The star-spangled dust of the American Presidential election has settled — but wails over it still rise. Hillary Clinton’s camp has joined demands for a vote recount. What a scam, snarls Donald Trump, who promised exactly such a negation of the system if he lost. But as the Democrats try to turn the hands of poll-time backward, in The New Yorker, star journalist David Remnick, with smooth, prosy beauty, describes the ugly victory of a man who’s degraded every Other, demeaned women, evaded rules and remained “knowledge-free” of morality.
Remnick’s article, titled with F. Scott Fitzgerald-like dark elan, “The Great American Tragedy”, dovetails beautifully with the Oxford Dictionaries announcing 2016’s word of the year with a gloomy thud: “Post-truth”. Echoing like an elephant stomping through the US election jungle, “post-truth” means: “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Post-truth helped Trump win, Remnick writes, pointing to the “platform of resentment” on which Trump towers today, balanced on an alt-right altar of “lies, propaganda and conspiracy theories”. Post-truth won, Remnick despairs, but advises, Americans, defend American values.
It’s so lovely — but forgive me while I laugh, for both Remnick and The Dictionaries are comically wrong. “Post-truth” and “The Great American Tragedy” are not path-breaking events defining 2016. Both actually happened 13 years ago, in 2003, when America invaded Iraq, searching for “weapons of mass destruction”. It never found the weapons but it provided mass destruction anyhow. The Great American Tragedy happened when US bombs, rained on Baghdad, glowing like malicious fireflies on TV screens, CNN bringing you humanity’s first televised war, palpable excitement ruffling its correspondents’ immaculate scarves.
In that “post-truth” world, a democratically elected American demagogue — US leaders serve full terms, a luxury not enjoyed by nations like Chile, where President Allende, loved by all except the CIA, was removed in 1973 — crushed a world of doubts. Our questions, our objections were crunched like pretzels in a bar full of US contractors running Iraq That, and the breaking of the United Nations’ spine, was the first Great American Tragedy impacting my generation.
But while the world woke up and smelled the blood (currently Syrian) , why is America still droning on about truth? The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind. Literally. American pop culture is a magical — and dangerous — beast. It’s sung songs, danced defiance, stuck its tongue out at authority, giving heart to many wronged by history. Miles Davis’s jazz connected to rolling, moaning African slave ships; Madonna’s cheek added zing to feminism; Michael Jordan lent swing to Afro-American rap, which drew from a heartbeat that simply wouldn’t be crushed.
But you can have too much of a good thing. Revolutionary, American pop culture became pastiche, a hall of mirrors reflecting not what’s real — but what should be. Half-history, half-make-up, mesmerises, presenting truth with extra cheese. Thus, murdered Martin Luther King looks comfy on coasters today. Malcolm X adorns cushions; Vietnam glows on screens where helicopters and napalm become routine, as the crack of whips on enslaved backs fades outside films, as guns in Bowling For Columbine present a reality so leaden, America chooses Mad Men.
With commerce, the truth becomes a T-shirt; one of such charming irony (featuring Che Guevera mostly) that it melts resistance and endears. Thanks to Hollywood, art, music, slang — America’s signal contributions include the “F-word”, that ubiquitous exclamation celebrating sexual violation which makes users tiny Trumps — the Truth comes with botox now. But the truth isn’t lovely. It’s ugly and sad, a discomfiting image of inhumanity and how little that’s changed.
Yet, in America, truth’s discomfort has faded, becoming a soft-focus shot where 12 years of being a slave end in a group hug, where re-tweeting #Black LivesMatter answers police killing kids, where, despite sticking by a man who overawed an intern into a sex act, Hillary Clinton is projected as an independent woman. Against this, Trump — perhaps the most truthful thing in politics today, an awful, twisted truth, but the kind that makes us angry enough to refuse more Cabernet — has won. Trump’s time is the Great American Tragi-Comedy, where America will realise lies, like truths, need no passport. What you gift the world will come home too.