THE BLOG

Trump, Tennyson, And Power In 2017

17/02/2017 15:07

Head to Charing Cross Road, work your way through the buzz of people and languages, and then take a right just before you tail towards Trafalgar Square. Keep your eyes firmly on the lookout. Look carefully though. It's easy to walk straight past.

Right. Are you outside a pale stone Victorian building? Great. Long imposing windows? Brilliant. Head to the doorway. Does it say 'Public Library'? Awesome. Step over the threshold. You're there.

Welcome to Westminster Reference Library. One of London's hidden gems, it's a depository of English literature set right in the city's beating heart.

This is where I found myself last week. There to write, but a little bored, fortunately the WRL is a pretty good place to be bored and pretending to know what I was looking for, I worked my way along the bookshelves. Auden, Brecht, Chekhov, even Grisham. After a brief period of literary wanderlust, I finally settled on my companion for the evening.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson. You'll recognise the name but likely think that you don't know his work. Wrong, I bet you do. Flicking through, two lines caught my eye.

Theirs not to reason why.
Theirs but to do and die.

These are two lines in Tennyson's The Charge of the Light Brigade. The poem is a narrative description of the Light Cavalry Brigade's ill-fated charge during the 1854 Battle of Balaclava. One of history's great military blunders, 670 men were ordered to charge against some 25,000 Russian soldiers.

Written at a time when military success was intrinsically entwined with the national consciousness, the poem is an ode to patriotism and sacrifice, glorifying these men's unquestioning obedience in the name of King and country.

A tragedy, absolutely. But that's not why I'm writing this blog. These two lines describe a certain form of power. It's top-down. If I hold the power, I say and you do, no questions please.

Irrelevant in modern society though, right?

Apart from in the military context, we do question why and we don't just submit. After all, since the mid-nineteenth century, we've had multiple structural, economic, and technological changes which mean that we're able to exert more autonomy over our own lives, produce the changes in society that we want, and also hold those in positions of power to account.

But then, what about President Trump?

In a modern era where elected officials are subjected to incredible levels of scrutiny, the President of the United States appears to be the exception. As Trump begins to impose his doctrine and act in unprecedented ways which tilt towards the autocratic, he seems incapable of doing anything that affects his popularity among his supporter base.

Take Trump and finance. He has failed to fully divest himself of his financial and business interests, and last week the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics filed a lawsuit claiming that Trump's business holdings violate the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution. Surely this is just the first of many like lawsuits. It's clear. Trump is likely to financially benefit from being President.

Likewise, take Trump and the judiciary. Tweeting that Judge James Robert was a "so called judge" who's "ridiculous" opinion "essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country", it seems that Trump has little regard for the notion of power separation. Let's hope that Judge Robert is more of an Instagram kind of guy.

And then there's Trump and the language he uses. Unacceptable if coming from any other elected official (or any of your colleagues even), Trump's rhetoric not only seems to be inscrutable, but by the very virtue of being 'different', seems to form the basis of his popularity.

When it comes to President Trump, why have millions of Americans stopped scrutinising? In essence, why have they stopped reasoning why?

A problem that will surely ponder the minds of western political academics for a generation, a possible answer is that for many, Trump is just different. He's inscrutable because he's not one of them. Whoever they are.

He says things which others won't say, he does things which others won't do, and on this logic, Trump is seen as the man who might just achieve the things which others have failed to achieve. Latching onto some of America's deepest insecurities and prejudices, and proffering solutions to them all, for the forgotten American, Trump is their hope.

And what for this hope? A blind eye it seems. So when journalists and politicians rightly criticise his lack of business divestment, or his attacks on the judiciary, or his abhorrent language, their criticisms fall on deaf ears.

63 million Americans have handed over the keys to the kingdom and averted their eyes in the hope that Trump really will be their purveyor of prosperity.

Only when Trump's inability to deliver what he's promised is exposed, will the whole of America again start to scrutinise and will again start to ask... why?

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