From the Axis of Evil to Trumpland

A mere five days after hearing a lecture on Brexit, I went to hear about the other half of the present day’s news obsession – Donald Trump.

The university’s alumni association runs a programme called “Inspired in Hull”, whereby former students who have risen to prominence are called back to give their life stories before their successors. So far I have attended five of these events, though unfortunately I never got around to logging them here. They were Democracy & Theatre by playwright James Graham (8th February), From Hull to Hogwarts by illustrator Olivia Lomenech Gill (9th March), From Hull to the Cosmos by philanthropist Dill Faulkes (3rd May), Breaking open the Boardroom with businesswoman Denise Wilson, and most recently this one by journalist Paul Danahar.

Paul began his story with an anecdote from 15 years ago in central Baghdad, shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein when he had to flag down an approaching American tank with nothing but a dirty hotel tablecloth. He said that he had witnessed many key historical events, including wars, revolutions and natural disasters. After being kidnapped, deported and fired upon several times, he decided that life might be quieter if he left his role in the Middle East and took up the role in Washington D. C. instead. But then, in his words “Donald Trump came down an escalator… it’s been quite busy since then.”.

Mr Danahar matriculated at this university in 1985, studying physics. He was the first of his family to go to university and arrived with a narrow view of the world and his career path. He joined the university newspaper over the objections of the English students who ran it and eventually went to work for BBC Radio Humberside. He described his path from Hull to Leeds to London, through India, South Africa, Beijing and Jerusalem before finally winding up where he wanted to be.

Paul described his work as the study of how decisions (and equally non-decisions) made in Washington would affect the rest of the world. He travelled through Afghanistan during the late 1990s and was in place to see the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Lately he has seen how decades of carefully lain international agreements can be casually destroyed by the upload of a few words online.

The rise of social media changed the nature of political journalism, especially the Arab Spring in 2011. Dictatorship, said Paul, relies on state control of the media – the party line and the face of the dear leader must be plastered on every public surface. The internet changed this, allowing young revolutionaries to organise a decentralised campaign. The establishment’s traditional strategy of capturing or bribing the leaders failed, because there were none. This could, however, prove to be the downfall of the revolution at a later stage, for there was no clear authority figure to succeed the ousted tyrants. The opposition “thrived on the adrenaline of revolt, but quickly got bored of the tediousness of government.” This loss of passion on behalf of the masses allowed their tormentors to return, consolidate their power, and snuff out those who had once threatened them.

Our alumnus lamented that it was easy to be passionate about politics while at university – when one has the time and the inclination to imagine a better world – but that the best and brightest among his audience would probably go elsewhere in search of more fulfilling lives. In his view, the statesmen of recent decades were neither best nor brightest, and rather than conspiracy or corruption most of the problems in the world today were caused by mere incompetence.

Paul then gave a somewhat ominous warning to his young attendees that they should not lose their voice upon graduation, assume someone else will fix everything, convince themselves that voting does not matter, or put blind faith in those who sought power on their behalf. “Shouting into the echo chamber of Twitter might feel good, but unless you use social media to organise – not rant – you will find that others use it to war.” He noted that in recent years fascists and other authoritarians around the world had gotten to grips with the internet and were using it to destabilise civilisation.

To contrast, Danahar spoke about his visit to the technologically-retarded North Korea. The capital of Pyongyang had bus queues into the hundreds and public buildings unheated through the depths of winter. As a foreign guest he was accompanied everywhere by two minders – they would monitor him as well as each other. China was a little different: there were unmarked policemen with umbrellas who would obstruct the view of news cameras. In Iraq the reporters could sometimes incapacitate their minders with a heavy meal, but in North Korea this was not possible. They will, however, do anything for whiskey. Paul briefly managed to interact with some civilian locals during a bowling tournament, but this was swiftly interrupted by a power cut.

Our inspired guest went on to recall his time in Jerusalem as Chairman of the Middle East Foreign Press Association. There the media were regularly harassed by the public and by political campaign groups. Death threats and abusive comments were commonplace. In particular, Mr Danahar highlighted the different ways in which domestic and international press covered conflicts in that region – the former would show graphic violence in all its gruesome glory whereas the latter would focus on dry statistics. This difference in coverage led to a divergence of Eastern and Western perspectives, so that the former think of the latter as detached and uncaring. He also said that there was a “blame game” around the reporting of these statistics (fights over “children died” versus “children were killed”, for example) with pressure groups hoping to harass the media into silence.

China went to the other extreme: In Paul’s experience, you only knew you had displeased the government when the already slow bureaucracy ground to a complete standstill and one could get no work done. If anything it was a delight to hear locals criticise your coverage, because that at least was proof that somebody could see it. Foreign press is heavily censored in China, and officials will even give out transcripts of interviews with inconvenient segments excised. He was keen to stress how hard it was to comprehend that country’s culture, even if you had some contacts and knowledge of the language.

It was at this point our guest moved to the United States. He claimed many of us forget that, although their tongue is the same as ours and we consume a lot of their media, America is still a very foreign country – a fact exemplified by the accession of Donald John Trump. Danahar told us that journalism in D.C. was “like trying to drink from a fire hose” in that reporters struggle to focus on matters of true importance when bombarded by the daily torrent of scandals and controversies which emanate from the White House. Many of this administration’s high level appointments have gone to hugely unsuitable people, and there is no unified voice from the executive – the president and his underlings will regularly produce antonymous assertions in their statements and briefings to the press, the public and each other.

We were treated to a case study regarding the United Nations General Assembly: Trump arrived late, then spent his speech inflating his own ego, then flatly denied the mockery he received from his foreign counterparts, insisting they laughed with him rather than at him. The pernicious part of this fiasco was that while most of the world had the true version of events reported, Trump’s domestic supporters knew only his take. Through their social media routines they filtered out the more critical evaluations. The president is able to communicate directly to his rural voter base without interference by the traditional channels, meaning that his supporters have no alternative worldview supplied to them. As a result, they believe Trump to be trustworthy and dismiss reports of his incompetence as enemy propaganda. Despite what most professional commentators would say, the president’s supporters believe him to be staying true to his campaign promises. They are correct with regard to tax cuts, immigration control, and shedding of environmental promises. They deny, or remain unaware of, the many areas on which he lied or failed.

That said, our guest did not hold America’s traditional news organisations in high regard either Most of them have become firmly entrenched as agents of either the government (Fox) or the resistance (CNN). Their motivation for this is financial rather than moral, for their ratings – and consequently revenue – have shot up in the last few years as Americans have turned on each other. How one communicates with the White House has also changed. Whereas professional observers would once have spent hours speculating over Barack Obama’s inner thoughts, nowadays the general public can know Donald Trump’s convictions before his own cabinet do. Danahar singled out the particularly tragi-comical example of the Honourable Rex Tillerson, formerly Secretary of State: He did not use Twitter himself, so had an aide print out his leader’s bulletins for him to read. One of these was the announcement of his own dismissal. Paul brought up the abnormally high frequency of leaks from high office. He put it down to the lack of any unifying creed between Trump’s officials. Many of them had accepted his invitations purely for personal gain, having previously languished in political obscurity. Once in office they dedicated much time and effort to lashing out at their colleagues in a battle for predominance and presidential favour. Another source of informational incontinence is what Trump calls the “deep state”. These are lower level officials who are firmly opposed to his policies and deliberately sabotage his every move, hoping to save the United States from its own president. Danahar notes that many on the left, despite their democratic principles, seem to favour this approach: They despise the current president so much that they would permit his removal by coup.

Paul’s friends in the media have accepted that this daily torrent of outrage and scandal will not subside while the current presidency lasts. To answer the inevitable question, he predicted that Trump could indeed secure a second term of office. The support among the president’s base has endured, and he has been seen to deliver on many of his campaign promises. Paul also predicted that the Democrats would still be in denial by 2020, and would pick a candidate who might have won last time around – such as Bernie Sanders – rather than one for the present.

To round up his speech, Mr Danahar turned to how he had indeed been inspired by the university, city and people of Kingston-Upon-Hull. He told his student audience that though the best years of our lives remained ahead, this time would be the most transformational. University would shape us for decades in the future.

There then followed the question and answer session. Again, I got the very last one and again the answer was a little off-point: In the last few years many newspapers, broadcasts and comments thereon, both in Britain and abroad, have alluded to a decline in the standards of political discourse and behaviour. This is not solely about Trump – it also relates to our withdrawal from the European Union, the rise of the Islamic State and the emergence of far right figures many formerly stable nations. I have found many people despairing at the rapid decline of democracy and discourse. Frequently their are remarks to the effect that “reality has ended” or that we have entered a new political dark age. One particularly illustrative example is The Thick of It. The series was still airing as late as October 2012 and was at the time considered the peak of cynical satire, with its unfiltered profanity and its dark, desperate atmosphere. By 2016, Armando Iannucci was already saying that it could never be renewed – real life has moved beyond parody. I wanted to know precisely when, in Paul’s mind, the cut-off point had been. When did he consider politics to have last been “normal”?

My question triggered much nervous chuckling from the audience and the speaker asked sarcastically how much time he had available. He pointed to the late George Bush senior’s presidency as a time when one had opponents rather than enemies, a fact which changed during the Clinton years thanks to the work of Newt Gingrich. He was not the first to make this observations. He said that the office has never recovered from the damage of the Lewinsky scandal, even with the impeccable behaviour of Barack Obama. He said the bar nowadays is much lower than it had been in the past – where once Howard Dean had ruined his bid with one inappropriate shriek, now Trump could brag about groping women and still wind up successful (he’s not the first to make this comparison either). Paul predicted that this change in standards could lead to more people of great wealth from outside the mainstream parties to run for office on their own steam, with better but poorer candidates being forced out as a result. In particular, he said that someone like Ross Perot might have a decent chance of victory if he ran again today, for the political environment has changed to favour him.

Finally, the event drew to a close. Paul was given another round of applause and handed the traditional goody bag of university merchandise. The audience withdrew from the lecture theatre to navigate home through the darkness which had fallen outside. This is the penultimate teaching week, so the semester is winding down. I am sure that there will be a further series of Inspired in Hull lectures in the new year, but that is a story for another post.

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