THERE’S a new automotive craze in backwoods America that even Jeremy Clarkson would find hard to stomach. It’s called ‘rolling coal’, and involves tuning the powerful diesel engines of jacked-up pickup trucks in such a way as to emit dense clouds of black smoke upon acceleration. The perpetrators are so proud of this poisonous sport that they post the results all over YouTube.
Some take pleasure in “black-smoking” unfortunate pedestrians and other road users by enveloping them in clouds of diesel fumes so dense that the carriageway is almost completely obscured. It’s one of the most irresponsible forms of exhibitionism on the internet right now. Except for Donald Trump’s press conferences.
The two phenomena are not unrelated. Coal rolling is a political statement. It is rural and working-class America sticking two fingers up to the hated liberal media and the coastal elites with their concerns about climate change and pollution. They’re proud of their machines and their garage skills, so they race and roar around suburban America like unashamed Confederate rebels after the American Civil War.
There is a kind of civil war being fought in the US – the “culture wars”. It’s been raging on and off for 40 years between conservative, white, Christian, mid-west America and the multicultural, coastal liberals. But in the past the liberals possessed a great advantage: air supremacy. Since the days of Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather, the great patrician anchors of US TV, there has been, if not a liberal bias in media coverage of politics, then at least an intellectual bias.
There has been a presumption that credible politicians need to be knowledgeable, intelligent and in love with the US constitution. Political leaders are expected to be able to conduct what is in effect an ongoing televised seminar on the intellectual and moral integrity of their policies. Until now. For Donald Trump is a new phenomenon in politics. His approach to media relations, on display at his eye-popping White House press conferences, is the political equivalent of coal rolling.
This President is deliberately offensive to the media, refusing to accept that their constitutional role is to hold him to account. He doesn’t try to answer most questions; doesn’t care if he is challenged on matters of fact, like the scale of his electoral college victory. He seems oblivious to how his remarks about Russia and Vladimir Putin might be interpreted in the Kremlin and Europe; and obsessed with his ratings on TV.
He has presided over the most dysfunctional first 30 days of any US president. His travel ban, which caused chaos at US airports and antagonised Muslim nations, was struck down by federal court judges. Not only did his National Security Adviser, General Michael Flynn, have to resign over allegations about illegal contacts with Russia, but Trump’s chosen replacement for the post, ex US admiral, Robert Harward, turned the job down at the last moment. No wonder. Now Trump’s Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, has been caught lying – there’s no other word for it – about his contacts with the Russian ambassador during the Trump campaign.
The President stumbled into the Arab-Israeli dispute like a blind man into a minefield. He has tweeted serious allegations about Chinese and German trade practices that lack substance and violate all the rules of diplomacy. Nato is in a state of confusion and several trade treaties are in tatters. European leaders dread lifting the phone in case the US President is on the line. The Speaker of the House of Commons has said Trump isn’t fit to speak to Westminster; London says it can’t ensure his safety during his forthcoming state visit; and nearly two million UK petitioners have called on him not to come. Some idiot has apparently suggested he should come to Scotland instead.
But Trump insists that his administration is running “like a finely tuned machine”. The troubles are all “fake news” made up by a “failing” media, led by the Washington Post and CNN. It’s probably true that many in the Washington press corps have an agenda: they just don’t think he should be there. It is hard to conduct any meaningful dialogue with a leader most of whose utterances don’t make any sense.
However, the more outrageously Donald Trump behaves, the more he seems to get away with it. It is as if he has an invisible force field which insulates him from the rules of political discourse and the charge that he is clearly not fit to hold any public office let alone the presidency. It is called populism.
For millions of Trump supporters, all this is sweet music. You can almost hear them cheering as The Donald coal-rolls the “libtards” and “snowflakes”, as they call leftists and millennials. At last, someone is speaking their language, and is bitch-slapping the smart-ass, Ivy-League liberals of the media. Trump’s press conferences are exactly like his campaign speeches, and that’s where his strength lies – in appealing to the ordinary Joe, overwhelmed by social and economic change; the “left-behinds” who don’t feel they know their own country any more.
That much we know. The problem, for America and the world, is what to do about it. By normal standards, Trump has done more than enough in one month to ensure his political destruction, but he isn’t going anywhere soon. Unfortunately, the Founding Fathers of the US Constitution failed to include manifest incompetence in the list of impeachable offences. We have entered a new age: the age of unreason.
Trump’s brand of populism hasn’t taken root in Britain yet. Paul Nuttall, the leader of Ukip and the nearest we have to a Trump populist, crashed and burned last week in the Stoke by-election campaign over revelations over untruths posted on his website? about close friends dying in the Hillsborough disaster. Labour has had a pretty disastrous by-election too, but it looks like holding on in the pro-Brexit constituency.
Cynics might say that we don’t need a real Donald Trump because we have Boris Johnson and the Brexit ministers. But they aren’t comparable. Boris has a demotic, jokey style, but he is an intellectual who writes books about ancient Rome. We have yet to breed a British equivalent of Trump, though the bungling Scottish Ukip MEP, David Coburn, certainly possesses the right DNA.
A lot of Donald Trump’s ability to withstand criticism comes from his support on the internet, where legions of supporters last week cheered as he “owned” and “closed down” the old media. The internet has undermined the monopoly of news held by the established press and the TV anchors. On BBC Newsnight, the Trump aide Sebastian Gorka reduced presenter, Evan Davies, to spluttering incoherence as he calmly insisted that the Trump administration has been a triumphant success and the scandals invented. “Just Google it,” he kept saying: “Look it up.”
What he means is, consult the raft of alternative news sites – fake and real – on the internet, like Breitbart, Info Wars, Americana Renaissance, 4chan, 8chan. Also the numerous individual alt right tweeters and bloggers like Alex Jones and Milo Yiannopoulis. The British tabloid press has occupied some of this territory and is no stranger to fake news, but they still observe most of the old rules.
It’s really worth spending some time online in the alt right world, if only to understand it. It isn’t the old evangelical right and seems largely driven by internet-savvy young men. Much alt right discourse is conducted through memes rather than argument – like the green-faced Pepe the Frog who was co-opted by the Trump “Meme Team”. It isn’t obviously fascist or racist, and it is often anti-capitalist or anti-banker in its rhetoric.
But what unites it with the old racial right is the furious resentment in alt right discussion groups at what they see as the media’s obsession with minorities, welfare recipients, women’s groups and LBGT people. The Trump election was essentially a referendum on political correctness. The right is speaking a new political language, and we sure as hell better learn it because it will be over here before we know it.