Walter Ellis

The Trump Divide

America is as split as Brexit Britain

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Veterans of the Brexit debate could be forgiven for thinking that no other society has been as divided by a single issue as the UK was by the EU referendum of 2016. But they would be wrong. The United States – a nation of 325 million people – has been split into two bitterly feuding factions over the impeachment of President Donald J. Trump, whose hope of winning a second term in office is expected to hinge on the tone, if not the result, of the proceedings against him that opened at the beginning of this year.

The near-absolute nature of the split can be seen most clearly in the attitude of America’s journalists, who, with few exceptions, have abandoned objectivity in favour of appealing exclusively to one side or the other over the central question: is the President a crook and a despot or is he a saviour, however flawed, committed to the well-being of his country and its citizens?

We should start with The New York Times, an American national treasure, dating back to 1851. Essentially liberal, and a champion of enlightened capitalism, it has stood behind every progressive administration since the time of Lincoln and the Civil War. But never, not even during the Watergate crisis, has it taken so aggressively against a sitting president as it has against Trump. To the Times, Trump is the devil incarnate and the paper has used its formidable investigative machine, backed by an impressive array of pundits, to reveal the full litany of his crimes.

True to its liberal calling, some measure of dissent is permitted, even encouraged. Thus, columnist David Brooks felt able recently to complain of the “decline of discourse in the anti-Trump echo chamber”. Brooks, a Canadian, laments the fact that truth has become a black and white affair, so that those with whom liberals disagree are cast as menacing, to be feared and excoriated.

At the centre of the confusion is the 45th President of the United States himself. Trump takes to Twitter each morning and evening in an ongoing parody of FDR’s fireside chats. He says what he thinks at any given moment, even if he can’t spell it.

If this is worrying, the fact is that the Times has few real rivals. Most of the great city papers, such as the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, are struggling to stay afloat. But there is one, the Washington Post, whose logo, “Democracy dies in darkness,” conceals the fact that the paper is now the plaything of Jeff Bezos, CEO and president of Amazon and one of the world’s richest men. The Post, which famously, in the days when it was owned by the mere multi-millionaire Katharine Graham, vied with the Times to bring down Richard Nixon, now leads the charge against Trump, regularly coming up with stories that depict him as a criminally inclined narcissistic fool.

One imagines Bezos nodding in narcissistic agreement on the other side of the country even as he organises the next closure of a long-established retail chain.

On air, MSNBC, the cable arm of NBC, features a nightly prime time news show hosted by the Oxford-educated Rachel Maddow in which Trump is presented as a composite of Colonel Blimp and Colonel Sanders, with a dose of Major Misunderstanding thrown in. On rival CNN, Anderson Cooper, an heir to the Vanderbilt fortune, while posing as impartial, never fails to denounce the President as a self-obsessed buffoon. Maddow is unrelentingly forensic. It was she who first persuaded Lev Parnas, an associate of both Trump and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani, to rat on Trump over his dealings in Ukraine. By contrast, Cooper is an elegant destroyer, constantly amazed and disturbed that the occupant of the Oval Office should be such a deplorable wretch.

But the liberal left does not have it all its own way. Far from it. Fox News typically confines itself to defending the indefensible, arguing that Trump was elected by the American people and that any attempt to unseat him outside of the ballot box is tantamount to treason. The station hammers away at the theme that Trump is the one true guardian of American values, whose treatment by the Democrats brings to mind the crucifixion of Christ.

At the centre of the confusion is the 45th President of the United States himself. Trump takes to Twitter each morning and evening in an ongoing parody of FDR’s fireside chats. He says what he thinks at any given moment, even if he can’t spell it. Like a demented judge, he condemns all those who offend against his idea of himself and the constitution he claims to hold dear. The media then reproduces his tweets, either in agreement, as proof of his unique grasp of events, or as evidence that he is completely unhinged.

Will the impeachment hearings now underway in the Senate bring relief or understanding, or any sense that America is about to recover its bearings? I doubt it. But maybe it is time for the warring factions to Get Impeachment Done. For unless they do, we may all go mad.