after the votes were tallied. On yesterday’s bus to New York two of my fellow passengers were very glum girls indeed. They were students most likely, sporting backpacks, Hillary buttons and matching pairs of red and puffy eyes. As we shuffled aboard, the taller laid her head on her friend’s shoulder and heaved a few more tears, the perfect picture of heartbroken misery.
It was lovely to watch.
And it only got better as the shock and horror of democracy’s result on November 8 inflicted its dreadful torments on Generation Snowflake, whose serried brat-allions, summoned by social media, turned out to march down Fifth Avenue that night. I heard about the protest over dinner with my son, a dual-citizen who lives in New York and whose phone was running hot with Facebook messages from contacts variously de-friending him or simply heaping abuse on his tousled head.
“I’ve just been called a fascist again,” he said with a rueful smile after a message from his gender-fluid cousin interrupted the poori and chicken-liver appetiser. His crime against leftist sensibilities? He had observed via Facebook that there might well have been another Democrat destined for the White House if Team Hillary had not rigged the primary system in order to render Bernie Sanders a mere annoyance, rather than a bona fide contender. He had a point. The landscapes of the fulcrum states that went with Trump or swung to him—Michigan, Wisconsin, all of the South—are punctuated by empty factories, silent mills, grim prospects. An old-fashioned, soak-the-rich class warrior might, just might, have won those votes. As it was, those citizens’ blue-collar lot was to be worse than ignored, it was to be loudly scorned. This was the wasteland of the “deplorables”, as Mrs Clinton so ill-advisedly described them.
Take West Virginia, for example, which Mrs Clinton won easily in 2008 when contesting the primaries against Barack Obama. This year, back in May, she told a town hall meeting in Ohio, “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” Her hand-picked audience, balanced as any assembly Tony Jones and the Q&A crowd-stackers might summon to provide that show’s on-cue bleating, cheered lustily and the candidate basked in their adoring approval. Back in the mountains of West Virginia, where Stonewall Jackson kept the Union at bay and coal has been the lifeblood for generations, that was enough to doom her prospects. Sure, as an afterthought she went on to promise new jobs building wind turbines and the like, but she might more convincingly have argued that her husband is a moral and upright man.
Federal programs have come and gone, with billions of dollars poured into alleviating backwoods poverty, yet the communities remain poor. A working coalmine is a bird in hand. The vague promise of replacing it with “green tech jobs” very much a case of flipping the bird, as Americans call the one-finger salute, at those whose votes she needed.
My son’s phone kept beeping messages of scorn, including self-shot video footage of his cousin screaming “Sieg heil” outside the eponymous building that served as Trump’s campaign headquarters and nerve centre. This was too good to miss, so we polished off the Kingfisher lager and made haste from the Upper West Side to Fifth Avenue. Later, when I checked the Australian papers on the internet, I would be informed by aghast columnist Madonna King that the crowd was composed of vile racists and rednecks chanting—and I kid you not—“We hate Muslims, we hate Blacks, we want our great country back”. She had been gulled by a hoax picked up from a parodic website and re-broadcast without the blessing of a moment’s reflection to consider the account’s veracity. That’s the thing about roping a dope, as any conman will tell you: you can only fool those who want to believe. Ms King’s hard-wired reaction to the Trump victory was a case of confirmation bias. She believed what she wanted to believe because, well, the way she feels carries far more weight than the few grams of logical, rational, analytic capacity at her disposal.
Nor was the former Brisbane ABC radio host and vendor of subjective appraisals alone in crediting that a vast posse of Klansmen would assemble in the middle of Manhattan. Other keyboard ticklers amplified the same false story, thereby honouring their preconceptions about America and Americans. If you think that way, if you prefer to frame the US in the rhetoric of an Al Sharpton or a Black Lives Matter agitator, then a mass eruption of spontaneous racial hatred is the most natural expectation in the world. Perhaps their mothers were scared and scarred by too many viewings of In the Heat of the Night.
Anyone with even a passing grasp of New York City’s political ecology would have known the purported redneck rally had to be a furphy. On election day, Manhattan voters favoured Mrs Clinton by a margin of better than 90 per cent, with the city’s four other boroughs not far behind. You might have found someone dressed as a Klansman a few days earlier at Manhattan’s famous Halloween parade through Greenwich Village; then again, it would likely have been nothing more sinister than a reveller draped in a bed-sheet and pretending to be a ghost. In New York, whose current mayor is an avowed leftist and former activist on behalf of Nicaragua’s unlamented Sandinista regime, public fun comes only in strains of the politically correct.
Yet somehow those Australians who are paid to report or interpret events on the other side of the Pacific appeared to know little of the United States and understand less. Fairfax Media’s Paul McGeough, for example, chronicled the primaries with frequent references to Donald Trump’s imminent demise. The day before the election he even succumbed to a Dewey-beats-Truman moment in assuring Sydney Morning Herald and Age readers that “America’s nightmare” was about to end, as Trump was set and certain for a thumping. Not to boast, but at Quadrant Online, which I edit, I had that same day urged readers to put their money on Trump at the handsome odds then available. It’s not that I’m clairvoyant, just that, and here modesty must be set aside, I had actually done the reporting, gone out and taken a close look at the country where I spent twenty-six years of my working life.
Eight days earlier I had touched down in Florida, picked up a rental car and begun a serpentine journey north towards Washington, stopping off along the way at the homes of old friends and pre-divorce in-laws. Over in Tampa, my one-time brother-in-law, a cable-television installer who runs his own small business, was all for Trump. Racism had nothing to do with his preference. “It’s the goddamn IRS,” he said, “they’re auditing me again. Someone needs to get the tax man off our backs.”
Further north, on the Florida–Georgia border, the proprietor of a hole-in-the-wall Hispanic lunch counter and provender of delicious Cuban sandwiches (ham, pork, cheese and crunchy dill pickles on a press-toasted roll) was coaxed to candour by my foreign accent. Hillary was chueco—bent and crooked—and he wouldn’t be voting for her, despite what the media said would be a near-unanimous manifestation of Spanish-speaking support for the Democrat in the Sunshine State.
That was near Jacksonville, where one of McGeough’s no-more-astute colleagues reported that a heckler had been ejected from a Hillary rally for screaming “Bill’s a racist!” Australian reporters in the US must be deaf as well as biased, apparently; the actual cry was “Bill’s a rapist!” and it was heard often. If you wonder why Trump’s vulgarian boast of grabbing female crotches and getting away with it failed to tip the scales against him, the fact that his opponent has been an apologist for a lifelong sexual predator might just have something to do with it.
The thing, though, that most of all telegraphed the possibility of an election-night upset was the signs. It is the American custom in the political season to plant front-lawn placards proclaiming the resident’s support for one candidate or another. On the run from Fort Lauderdale across to Tampa—the celebrated Alligator Alley, which the pundits said was vital to Mrs Clinton’s prospects and which they believed would heavily favour her—there was but one Hillary sign to be seen, just one, while scores proclaimed allegiance to Trump. It was also on that leg of the trip that another manifestation of support for Trump became obvious. Finger-scrawled in the dust on the rear doors of many big trucks, one word: TRUMP. Whoever the pollsters were quizzing, they weren’t to be found in the nation’s truck stops.
How could the press corps have missed such an obvious imbalance in signage, such a disparity? Well here’s a clue, drawn from something I witnessed first-hand during Mrs Clinton’s run for the Senate in 2000. At the time I owned a weekend cabin in upstate New York, and when the local radio station announced that Mrs Clinton would be making a campaign stop nearby, I drove across, not as a member of the working press but as a curious rubbernecker. I was early and thereby privileged to watch her advance party set up a trestle table, load it with jugs of “homemade” lemonade and then station two photogenic moppets behind a sign proclaiming “Cool drinks 50 cents”. Not long after, the candidate’s motorcade rolled down the road and stopped at the table, where the candidate sampled the kiddies’ wares and posed for photographs. The trestle and its children were packed away almost before the sound of the accompanying press bus had faded to the inaudible. Those reporters were being taken for a ride, literally and figuratively. What was worse, they seemed to enjoy the charade.
And so my journey north continued, weaving in and around the I-95 main highway up the east coast. Here, too, the traffic gave a clue to the “unexpected” result of November 8: plenty of Trump bumper stickers and, again, but a single mobile endorsement of his rival—that one was plastered on a Prius also emblazoned with a “No Nukes” label and an adhesive plea to keep the US safe from fracking. When I pulled alongside the male driver, grey and old enough to know better, he had a ponytail.
That night, checking in late at a North Carolina motel, I asked the desk clerk who would win the White House. She was white, thirty-ish, a single mum and, according to the mainstream media narrative, an almost-certain Hillary supporter. She paused for a moment—America is a respectful society, a place where people generally go out of their way to avoid giving offence—then said, “Well, it won’t be her.” I asked why and the reply was twofold—Hillary had told too many lies; and “that husband of hers”. Had one of Mrs Clinton’s pollsters been within earshot, the campaign’s panicked efforts to make sure Trump did not take the state would have been even more frantic. The polls said it would be a close-run thing. It wasn’t, as events turned out. Trump triumphed there as well.
And so to Washington, with some 2000 miles on the rental car’s odometer, much of it on minor state highways and back roads. A friend with whom I had worked on a US news magazine told me I was crazy to think Trump had a chance. That night, watching CNN and the other cable news stations, the accepted wisdom was amplified, not to mention enhanced, by a rather selective use of fact, quote and sound bite. Trump, CNN reported, had been endorsed by the “leading Ku Klux Klan newspaper”. Leading indeed! The Klan is a spent force in America, bankrupted by lawsuits and left behind by a population that long ago moved on. In Louisiana, where lynched blacks were the “strange fruit” of Billie Holiday’s famous song, there is a dark-skinned governor of Indian descent, Bobby Jindal, who would not have been allowed to sit at a Woolworth lunch counter in the bad old days.
On election night I strode with thirsty purpose from my room to Harry’s Bar, off the lobby. It was packed and all the television screens were covering the results as they were tallied and states were declared blue or red. At first, early in the evening, the young woman on the stool beside me was the picture of effervescent confidence. The early voting numbers from Florida—tallied previously in camera and posted the moment the polls closed—put Mrs Clinton ahead, then further so. But then my neighbour’s smile faded. Those early returns had come from the southern tip of Florida, a Democrat stronghold where early voting had been particularly strong, but they were being gradually overtaken as more northern precincts reported their numbers. “Trump has Florida,” I opined, noting that the Panhandle—the narrow strip that runs along the northern edge of the Gulf of Mexico—would be a Trump stronghold. It is known as the Redneck Riviera, so no surprise there.
Towards the end of the evening, as the map was being painted mostly red, my stoolmate was so upset she screamed, “Don’t talk to me any more!” Perhaps suspecting that I had made like a recent president and let an ambling hand come to rest on her knee, the barman suggested it would be best if I left the premises. I did. An armed society is a polite society, and I had no wish to test the forbearance of fellow patrons equipped with misplaced chivalry and something more dangerous than a high-decibel shriek. As my smile at Hillary’s looming defeat was wider than Trump’s growing lead, the barman probably did me a favour by banishing me from such glum and angry company.
In the wee hours of the next morning, the woman confidently predicted by multitudes as the breaker of the ultimate glass ceiling found herself so thoroughly defeated, not to mention distraught, she could not bring herself to front the cameras and deliver the formal and traditional acknowledgment that her hopes had gone down for the count—a count of 228 Electoral College votes to 290, to be precise. Television’s talking heads were gasping, the pollsters blabbering.
The quest for an explanation other than the most obvious—Mrs Clinton is both tainted goods and a dreadful campaigner—took off in all the predictable directions. She had been rejected because she was a woman or—the narrative that emerged more dominant—she had been laid low by the votes of racist rednecks. This was a further manifestation of what might be called Madonna King Syndrome. Something happens, something unpleasant and unexpected, something that is beyond the ken of those who are so very certain of the way things should be, and their only explanation is that virtue, the sort of virtue Ms King no doubt believes herself to represent, must have been defeated by the base instincts and dumb bigotry of the lesser and loathsome. If you want to talk about blind prejudice at its most myopic, look to the likes of Ms King.
Still, she and so many others had an excuse for believing in the inevitability of Hillary’s triumph, as the vast bulk the mainstream media had been in the tank for the Democratic contender throughout the campaign. CNN fired Donna Brazile, Al Gore’s one-time campaign manager, for leaking questions that were to be asked at town hall meetings. Why supposedly impromptu, meet-the-folks gatherings were only presenting questions written in advance and approved by organisers is a story well worth pursuing, but so far nobody has bothered. Likewise, according to Wikileaks, other reporters had been e-mailing their stories to Team Hillary for vetting and amendment before sending them on to press or computer screen.
In another example of the craven, bended-knee attitude of the US Fourth Estate, reporters solicited questions from Team Hillary that might embarrass Trump and his surrogates. Not that this is solely an American vice, as anyone would be aware who saw the Seven network’s Mark Riley ask Julia Gillard at the National Press Club how the media might be of greater assistance. It seems that to be the very model of a mainstream media journalist one needs a certain narrow, fixed and port-canted worldview. Blame it on groupthink or the blinkered education doled out in university journalism schools. Or just blame it on sheer laziness. It requires some effort to leave the office or climb off the campaign bus and put “dirt on your shoes”, as the editors of old used to say. Whatever the factors, as newspapers die, this campaign and its coverage are a good reason not to shed too many tears for a business that has thrown away that single asset even more valuable than advertising revenue: its credibility.
The walk from West 72nd Street to the anti-Trump protest took about thirty minutes, but there was no need to hurry, as the marching throng had only just begun to tap the deep wells of its bitter fury. The first thing, the most striking, was the cookie-cutter sameness of those who had turned out to denounce the result of an entirely democratic election. With few exceptions, the oldest faces—other than my own—would not have been much more than thirty, with most demonstrators of college age. The overwhelming skin pigment was whiter than any Westchester country club.
The truculence being paraded down Fifth Avenue seemed the product of political disappointment and a consequence of errant parenting. This was Generation Brat in full voice and the self-absorption was deafening. The anticipated pleasure of victory on election night had been denied them, so the response was a tantrum. The election was invalid, yelled a bearded young fellow from beneath his fashionable man-bun, never bothering to exclaim why the orderly and honest exercise of a nation’s franchise needed to be overturned. At another corner, an obese young woman was being hugged in her tearful misery by a coterie of friends, all equally upset. There was the chanting of predictable couplets—“Hey, ho, / Trump’s gotta go” and “Dump Trump / Dump Trump”—and vows and pledges to oppose and frustrate “the racist Trump agenda” at every turn. Had these children never before been denied that for which they wished? Evidently not, and now they were throwing a tantrum worthy of toddlers. And not just in New York: across America similar rallies were congealing. Need it be said that the petulance was reported with great sympathy in the Australian media?
This is where the next few years will be very interesting indeed. When George W. Bush was elected in that 2000 squeaker, ultimately decided by the US Supreme Court, the opposition was rude, loud, obscene, very personal and constant. He was made a figure of ridicule and fun, as prescribed by Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, the handbook of the agitated Left. Much the same treatment was meted out to Tony Abbott, who could not even wink at the idea of taking a talkback call from a dirty-talking phone-sex granny without being immediately vilified as a misogynist. Bush and Abbott suffered such treatment in stoic silence as their poll numbers declined. Donald Trump, a man cut from very different cloth, would seem unlikely to do likewise.
Roger Franklin is the Editor of Quadrant Online. This article was published in the December issue of Quadrant. Subscribe here.