With respect to “draining the swamp”, Newt Gingrich has suggested that President-elect Trump hit the ground running. Mr Trump himself has signalled that securing the borders and deporting or incarcerating illegal immigrants with criminal records (apparently two, maybe three million of them) are priorities. Would it be reasonable to call such action a “purge”? Is this all vaguely reminiscent of the McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950s, which Arthur Miller allegorised in The Crucible?
Many people on this side of the Pond have taken comfort from the fact that, once Mr Trump realised he was about to cross that magical line of 270 of the collegiate votes, his tone became more conciliatory. Before the election, Mrs Clinton was “crooked Hillary”. Her crimes were “egregious”. He was intent on putting her in jail. In contrast, Mr Trump’s victory speech was calm and measured, even Presidential. He said, “I want to thank Secretary Clinton, for her service to this country, and I mean that most sincerely.” The italics are mine.
Have you read “On Bullshit” by Harry G Frankfurt, Professor of Philosophy emeritus at Princeton University (Princeton University Press, 2005)? Do. It’s a life-changer.
Mr Trump asks us to believe that he is holding two points of view simultaneously in his head that are mutually contradictory. George Orwell had a term for this feat of mental gymnastics: he called it doublethink. There is a story, doubtless apocryphal, about the young George Washington escaping a thrashing by telling his father the truth. “Father, I cannot lie. I did push the privy into the ravine.” Had President Washington survived into our post-truth age, he would doubtless have deployed a different argument. “I both did and didn’t push the privy into the ravine.” Perhaps he would have evoked the physicist Erwin Schrödinger’s cat. Schrödinger’s cat is a thought experiment designed to demonstrate just how crazy is the world of quantum mechanics. You put a cat in a box along with a piece of radioactive material which has a 50% chance of breaking down. Should it do so, a vial of poison is broken and the cat will die. You don’t know whether the cat is alive or dead unless you open the box and look. The point is, in the quantum world, the cat is both alive and dead. We are all living in a quantum world.
When I think of Orwell and doublethink, I think of another extraordinary example of prescience in 1984, his anticipation of reality TV and the politics of hate, encapsulated in the “Two Minutes Hate”, in which an enemy of the state is paraded and viewers hurl abuse at their telescreens. All this year we have seen the Two Minutes Hate in action, with politicians gaining capital out of urging us to blame our woeful condition on the other guy, the outsider, the infiltrator. G K Chesterton was once asked to write an article for The Times about what constituted the biggest problem in the world today. He replied, quite simply, “Me.” By that I think he meant that the sin of the world (see how our hackles rise at that archaic biblical world… sinful? Moi?) does not reside in Someone Else, it runs through all of us.
Mr Trump reminds me of Othello, an outsider who is called upon to do the state some service. During his campaign, he said that if elected President, he would ask Congress to declare war on Islamic State. Hatred is an act of self-harm. Look what Othello says at the end:
Set you down this,
And say besides that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turbaned Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by th’ throat the circumcised dog
And smote him thus.
Then he killed himself.
Yet maybe not. Maybe Iago – whatever Iago is – has not yet seized control of the President-elect. They say you should campaign in poetry and govern in prose. Who knows, we may yet hear from him some of the beautiful Othello music:
Keep up your bright swords, or the dew will rust ‘em.