Why do I do it to myself? Every four years I get sucked into the American election coverage. This year is no different, I am engaged with what is going on over in the States and yet we are a whole year away from the actual election, in which I cannot vote anyway! Though, we do have five American citizens in the house, which gives more substance to my fascination, even if I am the only person who is not a US citizen.
At the moment we are just at the early stages of selecting who will be the candidates in the election for each party. Early stages, pah! This has already been going on since before the summer.
As a relatively seasoned observer of US politics - and someone who watched in stunned amazement as George W Bush won a second term - this election cycle seems to be something altogether more desperate, fact-free, personal and, when you come right down to it, deeply repugnant.
Each new week and each new day we have seen new depths of political depravity trawled.
As I write, the Republican candidates are:
- clearly race baiting (for example by mocking the Black Lives Matter campaign),
- talking up another ground invasion to the Middle East,
- talking about reintroducing torture (a war crime),
- deliberately conflated refugees and IS terrorists as if they are one and the same (ignoring the fact that the refugees are fleeing the same terrorist movement that recently attacked Paris),
- denying basic human decency by turning their backs on refugees,
- demonising Muslims (albeit under the cover of "not all Muslims" nudge, nudge, wink, wink),
- talking of introducing registers of Muslims, perhaps even identity badges,
- discussing litmust tests for whether you are a true Christian,
- producing tax plans that would increase the wealth transfer from the poor and middle class to the rich (as if that isn't already bad enough),
- talking about lessening regulations on business (which worked so well when applied to the banking sector),
- dismissing climate change as a topic unworthy of serious contemplation,
- grossly misrepresenting what Barak Obama's administration has achieved (for instance in reducing the numbers of people without healthcare, stimulating the economy, and reducinging unemployment),
- laying the foundations to create a totalitarian regime under the banner of a Christianist theocracy of which the rich elite would be sole judge of who is in and who is out (I wish this latter was pure hyperbole, but the signs are all there and explored below).
The main protagonists of these views are Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee, but Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush et al have all in their own ways revealed that their positions are moving ever further to a totalitarian right. Part of that might be in response to the ghastly rhetoric of Trump, Carson and Cruz that has pushed the whole conversation rightward, but there is no doubt in my mind that the base position has lurched further rightward than it has been for generations. The only parallel that readily comes to mind would be the McCarthy-era of witch hunts at the height of the Cold War.
When Donald Trump entered the race there was a part of me that whooped with joy because you just knew that the entertainment value to the whole process would take a giant leap up. As Trump began to speak out, however, and as his camp of followers has grown, that amusement has turned to horror. As I write, Trump is still the leading candidate in the polls of Republican candidates, a position he has been in or near to for months on end.
I watched in despair this past weekend to see camera phone footage of a man of colour speaking out for the Black Lives Matter campaign (which is seeking to redress the doublestandards in how black people are treated by the police after increasing evidence of disproportionate violence used against people of colour by police officers - much of it captured on camera making it much more difficult to deny) during a Trump rally. To cries from Donald Trump at the podium of "get 'em the hell out of here", this man was attacked and beaten by Trump supporters.
This follows other examples of people being spat at by Trump supporters, hispanic people being beaten up by Trump followers after his comments about Mexicans, and another hispanic man being dragged out by the neck from a Trump rally while the crowd cheered "U-S-A, U-S-A...".
This is ugly, nasty stuff. That the beating of a man of colour at the Trump rally took place in Birmingham, Alabama only heightened the despair. Then Trump and some of his supporters doubled down saying that no dissent would be allowed at his rallies, and that the victim of the beating in Alabama essentially deserved it for daring to question Trump's policies. In describing some of his supporters that beat up a hispanic man, Trump described them as "passionate". Today I saw footage of Trump mocking a disabled reporter, Serge Kovaleski, by mimicking his disability. You see where this is headed, don't you?
Interestingly, the Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, was also interrupted by Black Lives Matter campaigners a couple of months ago. He stopped what he was saying and started talking with these campaigners, engaging with them and listening to what they had to say. He later came out with a supportive statement. Trump relentlessly mocked Sanders for "giving up his microphone" to these campaigners, swearing that would never happen with him.
After the first couple of weeks of Trump's campaign during the summer I tickled myself by likening him to the American equivalent of Silvio Berlusconi. Not now. In what is being said, in the steps being taken, in the rhetoric being used, in the provocations to minority groups, the implicit threat of violence to anyone that objects, the likeness I have in mind is Il Duce himself, Benito Mussollini, the founder of fascism. It is almost uncanny.
Do I think that Trump will be elected as President of the United States? No, I do not. There are far too many sensible people and Trump's unfavourability ratings amongst the general populace are astronomical. That is not my worry. My worry is that his views are being incorporated into the mainstream discourse, rather than being limited to the ravings of a lunatic fringe. It is much the same as here in the UK with the likes of The Mail Online giving Katie Hopkins a platform to spew her own bile and hatred, or to Britain First which seems to be ever present on Facebook. The danger I fear is that the increased acceptance of these views into the mainstream dialogue gives an implicit permission for some to then live out their own racist, bigotted views and take action.
Kudos, by the way, to the students of Brunel University for their peaceful but powerful response to Hopkins speaking at a debate in their university this week.
In the last few days we also had some gun-toting White Supremacists in Minneapolis posting online video with weapons in hand talking about how they were going to confront the Black Lives Matter activits who had been protesting outside a local police station in response to the killing of Jamar Clark, an unarmed black man, by police. On Monday night three masked white men shot five of the protesters after a confrontation in which they were antagonising the Black Lives Matter campaigners. The campaigners were unarmed, the White Supremacists were armed. And this all taking place outside a police station.
Ridiculing the Black Lives Matter campaign, as Trump and his ilk have been doing, implicitly gives permission for this kind of nuttiness. It is dangerous talk.
What makes all this worse, utterly depressing, is that these Republican candidates wear their Christian credentials on their sleeves. Trump has, rather ridiculously, tried to join this bandwagon saying that he is a Presbyterian (God help us presbyterians). Well, not in my name! Almost everything that comes out of the mouths of these politicians seems to me to be the complete polar opposite of what Jesus stood for, spoke about, and, ultimately, died for.
In the school assemblies that George Cowie and I have been leading all this week at Harlaw Academy, we have been talking about passion: what kind of things get us passionate, is passion good or bad, how can we tell whether our passions are positive or negative? Thankfully, I have managed to keep to point and not stray into American politics, but we have touched on the passion that motivates people to do terrible things such as blowing up airliners, planting bombs, shooting innocents, or donning a suicide vest. By means of giving a tool to help us determine whether the outlet for our passions is positive or negative our "go to" text for this Assembly has been Paul writing in Romans 13: "Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law." It doesn't get simpler than that. If you do harm to others, then think again.
We have been ending with the example of Malala Yousafzai, the youngest ever Nobel Peace Prize winner, whose film "He Named Me Malala" the whole Cosy House went to see a couple of weeks ago - it is utterly brilliant and well worth going to see. In Malala we have the example of someone with incredible passion, but channeling that passion to do good, to speak out for the sake of those who are denied their rights by bullies, totalitarians and fundamentalists. For Malala her particular passion has been to see girls in all countries have an equal right to education. We have ended each assembly with the following music video created by young women in the USA who were motivated to song by the example of Malala.
Words that Malala's father kept close to him and shared with his daughter were the famous words of Martin Niemöller who first spoke them in 1946 to representatives of the Confessing Church in Germany. They are still powerful as the world continues to face the dreams of totalitarians whether in the Middle East or in the West:
When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.
When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.
When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.
When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I wasn't a Jew.
When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.