Mood at Trump's inauguration will be just impeachy

2:42 pm on 20 January 2017

Opinion - Some presidencies end in crisis. Some endure and survive crisis. But Donald Trump will cap his extraordinary election victory by being sworn in as a president already in crisis.

Donald Trump merchandise on sale outside the White House amid final preparations for the inauguration.

Donald Trump merchandise on sale outside the White House amid final preparations for the inauguration. Photo: AFP

Even the kind of reality TV shows he once hosted take time to manufacture the all-important element of "jeopardy" that attracts viewers, so this is something of a record.

We're not talking about the sort of ordinary crises previous presidents have inherited or brought upon themselves. It took a second term to destroy Nixon. Bill Clinton went the distance despite Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky. Obama was handed the GFC and the mess in Iraq by Bush but it was hope and change that characterised the mood of his inauguration.

Trump, as we know, is different. His swearing-in on 20 January is beginning to look like a dignified anomaly in an otherwise head-spinning circus of vulgarity and socio-political breakdown.

Should Trump eventually be impeached, as has been speculated might happen, his enemies will have a shopping list of pretexts and allegations - sexual, ethical and possibly criminal. That an incoming American president should be suspected by large sections of the political and media establishment of being a Russian stooge only adds to the air of unreality in an era of so-called "fake news".

More than the fake news itself, it is the cynicism generated by an awareness of the unreliability of so much media and social media that has rendered facts and reason largely impotent. Combined with Trump's utterly elastic relationship with truth and his complete lack of shame, this has created an even wider crisis of faith.

No one knows what to believe any more.

And while Trump has undoubtedly enabled some of the viler elements of the American right to feel safe above ground, the mainstream left seems to be experiencing something resembling an existential crisis that goes well beyond mere apoplexy at their own candidate's defeat.

With Trump the embodiment of their worst nightmares, "liberals" (a vexed term, like most political labels now) defend or promote the murky assertions of the CIA and the FBI - despite those state agencies' historical and well-documented mendacity and antipathy to genuine left-activism.

Whatever the truth about Putin's role in Trump's victory, the scale of the Russophobia now gripping the US definitely has Cold War overtones, including a willful blindness to the fact it is Russia that is encircled by hostile military bases on its borders, not the US.

Those braving the shallows of social media to point out such things, or to ask for better proof of intelligence dossier claims, are as likely to be attacked by the left as the right for being a Putin puppet or Russian "asset" - therefore by association pro-Trump.

Conversely, the sense of betrayal felt by fans of Bernie Sanders at Democratic conniving to install Hillary Clinton as their candidate has seen some of them spewing the same bile as Trump's white nationalist and virulently anti-Clinton mob.

One could go on, but on the eve of the Trump epoch it's worth noting the present is child to the past. That a debased caricature such as Trump can become Commander in Chief means the social, cultural, economic and political pre-conditions were already set.

The past eight years of that process, of course, occurred on Obama's watch. He may have been a more acceptable face of imperial power, and the celebrity class may have fawned at his feet, but he did next to nothing to stem a rising tide of popular revulsion with a rigged economy and "the best government money can buy".

So, faced with the discordant realities exposed by a choice between two deeply loathed candidates, a "winner" who lost the popular vote, a corporate media locked inside a delusional echo chamber, and a billionaire who promised to "drain the swamp" now stacking his cabinet with crony capitalists straight from the black lagoon, is it any wonder the ordinary voter now feels powerless and a little crazy?

It's as if America is experiencing a "societal-political psychotic break", as one clinical psychologist proposed recently. There are two ways the US might go, then: recover and work to reform a clearly broken system; or follow Trump down into some place where chaos and unreality is the new normal.

Finlay Macdonald was editor of the New Zealand Listener magazine from 1998 to 2003, commissioning editor at Penguin New Zealand from 2003 to 2005, and a weekly columnist for the Sunday Star-Times from 2003 to 2011.

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