Guest Notes

US talk circuit

4 March 2017

9:00 AM

4 March 2017

9:00 AM

Hating trump

The talk circuit has started up again in Manhattan, and the good news is that, unusually, Australia featured prominently in a recent lecture in the august timbered halls of the Harvard Club. The bad news is that it was South Australia in the spotlight, cited for its statewide blackouts, frequent outages and skyhigh prices as a warning of the folly of relying on renewable power.

Energy specialist Robert Bryce, senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, and a recent visitor to Oz, said SA’s energy failures had put electricity issues on the front page of Australian newspapers. He was warning his audience that building renewable facilities wont necessarily substitute for fossil fuel power, because ‘sometimes the wind don’t blow and the sun don’t shine’.

The context here is that, in a government-led charge into green power, New York State announced in January the early closure of Indian Point, the nuclear plant on the Hudson River that supplies 25 per cent of New York City’s power. Old power stations are being closed before alternatives are up and running, and amid an immense public backlash that threatens to delay and possibly block wind power projects.

Earlier, I had asked my lunch companion, an academic economist turned businessman, how he thought the Trump administration had started. ‘Terrific!’ he said heartily. I must have looked surprised, as he added: ‘as long as you don’t listen to the media noise’. He began expanding on the stock market boom and the welcome dismantling of deregulation, but then the speaker started.

Actually I had been startled – it is rare in Democrat-dominated NYC for people to declare themselves so strongly for Trump. Depending on the conversational circle you enter here, you may be able to talk about the good and the bad in the Trump regime – or else, and more commonly, you may only be able to mention the bad in any sentence that also includes the word Trump. Even a comedian at the storied Comic Strip Live Club this weekend was urging everyone to calm down: ‘Trump will get bored soon,’ he said. ‘Then he’ll go and find a younger, hotter country to f— over.’

A Moroccan taxi driver started grumbling about Trump’s Muslim ban as soon as I jumped into his Yellow Cab a couple of weeks ago. He said ‘everyone’ was hating Trump and talking about it. I said people were scared by terrorism. He rejected that: ‘Terrorism is everywhere, you won’t stop it,’ he said dismissively. I said Trump was doing what half the country voted for. He said they’re racist. I said: ‘Half the country, racist?’ ‘They’re racist,’ he maintained. And then we got to talking about sleeping tips for his baby, who was driving him and his wife crazy at night. Later, I reflected that in many Middle Eastern countries, terrorism has been part of the fabric of life ever since the Sunni-Shia split following the prophet Mohammed’s death. The idea that you can have a society without terrorism must seem ridiculous to them; it’s just normal, everyday life. So they find other reasons for our fear of terrorism, namely, racism.

So all-encompassing is the shrill battle storming around Trump’s every move, that one can lose sight of the impact of what the Trump Administration is actually achieving. Of much more substance than the various fake news brouhahas (military as an adjective, Flynn as Russian Fifth Columnist, Bowling Green non-massacre, Swedish non-terrorism) are the new orders on deregulation, border and national security, the appointment of Neil Gorsuch as a new Supreme Court judge, greenlighting the Keystone Pipeline project and more.

But the fusillade of media controversies is too useful to Trump to be entirely accidental – the Bjelke-Peterson phrase ‘feeding the chooks’ springs to mind – and even Democrat supporters are finding the media overreach against Trump hard to take. An elderly liberal (in the American sense) surgeon confided he could no longer read the New York Times, because every story was so anti-Trump. ‘Every story!’ he cried, with a gesture of annoyance.

The Grey Lady is indeed becoming unhinged, at times hilariously so. Recently a weekend real estate advertising liftout led not with a trend story on the latest sofas or house designs, but with a feature story on refugee women organising Trump resistance in their kitchens. Kitchens, real estate, get it? The Style section ran a long story about celebrity socialite and longtime Trump friend Nikki Haskell losing friends, invites and social position over her support for the president. These are not the news or even feature pages, remember, but the soft lifestyle and ad sections. All is Trump, everywhere is Trump. Can these legacy media outlets survive as such gunslingers, serving only half the audience and dishing up such overkill?

And there’s a social cost in whipping feelings up to this peak. Huge anti-Trump signs plastered across a Central Park apartment building’s windows were ordered down recently, as being against the building’s rules. In the New York Post story on the row within the building, one tenant said: ‘People are pro-Trump in the building, but they better not speak about it or they will be lynched.’

Sadly, it is in fact a serious discussion point among liberals here as to whether Trump voters – the Deplorables – should even be tolerated. If half of the USA refuses to tolerate the other half, America, you have a problem. First Lady Melania Trump started a speech recently by asking the crowd to join her in saying the Lord’s Prayer. That valiant exhortation to righteous behavior could indeed help tone down the charged atmosphere and remind everyone to bring their better game. But at congressional town hall meetings this week, a state chaplain was howled down when he tried to start the meeting with a prayer (‘Prayer? Prayer?’, ‘Separation of church and state!’, ‘Amen!’), and even the Pledge of Allegiance, at another meeting, met with boos and cat calls.

If enough Americans abandon the norms of civil behaviour across the divide, then it won’t be long before discourse happens from behind barricades – if it happens at all.

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