I don't know much about Americans. I've never been to the country myself, but from what I know it's a splendid place: home to all manner of attractions such as Yellowstone with its Old Faithful, Vegas and its opulence, and Texas with its Marfa lights.
It's got the best schools, the swankiest college campuses and some of the biggest companies around. It is the single most important economic power in the world. I don't think it would be hyperbole to claim that everything we know about economics was cooked up within this vast nation. It has some of the most famous people rubbing shoulders with the finest intellectuals of our time (or any time, for that matter). I mean, who can ever honestly say that they wouldn't like to be in the same geographic unit as Hawking, Offerman and Chomsky?
I know I can't. No, America is such a vastly important and diverse country that I've been having doubts about whether 'American' as a demonym can ever mean anything. It can mean something in the same way that 'terrestrial' refers to a rat and 'Indian' can ever refer to Tagore. The word itself is informative, to be sure. It's informative as a geological marker: somewhere you can place some or other important figure so you can measure the aerial distance between you and them. It's informative as a very rudimentary way to pick on a class of people; the same way "The West" is used by certain unsavoury thuggish elements to refer to America, Canada and Australia but not Brazil, Argentina or Papua New Guinea.
What does it mean to be American? I don't know. But I get the feeling that I know what it would take for me to feel American. I guess we all do. There isn't a single person on the planet who hasn't in some way, shape or form come to know that there's a churlish billionaire sitting on the single most important seat in the world. I don't think we need reminding who it is that sits on top of the world's largest and most powerful nuclear arsenal in history.
No, I'm not faulting the Americans for having elected a tongue-wagging demagogue. They haven't really had to doubt the ability of their swaggering Presidents in the past. Every time they fell for honeyed words, they got a capable, level-headed intellectual who knew how to handle international discourse. Centuries of reinforcement have made them believe that the worst they can do is end up with another Obama.
But then there came Trump. Trump is a different kind of star. Sure, there have been TV personalities taking public offices for as long as TVs have existed. Sure, they've nearly always been spotty characters with a certain penchant for the dramatic. But what the previous iterations of TV-star-turned-President lacked was brazenness. If reality were a bus, Trump would never have taken it. Not just because he's never had to take public transport his entire life, but because he's had no kind of relationship to everyday reality. Again, I don't know Americans. But I feel like a man with several billions of dollars in personal wealth made chiefly by forcing garish, overpriced real estate down the throats of severely troubled neighbourhoods isn't really the kind of guy I would bump into on my way to the grocery store.
But that doesn't mean that he isn't an American. See, this is where the word poses an issue again. He's as American as every inner Englishman who got on a boat hoping to make a pretty penny across the pond. He embodies the aspirations of all of those men who see their ideal self as beings with unlimited wealth without any of the prerequisites like empathy, compassion and hard work. It's like America, in her darkest hour, dreamt up a figure so terrifying and so real that there was nothing it could be but her wrangler.
And this is how it's been for the entire length of time since he was elected. Utter pandemonium on the streets. Daily marches, sloganeering and protests. Against what? Their own democratically elected President. A man who before being elected, was subjected to torturously flimsy coverage detailing all his latest antics and Twitter tirades but never about any of the issues his core support base cared about. And it wasn't for lack of information: nearly every mainstream media outlet knew that Trump was vastly more popular than the "establishment candidate"; everybody including those holding the highest levels of office knew that powerful, institutional interests were keenly involved in the election efforts.
And yet, when this guy gets elected, everyone lost their collective bearings. Suddenly, democracy itself is brought to question. And all of a sudden, there's empty talk of "echo chambers" and the pernicious effects of excessive news consumption. This episode was one of the most bizarre and truly pathetic displays of humans' ability to deceive everybody, including themselves, that reality is not the way it is and that they can change it by simply willing it hard enough.
What we are seeing is simply a real-life example of Moore's paradox, famously phrased as being of the form "It is raining but I do not believe that it is raining". What does it say about a nation that is so bent on not taking responsibility that it simply denies the existence of reality itself? Whether the coastal media likes it or not, Trump is the Leader of the Free World. For now. And there's nothing caustic op-eds and "Not my President" lapel pins can do to fix it. Clearly, the Russian investigation is a political dead-end too. And so is claiming conflicts of interest. Every single issue that the media has chosen to cover over the past 6 months has only undermined its reputation for free, fair coverage of facts. Facts being defined as "the statements held undeniably true by one's immediate social group". There is no such thing as a division between fact and guided narrative; it's a false dichotomy. There is only truth. All 330 million individual versions of it.
The longer the media stays fixated on establishing and hammering home the validity of one overarching narrative above all the others, the longer it will end up spending on the clean-up after the next Trump election. The longer we spend denying every individual the freedom of thought and the dignity of believing any version of truth they want to, the more we turn them away from the light we want them to see. There is agreement only when there is freedom to disagree.
Maybe that's why we don't speak ill of the dead.