Gerard Howlin: A polarising Trump governs as Nero as a divided America burns

Gerard Howlin: A polarising Trump governs as Nero as a divided America burns

US President Donald Trump is perfecting a politics of division which has existed in America for decades, writes Gerard Howlin

Gerard Howlin: A polarising Trump governs as Nero as a divided America burns
Donald Trump holds a Bible outside St John’s Church in Washington DC, which is located near the White House. Picture: Patrick Semansky

Peaceful demonstrators were attacked by a militarised police force to clear the way for the president to walk to church from the White House.

As performance it was “perp walk” remade as political catwalk. Apparently in command, the commander-in-chief required his people to be bludgeoned and demonised for him to move out of his security zone. 

They were held back so he could walk a four-minute journey. It was part John Wayne. That was an intended analogy. A great American, fearless in the face of a mob of anarchists. Behind that animation was blasphemy.

Everything sacred is to be thrown on the fire. Apparently for law and order, this president depends on conflagration instead.

Roman historian Tacitus wrote that: “Nero substituted as culprits and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians.”

Donald Trump was a Nero, bearing a Bible aloft outside St John’s Episcopal Church, Lafayette Square. The “church of presidents” since 1816, every president since James Madison has prayed there.

Asked by a reporter if the Bible was his, the reply was that it was “a Bible”. He knows the world is dead to blasphemy, so he is empowered to routinely enact it. 

Preachers queue to affirm and lay hands on him. Those who won’t are not righteous. 

Lacking empathy or interest in any form of Christianity, he has colonised much of its organised structure politically. 

That includes the American Catholic hierarchy. They are seated in the colosseum, looking at the blood seeping into the sand, hands outstretched and thumbs down.

The one thing to know is that nothing is out of control. This is the use of chaos as an expression of power. It is tactically chaotic, and led by a moody, mercurial, insecure man. 

But there is a clear strategy. That is to do whatever it takes to keep a political base stoked up, to win one more election.

And it might work.

“You have to dominate. If you don’t dominate... you’re wasting your time,” said Trump on a phonecall with American governors on Monday.

This is his axis of power. 

He governs as Nero, or more precisely a Nero with a son-in-law. He is self-proclaimed genius, bard of the national story, enemy of the enemies of the people, builder of a new Rome out of the ashes of the one he burned.

It’s not new. In an 1990 interview with Playboy magazine, he said of the Chinese communist party’s suppression of the Tiananmen Square revolt that “they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength. Our country is right now perceived as weak.”

It is a mistake he doesn’t intend to make. In a sense, he is right. If the Chinese communist party had not acted as it did in 1989, as communism was collapsing around the world, it is doubtful it could have survived. 

Weak leaders and authoritarianism are incompatible. Restraint ultimately only works in a democracy.

Much of America is on fire. 

Some of that is the riotous disturbance of the past days. 

More of it is the murdering again, of another black American George Floyd, by inherently racist, unreformed institutions of power, that meet swathes of its own people as instruments of oppression. 

More of it again is an underlay of inequality of which race is the oldest deepest expression but far from the only one. 

All of it is overlain, and some of it doubled down on, by a growing distance between the winners and losers of our emerging new economic model.

Hillary Clinton lost rural America three to one. If she had held the loss to two to one, she would be in the White House. Trump brought out to the polls, a white, disengaged electorate disenfranchised from power and mocked by it.

In Michigan, he won the rural and small town vote 57% to 38%. 

In Pennsylvania, by 71% to 26%. In Wisconsin, by 63% to 34%.

Trump spoke to them with that borrowed bible. 

He speaks to their fear, and sense of belittlement when he verbally attacks a media which he feasts off. He stands up for them when he has surrogates attack with tear gas peaceful protestors he demonises as the enemy.

That bible in Trump’s raised hand was a closed book, a symbol of displacement and disenchantment. It is a call to crusade, not a mission to the gentiles.

To bring this broken thing together would be the work of generations. But at times it seemed to be work in progress. 

Urban liberalism is compromised by its dependence on a service class that is expected to share its values but not its benefits. 

Covid-19 exposes a divide between economic winners and losers. 

The better off economically, and those with the privilege of tenure and pensions in the public service, survive largely unscathed. Their baristas, child carers, and cleaners will not.

In America, that inequality is intertwined with race. Like Nero’s Christians, someone must be blamed, if blame is to be pointed away from where it belongs.

The architecture of official Washington in the early 19th century, from the Capitol, to the White House and St John’s Church, was neo classical. 

It emulates ancient Greece and Rome. It exampled in a newly independent, but formerly colonial America, an international style.

It embodied the political values of democracy and especially the virtues of republican Rome before the emperors.

George Washington could have been addressed as your majesty, but he declined. 

The essential American political value, the one its constitution is based on is restraint. That restraint, is enforced by a separation of powers.

America, in the 21st century faces a crisis of confidence, threatened by relative decline. 

In rural America ravaged by an opioid crisis, de-industrialisation, and cultural denigration Trump caught a mood. 

His appeal is socially and geographically wider, but that is the shorthand for what he stands for and who he speaks to. There was nothing out of control in Washington this week.

This is a president manoeuvring by the minute, to stay ahead of events by the hour, to dominate by any means the airwaves in which rioters and police alike are extras in the live television performance of his politics.

After the Chicago riots of 1968 and the police brutality instigated by Mayor Daly, Richard Nixon successfully motivated a “silent majority” to vote for him. In more than 50 years, America has changed.

Civil rights are a legal fact but remain culturally and politically deeply contested. 

The recurring issue is of the scapegoat. Since Nero, there must be a denigrated, excluded group to account for bad events. If they can be set off or against another, zero-sum politics thrives.

That is Trump’s achievement. 

He is perfecting politics that successfully set off black people against poor whites for generations and repurposing it for his own ends.

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