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Altered States: how a superpower stopped being great

“It’s a great honour,” said Donald Trump, proffering a welcoming hand and tipping slightly his feather-light wedge of corn-coloured hair, as we greeted each other outside the golden elevators on the 25th floor of his Manhattan skyscraper. Expecting this germophobe to recoil at the possibility of physical contact, I was surprised he was prepared to take my hand, let alone grip it so firmly. Expecting to be confronted by a wall of bombast, I found his humility also unpredicted.

In the flesh, Trump seemed a more likeable and sophisticated version of his crass reality-television self: less brash, more intelligent, disarmingly charming. The conference room he ushered me into also defied his corporate image: not the wood-panelled firing chamber of The Apprentice, but a modern and airy space with tasteful office furniture and corner-window views down Fifth Avenue, all the way to Central Park.

We met in the autumn of 2014, when the pleasure palaces he once operated in Atlantic City, New Jersey – the Trump Plaza and Trump Taj Mahal – were about to shutter their doors. Amid a swirl of negative publicity – he hadn’t yet coined the phrase “fake news” to discredit unwelcome coverage – he was determined to distance himself from the failed casinos, which had been emblazoned with his name until he sued the new owners and forced them to haul down the garish “T-R-U-M-P” signage.

The Trump Taj Mahal, much like the Indian subcontinent during the British Raj, had once been the jewel in his crown, a monument to his vanity. The “eighth wonder of the world”, he even called it, as he paraded Michael Jackson at its grand opening in April 1990. Now, though, this decaying eyesore on the Jersey Shore was a derelict folly, a landmark of a business empire that had become something of a standing joke.

Those days, Trump was better known as a television personality than property tycoon, someone who traded on his name through global licensing deals and his prime-time TV show, rather than constructing his own skyscrapers or gambling halls. Sitting for an interview with me, a US correspondent with the British Broadcasting Corporation, gave him an opportunity to demonstrate to the outside world that the sun still reflected off his golden signage.

Over the course of the interview, I witnessed first-hand the traits and tics that would soon be transferred from the business to the political realm.

Also, he seemed to regard appearing on the BBC as a status symbol, airtime more rarefied than the flatulent fog of The Howard Stern Show, the American radio shock-jock’s program being one of Trump’s more regular haunts. It was as if he regarded us as an offshoot of the monarchy, which may have explained his near-courtly manner. A celebrity whose presidential candidacy would be defined by contempt for institutions – the presidency itself, Congress, the Republican Party, The New York Times, the media more broadly and the snooty bicoastal elites living in California and New York – was respectful, for now at least, of a pillar of British life.

Turning on the camera instantly made him more recognisable. The red light activated his showman self, his performative persona. It was as if he had inhaled some intoxicant. Over the course of the interview, I witnessed first-hand the traits and tics that would soon be transferred from the business to the political realm.

There was his unabashed boastfulness: “When I was in Atlantic City it was a great thing. It was a heyday for Atlantic City. It was prime time.”

The hyperbole: “There was nothing like it. It was the Las Vegas of the East Coast. There was nothing like it.”

The inflated claims about his business acumen and negotiating skills: “A lot of people are giving me credit for good timing … I decided years ago to get out. It was a good decision, and very interestingly it coincides with Atlantic City going down.”

The blaming of others for personal failure: “A lot of it has to do with poor political management and too much competition … very bad political decisions over many years.”

His disregard for science and his “war on windmills”: “Wind turbines. They are terrible. They’re obsolete. They ruin neighbourhoods. They reduce the value of everybody’s houses. They raise everyone’s taxes. They’re very bad. They kill the birds and hurt the environment.”

His prowess at gleaning free advertising from major news organisations: “Want to ask a question about Turnberry [his championship golf club on the Firth of Clyde in Scotland] by any chance? It’s rated the number one course. We’re going to do something amazing. The hotel is going to be one of the great hotels in the world. We will do a terrific job for the people of Scotland.”

Evident, too, was his wistfulness for the mythic glory days of Atlantic City, a Jersey Shore version of the sentimental nationalism he would peddle in the 2016 presidential race for those who sought refuge in a misremembered past.

To watch the tape back now is to be reminded of how interchangeable was his sales patter. Though the topic was his casinos, he could just as easily have been hawking Trump steaks, Trump University, Trump wine, the Trump board game, the Tour de Trump cycling race, the Trump candidacy or the Trump presidency. Most of his boasts and rationalisations did not withstand close scrutiny. His Atlantic City business ventures were such a financial disaster they had turned him into a six-time bankrupt.

However, his answers were uttered with such complete conviction I felt sure he could have passed a lie-detector test.

Trump with this article's author Nick Bryant in 2014. Bryant says his choice of attire that day, "a white silk tie that would not have looked out of place at a mob wedding in Queens or New Jersey, showed how ingratiatingly we entered his orbit".

Trump with this article’s author Nick Bryant in 2014. Bryant says his choice of attire that day, “a white silk tie that would not have looked out of place at a mob wedding in Queens or New Jersey, showed how ingratiatingly we entered his orbit”.Credit:Courtesy of Nick Bryant

What the camera did not record that day was Trump’s roving eye. “Booootiful” was his libidinous reaction to my producer, as he looked her slowly up and down after the interview was over. It was the kind of rich-man sleaziness that revealed both his shamelessness and misogyny.

The fact I let it go, and lightly laughed it off, also anticipated some of the recurring journalistic failings of the 2016 presidential campaign: a hesitancy on the part of reporters to hold him to account, a tendency to be overawed by his Trumpian aura, and a cravenness in handing over airtime to this proven ratings winner, whatever the moral outlay. Even my choice of attire that day, a white silk tie that would not have looked out of place at a mob wedding in Queens or New Jersey, showed how ingratiatingly we entered his orbit.

So often it came to be said that Trump defied the laws of political gravity that this commonplace became a cliché. But were we not complicit as journalists in letting him so effortlessly achieve weightlessness? We clicked on the terms and conditions without so much as a second thought.

For all his faults, I left that day with a sense he was self-aware enough to be in on the Trump joke: that his public persona was a deliberately cartoonish shtick; that the tycoon who appeared each week on The Apprentice was an exaggerated rendering of a more reasonable self; that he was laughing up his own sleeve. As for the possibility of him making a run for the White House, it never even cropped up in our conversation. The notion he could monopolise media attention, seize control of the Republican Party, upend the US political system, and swap Fifth for Pennsylvania Avenue seemed risible.

When the interview was over, and our story went to air, I never again expected to report on Donald J. Trump, nor to mention him much in passing. Also, I left with the firm impression that his best days and grandest designs were in the past. The idea that some time in the future, my first waking act – day after day, month after month, year after year – would be to check his Twitter feed was farcical.

So I was not in the least bit perturbed, despite a long-held paranoia about missing breaking stories, to be on holiday on the June 2015 day he descended that golden escalator to announce his bid for the presidency. It seemed like a brand-boosting stunt. A narcissistic pseudo-candidacy. A novelty act. An entertainment rather than political story: one that might provide the lead for Access Hollywood but not the evening news, although admittedly the two were becoming harder to tell apart. The BBC did not even dispatch a camera crew to Trump Tower.

Trump on June 16, 2015, when he announced his candidacy for the US presidency.

Trump on June 16, 2015, when he announced his candidacy for the US presidency.Credit:Getty Images

In any case, within 36 hours of his campaign launch, cable news channels were consumed by the horror unfolding in Charleston, South Carolina. There, a 21-year-old had walked into a prayer meeting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, sat for an hour during these Wednesday night devotions and even expressed opinions about the scriptures, then pulled out a Glock 41 .45 calibre handgun and shot dead nine African-American worshippers.

When it emerged that the shooter, Dylann Roof, was a white supremacist who lauded the Confederate flag and intended his massacre to ignite a race war, Charleston took on an even more malign historical significance.

Referred to as “Mother Emanuel”, this was the oldest African Methodist Episcopal church in Dixie, the country’s first independent black denomination, and a cradle of black activism stretching from a nascent slave revolt in the early 19th century to the struggle for black equality of the 1960s. Booker T. Washington, the great African-American educator, and the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King jnr had spoken from its pulpit. Its black-tiled spire could be seen from the ramparts of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbour, where in 1861 the first shots of the American Civil War had rung out.

So in addition to the ritual calls for tighter gun controls came fresh demands for a racial reckoning – and in particular, the banishment of the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the State House in the capital, Columbia, a row that had rumbled on in South Carolina for decades.

Over the coming weeks, the arc of the moral universe seemed more pliable than usual, and for progressives it bent decisively towards justice. Barack Obama, in one of the more electrifying moments of his presidency, surprised mourners at the funeral of the Reverend Clementa Pinckney, the slain pastor of Mother Emanuel, by launching into Amazing Grace. Hesitant so often to publicly explore the racial meaning of his political ascent, it was as if he had belatedly decided to fully assume the role of America’s first black president.

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“For too long, we’ve been blind to the way past injustices continue to shape the present,” Obama said on a day remembered not for his lyricism, but rather his song. “Perhaps we see that now.”

That very evening, on June 26, the president returned to a White House bathed in rainbow colours, a floodlight display celebrating the Supreme Court’s ruling earlier in the day codifying same-sex marriage as a nationwide right. For jubilant members of the LGBTQI+ community, the ruling was akin to the Brown versus Board of Education of Topeka Supreme Court decision of 1954 that signalled the end of southern school segregation. It promised first-class citizenship, and the sharing of a now-universal American right.

Only the day before, the conservative-leaning Supreme Court had delivered another victory for progressives by rejecting a constitutional challenge to “Obamacare”, the signature health reform that promised to make Obama a genuinely transformational president.

A few weeks later, I returned to South Carolina, this time to watch the Confederate colours being lowered at the State House grounds from the 10-metre flagpole. On a suffocating day, amid tears of joy and relief, a multi-generational crowd of African-Americans bore witness as the battle flag of an army fighting to preserve slavery was furled and packed off to a nearby museum.

Such culminating moments lend themselves to over-extrapolation, especially for foreign correspondents who tend to work in bold colours rather than pastel shades. So it was tempting to view the coming down of the flag as a final surrender of the American Civil War, the end of a long defeat. At the very least, it seemed like the closing of a chapter in which the white nationalists who revered this fabric of hate ended up once more firmly on the wrong side of history, a lost cause lost again.

Many of us had misread the zeitgeist. The coming down of the Confederate flag no more marked the defeat of racism than the election of Barack Obama.

What was soon dubbed the “summer of love” felt in some ways like a belated fulfilment, six years after entering the White House, of Obama’s “Yes We Can” America. A triumph of progressivism; even a reformist “end of history” moment, in which liberal gains, while far from being universally accepted, were nonetheless irreversible.

Victories had been achieved in two climactic fights, over the hateful iconography of the Confederacy and the rainbow colours of same-sex marriage. Just as emblematic was success in the legal battle over Obamacare, a legislative trophy beyond the grasp of previous presidents Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. With “God, gays and guns” America reeling, the Democrats looked forward to the upcoming presidential race with preening confidence.

Not only did history seem to be on their side, but also the demographics of a fast-changing America. The 2016 electorate would be the most racially and ethnically diverse polity the US had ever seen, with nearly a third of voters Hispanic, African-American, Asian or another racial or ethnic minority.
Thus it seemed preordained that the first female president would follow the first black president into the White House.

In South Carolina in 2015, President Barack Obama sang Amazing Grace at the eulogy for Clementa Pinckney, who was murdered by a white supremacist.

In South Carolina in 2015, President Barack Obama sang Amazing Grace at the eulogy for Clementa Pinckney, who was murdered by a white supremacist.Credit:Getty Images

Here, though, we erred. June 17, 2015, the day Dylann Roof massacred those defenceless parishioners, altered history much less than June 16, 2015, the day Donald Trump launched his presidential campaign. What we were witnessing that summer was not some liberal Eden, but the beginning of a rage-filled blowback.

Many of us – most of us – had badly misread the zeitgeist. The coming down of the Confederate flag no more marked the defeat of racism than the election of Barack Obama. The Affordable Care Act, rather than being immutable, would soon come under renewed attack. Evangelical Christians, for whom the rainbow flag was a red rag, were newly galvanised. Seemingly we were seeing the victory of racial and LGBTQI+ identity politics, where marginalised groups achieved singular goals. However, its counterpoint was the resurgence of something that historically had always been more dominant, the politics of white resentment.

Because the 2016 presidential election was decided by fewer than 80,000 votes in three industrial battleground states – Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania – it was easy to see Trump’s freak victory as a historical accident. However, it also seemed historically inescapable: as much a culmination as an aberration, a symptom not the cause.

As the politically impossible became real on January 20, 2017, and Trump raised his hand to take the presidential oath of office, the words used by the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville to describe the revolution in his homeland in 1789 also matched this earth-rattling moment: “So inevitable, yet so completely unforeseen.”

Arguably, the bigger surprise, given the direction the US had been travelling for the previous 40 years, was that Barack Obama became America’s 44th president, rather than Trump becoming its 45th.

Trump benefited from the resurging politics of white resentment, a racial division highlighted by the recent Black Lives Matter protests.

Trump benefited from the resurging politics of white resentment, a racial division highlighted by the recent Black Lives Matter protests.Credit:Getty Images

Now it was the summer of 2020, in the fourth year of Trump’s renegade presidency, and the US faced another season of racial reckoning. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, a video went viral. It showed a black man, George Floyd, being suffocated by the knee of a white police officer; a killing that lasted almost eight minutes; an allegedly murderous act that came to epitomise how African-Americans had long been held down and smothered by systemic racism.

Across America, fury broke loose. In Minneapolis, the city where George Floyd was killed, protesters torched the local police station. There were ugly scenes in Atlanta, Georgia, the birthplace of Martin Luther King and the cradle of the civil rights movement. In New York, stores were ransacked in SoHo, the city’s most fashionable shopping district. Even Macy’s department store in the heart of Midtown was looted. Faced with protests against police brutality, too many police officers responded brutally, an aggressiveness that only fuelled the fires of frustrations.

The US was confronted by three simultaneous convulsions: a chronic public health crisis that disproportionately affected people of colour; an economic shock that disproportionately affected people of colour; and civil unrest sparked by police brutality that had always disproportionately affected people of colour. A shattered mirror was being held up to a fractured country.

Yet also there was American beauty in this moment, as the country was engulfed by its most mammoth multi-racial and multi-generational mobilisation since the 1960s. Protesters converged on the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, the pulpit from which Martin Luther King had delivered his most celebrated sermon; a paean to non-violence that spoke of a dream that has long been deferred. Marchers streamed across the Brooklyn Bridge in New York and the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, part of a movement that quickly established a footprint in all 50 states. Even in small, rural towns never before touched by racial turbulence, protesters took a knee.

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The relics of the Confederacy, the totems of that lost cause, came under renewed assault. And memorials celebrating the fight to prolong slavery were replaced with new landmarks. The mayor of Washington, a city whose majority African-American population is still denied representation on Capitol Hill, decreed that a block of 16th Street should become Black Lives Matter Plaza. So those words were painted in giant yellow letters on the very doorstep of the White House. The same motif was daubed on Fifth Avenue outside the entrance to Trump Tower, more eye-catching than the skyscraper’s famous golden doors.

For a time we wondered whether this was another Parkland moment, where the massacre in 2018 of 17 students at a high school in Florida produced a cloudburst of activism but failed to change the political weather on gun reform. Yet the anti-racism protests felt more meaningful and profound, and akin to the meteor effect of the #MeToo movement.

Change sprung from the most improbable of places. NASCAR, a motor sport drenched in the mythology of the south, banned the Confederate flag from its racetracks. The Washington Redskins, the American football team that for decades spurned calls from native Americans to change its name, finally bowed to public pressure. Quaker Oats retired its Aunt Jemima foods brand. Walmart announced it would stop placing African-American beauty products in anti-theft cases. The 1939 film Gone with the Wind was removed from streaming service HBO Max, then restored with a disclaimer about how it denied the horrors of slavery. Corporate behemoths such as Nike and Twitter designated Juneteenth, the day marking the end of slavery, as a paid holiday.

Black Lives Matter, a movement rejected by most Americans when it started in 2013, now enjoyed majority support. Its leaders told me they were witnessing an historic attitudinal shift: white Americans – indeed, white people the world over – were finally understanding and acknowledging their privilege.

Trump holds a Bible outside St John's Church, across Lafayette Park from the White House, in a melodramatic photo opportunity.

Trump holds a Bible outside St John’s Church, across Lafayette Park from the White House, in a melodramatic photo opportunity. Credit:AP

Even Trump, whose political rise stemmed from positioning himself as the untitled leader of a Birther Movement founded on the bogus claim that America’s first black president had not been born in the US, felt compelled to act. He added his signature to an executive order paving the way for a national database to bar police officers accused of brutality moving from one force to another. For the most part, however, he adopted the “law and order” language and posture of Richard Nixon’s winning presidential campaign in 1968, the year of the assassination of Martin Luther King and the last time the country had witnessed racial protests on this scale.

Trump staged a melodramatic photo opportunity choreographed with the assistance of federal law enforcement officials, who fired stun grenades and mounted baton charges to disperse a crowd of peaceful protesters from outside the White House. Violently a path was cleared so the president could stride the short distance to a church that had been daubed with Black Lives Matter graffiti, outside which he held aloft his testamental prop, a leather-bound edition of the Bible.

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Instantly, the Battle of Lafayette Square became one of the defining moments of his presidency. Trump had a habit of personifying the national moment, from his emergence in the 1980s when he became an avatar for Reaganism. Now he did so again, embodying the division that has turned the United States of America into a misnomer, a country beset by rumbling faultiness and unbridgeable divides.

As around us this epic history swirled, we welcomed our first American child into the world. Honor Wood Bryant was born on the third night of curfew and in the third month of the COVID-19 lockdown. As my wife went into labour, New York Police Department helicopters hovered above our Brooklyn apartment building. Our midwife’s assistant was questioned by policemen outside our door.

Having opted for a home birth to avoid the restrictions imposed by COVID-riddled hospitals, we now feared our routes to the nearest emergency room might be cut off if something went calamitously wrong. Thankfully, instead of any worst-case scenarios, we experienced the magical realism of new life – even if my daughter gulped her first lungfuls as protesters across the country chanted, “I can’t breathe.”

I confess to harbouring conflicted feelings about Honor being born in the US, a thought my younger self would almost have considered treasonous. For there were times in my life when I’d have happily taken up citizenship, and travelled the world with an eagle on my passport. Coming here for the first time as a teenager in the mid-’80s, I felt an instant sense of belonging. Having grown up in the UK, a place where upward mobility was by no means a given, the animating sense of possibility felt unshackling.

My first American journey had been to Los Angeles just as the 1984 Olympics were about to start, and just as the US was about to experience its great summertime of resurgence. After the long national nightmare of Vietnam, Watergate and the Iranian hostage crisis, the mood was buoyant, and perfectly distilled by Ronald Reagan in his re-election slogan that year: “It’s morning again in America.”

In 2020, the US is almost unrecognisable as the country from the mid-1980s when Ronald Reagan's re-election slogan was: “It’s morning again in America".

In 2020, the US is almost unrecognisable as the country from the mid-1980s when Ronald Reagan’s re-election slogan was: “It’s morning again in America”.Credit:AAP

By 2020, however, the US was almost unrecognisable from the country I fell in love with as a child. The coronavirus, like the election of Trump, had exposed so many long-term ailments: its toxic polarisation, racial inequities, income segregation, inoperative government and democratic sickliness. American exceptionalism, far from being awe-inspiring and emulative, had become a negative construct: something foreigners associated with mass shootings, unsafe schools, the decline of reason and a politics unhinged. The city on a hill looked more like a place of dereliction.

Most of the major milestones in America’s modern-day story I had witnessed close-up. The Reagan Revolution. The 1992 Los Angeles riots that brought death to the City of Angels. The election later that same year of Bill Clinton, and his near political demise following his affair with Monica Lewinsky.

From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, I watched the pyrotechnics with which the US celebrated the new millennium, illuminating the Washington Monument as if it were a giant number one. Then I saw the early signs of the country’s post-millennial decline, the fiasco of the Florida recount after the disputed 2000 election, which prompted diplomats from Zimbabwe, no less, to volunteer as international observers.

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I was there on September 11, 2001, an attack we all thought would be the biggest story of our lives: the day separated the past and the future into the before and the after. I filed dispatches from Ground Zero, the still smouldering Pentagon and the battlefields of the Bush administration’s “war on terror”, seeing for myself the fear in the eyes of young US soldiers as our Humvees ventured down roads that might be booby-trapped with IEDs.

I reported on how Barack Obama defied history to become America’s first black president, and saw the joy that erupted that night from African-American Washingtonians outside the gates of a White House built by slaves. I was perched in the press stand when Donald Trump took the presidential oath of office, then spoke darkly about American carnage in his dystopian inaugural address.

During the coronavirus outbreak, I watched America’s most energetic city fall into a coma-like state. My Australian wife and I even suffered from the virus that has taken the lives of more than 150,000 Americans (and counting). As the US became the global epicentre of the pandemic, we saw the world take pity on a nation haemorrhaging influence by the hour.

First as a wide-eyed schoolboy, then as a student conducting research on the struggle for black equality and eventually as a BBC correspondent who began reporting from Washington in the 1990s, a decade pregnant with so many of the problems that have contributed to the nation’s 21st-century decline, I observed the country regress from Morning in America to American Carnage. I felt I had a story to tell: the saga of when America stopped being great.

Nick Bryant was the BBC’s Australia correspondent from 2006 to 2013, and has been the BBC’s New York correspondent ever since. This is an augmented extract from his book, When America Stopped Being Great (Viking, $35), out Monday.

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