The last thing I’ll ever write about Donald Trump

A little less than four years ago today, our family marched in downtown Auckland to protest the inauguration of Donald Trump.

Thousands of us did, including future Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. 

I took the picture of this woman at the right at the march in 2017. I wondered this morning where she is today, and I hope she’s OK and still around to see things have gotten better. That New Zealand’s Prime Minister who walked right along with us that day was re-elected in a landslide a few weeks back, and that America is about to welcome its first woman Vice-President. 

There were thousands of people that day – woman, men, children, young, old, of all races – all united in having a say over the very grim way the world seemed to be turning after Trump’s election. It felt good, damn good, to be doing something to soothe the impotent anger I felt after what happened in November 2016, even if it didn’t change the world, even if it didn’t really “matter.”

Yet today I look at the people today swarming the streets in America to celebrate the election of Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and I think well, maybe it did matter. 

Living over here since 2006 and looking back at America has been strange. I have felt like an observer in a distant outpost looking back at my home sometimes, trying to read the smoke signals.

I lived in New Zealand through the entire Obama presidency, where I felt like America was making bold steps toward a better world, and now, I’ll have been here through the entire Trump presidency, when everything I thought about the Obama years turned out to be a bit premature. I’ve written about politics in America from my NZ perspective many times, and about Trumpism. I’m still not sure I understand it at all.

I remember marching in Auckland in January 2017 – my son, then 12, was a good foot shorter than he is now. We didn’t make a sign, which I kind of regretted. It felt good to be in a crowd – a feeling that didn’t carry any of the fear and worry it does in 2020 – and to raise our voice a bit. I hoped someone would listen to us.

America listened, or at least, enough of them to make it matter. The result of this election was wayyyyyyyy too close for my liking, and a disturbing reminder that the divide in America is about way more than the current President. I want to feel anger at people who voted for him again, but I also think about Biden’s words that they aren’t the enemy. Maybe the tone really does matter more than the clickbait, the retweets and the ratings. I don’t know how things will go under President Biden, but I do know that not having the so-called leader of the free world giving constant airtime to the worst and pettiest of our feelings will be something better than before. 

At times in life, that’s all we can hope for sometimes, is the better than before.

I feel like we got it today. There’s dark days ahead and trouble to come I’m sure, but today, it’s better than before. 

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the internet…

Hello, apparently there’s an election going on somewhere or something. I’ve been keeping busy with a few freelance think pieces this week for my friends over at Radio New Zealand:

First up, what’s it like to vote in not one but two national elections just a few weeks apart? And what can the US learn from New Zealand’s election last month? Here’s my take and what I desperately hope is the last piece I ever write involving a certain 45th President of the United States:

Opinion: The one word that really matters for US Election Day

But wait! There’s more! The big story everybody was talking about a day or two before the latest several big stories was the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the US Supreme Court. Also for Radio New Zealand, I wrote about what it all means and how it’s a worrying sign of where America’s head is at these days:

Amy Coney Barrett: It’s all about the politics

Enjoy! More pop culture content after Election Day, assuming we’re all still here…

We’re all still living in “Nixonland,” 50 years on

I don’t know about you, but I’m having a little trouble concentrating as 2020 rumbles and trudges its way to the grim season finale. As a dual citizen of the US and New Zealand, I’ve got not one but TWO national elections I’m voting in this year, so everything feels soaked in political arguments and campaign slogans. My brain feels perpetually overstimulated and understaffed.

It’s hard to write about comics and music and movies and such when everything seems swamped by politics. This ain’t a political blog, but like everyone else, I’m sucked in by the tenor of the times. In search of answers for the current craziness, I’ve gone back in time more than 50 years, re-reading Rick Perlstein’s masterpiece “Nixonland,” a deep dive into American politics between 1965 to 1972. The groundwork for Trumpland begins here. 

“Nixonland” is the second of a series of four massive tomes Perlstein has written examining the world of American conservatism from Goldwater to Reagan. Packed with detail, yet in crisp and clear prose, the books form a definitive examination of the duelling forces in American life that continue clashing to this day. Lots of talking heads bang on about how America has never been more polarised than today, but that’s not exactly true. Read about the clashes at the Democratic Convention of ’68, the riots and protests in Watts and Newark, and you see a pattern that just keeps repeating in America. Nothing is all that new, it turns out – it’s just the stage dressing that changes. 

There was more than a fair bit of turbulence in the America of the late 1960s, between Vietnam, the civil rights struggle, the rise of feminism and generation gaps. You can’t point for point compare then to now – instead of a war everyone’s arguing over, we’ve got a virus that’s turned bizarrely political – but the fundamentals of a nation that’s always been torn between liberty and conformity, “freedom” and authoritarianism, are there. For most of the last 60 years, America has been a conservative nation with brief spasms of progressiveness. How it winds up in 2020, nobody knows. 

“It was coming to this – insurgents and patriots paying good money to watch the other side silenced and humiliated,” reads a passage in “Nixonland.” Sound like social media, anybody? The biggest difference between 1970 and 2020 is that an entire industry of compliant, biased media and social media silos have created a perpetually self-congratulatory echo chamber that ensures you can pick your own reality. Previously a President could have his approval rating drop down into the 20s, but these days, the echo chamber ensures that even the worst of Presidents won’t drop below a certain level of approval.

What “Nixonland” shows us so inexorably is how America keeps wrestling with the same demons over and over again. This is nothing new – as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in “The Great Gatsby” nearly a century ago, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” 

Life is objectively better for many people than it was 100 years ago in America, of course. America inches forward – and a little too often, also stumbles backward in the same motion.

America is still living in Nixonland, 25 years after his death. Hopefully one day it can fully break free of it. It’s gonna take a lot more than one election to do that, though. 

I voted for Elizabeth Warren. I’m not mad.

I voted for Elizabeth Warren on Super Tuesday, absentee from California as I’ve done for most elections the past 14 years or so. 

I don’t feel like I wasted my vote, really, although Warren finished fourth in the state and her campaign seems to be coming for a close. While I think she was the best of the Democratic candidates, the voters didn’t really agree, and she hasn’t won a state yet or finished particularly well in any of them. I’m annoyed that a candidate as good on paper as she is didn’t do better, but when it comes down to it, the voters make the call, and the endless parade of talking heads who’ve filled up mountains of space in the past year don’t always know what’s going to happen.

Who knows the heart of the American voter? I’ve lived abroad long enough that it’s harder and harder sometimes to figure what’s going on back home, but then again, I’m the guy that was dead sure Trump would never become President. I think it was a mix of sexism/Clinton hangover, an overcrowded field, and just some fundamental failure to connect on Warren’s part. It’s a bummer. 

But I’m used to lost causes. The first Presidential campaign I was really engaged in was 1988, where Michael Dukakis was thoroughly stomped by George H.W. Bush. I liked Dukakis, but it didn’t matter. I’ve picked some winners, and some losers, in the past 30 years or so of voting in American elections. I’ve been really depressed by some of them, and pleasantly surprised by some. But I never stopped voting.

I think both Biden and Sanders have good points, and frankly, I would vote for anybody with a reliable pulse and a fairly sane agenda to get the current occupant as far out of the White House as possible. Everyone gets really heated up when it comes to primaries and caucuses, and sometimes people lose sight of the bigger goal than just “I WANT MY TEAM TO WIN” mentality. 

One of the great curiosities of US politics for me the last few years is how easily one side of the political divide seems to have bent and compromised principles left and right just to back the winning team, accepting flaws and obvious corruption they never would’ve a few years back, while the other side is often consumed by the search for mythical perfection, for the glittering flawless candidate that doesn’t exist. 

I’ll vote in November, and even if my guy (sadly, this year, it’s apparently gonna be a guy) isn’t perfect, I’m still gonna show up. I’m not going to throw a sulk and sit it out, and I’m gonna hope this year is one of those where I’ve backed a winner. The stakes are as high as they’ve ever been.

Robert A. Caro and digging into the American Dream with LBJ

mag-15Caro-t_CA0-jumboI’m a sucker for a good presidential biography, even as I loathe the orange troll currently occupying the White House. There’s something about the life sagas of America’s leaders that fascinates me, from the legends like Lincoln or Roosevelt to the sad sacks like James Buchanan. 

I’ve read dozens of ‘em, but if I had to pick the best, I’d single out Robert A. Caro’s sprawling four-volume (so far) life of Lyndon B. Johnson. I’m re-reading the first book, The Path To Power, for the first time in years. 

Caro is having a moment right now, with a short memoir (“Working”) just out as he labours away on the fifth and final book of LBJ’s life and times, a monument in prose he’s been working on for an astonishing 45 years or so now. At 83, Caro is in his autumn, but many a fan like me hopes he makes it to the finish line on what is one of the finest examinations of a leader and his times ever written. Forget Game of Thrones, this is the saga I want to see finished off.

170px-Lyndon_B._Johnson_-_15-13-2_-_ca._1915As a researcher and a journalist, Caro has few peers. The man is a human vacuum cleaner, sucking up every single factoid possible to craft fully rounded tales – he famously moved to the Hill Country of Texas with his wife to research LBJ’s boyhood years, and The Path To Power shows the painstaking time he took in its vibrant invocation of a long-gone era of hardened farmers and struggling families in a hostile land. 

Re-reading The Path To Power, I’m struck by Caro’s digressions and how they never feel like digressions. In most biographies a straight line is drawn from “A” (brief sketches of parents and family history, birth of subject) to “B” (subject’s life and career begins). But Caro lingers in the telling details, making us understand the infertile dirt which birthed LBJ, such as a short chapter about what life pre-electricity really felt like for the Hill Country farmers and wives – and that’s where his work comes most alive. Thirteen pages painstakingly detailing the work Hill Country women would do to wash and iron clothes without electricity is riveting:

More than once, and more than twice, a stooped and bent Hill Country farm wife says, “You see how round-shouldered I am? Well, that’s from hauling the water.” And, she will often add, “I was round-shouldered like this well before my time, when I was still a young woman. My back got bent from hauling the water, and it got bent when I was still young.” 

0cd909cfbc5bacfb7fd48e2a43a493eaCaro takes the time to get it right, and while 5 volumes and 5000 or so pages about one man’s life may seem excessive, other, shorter biographies I’ve read about LBJ seem like Cliff’s notes skimming over the surface compared to the richness of this work. 

You don’t have to be a fan of LBJ to admire Caro’s work, which frequently points out Johnson’s selfish, ambitious and often cruel narcissism – but always counterpoints it with his knack for the common touch, or how the haunting memory of his poverty in the Hill Country never, ever left the man, even when he became President of the United States. The first book of the four so far only takes us to 1941, but in its 700+ pages is the story of an entire cosmos. 

I’m dying for Caro’s final volume because it will at long last tackle the Vietnam years, an era which scuttled forevermore much of LBJ’s achievements and blotted out his remarkable civil rights work with blood in the jungle. There’s something Shakespearean about the lives of most of our presidents, but never more so than with LBJ – a poor boy from Texas who always wanted to be President, who got there in the worst way possible, and who lost everything over his intransigence on a war on the other side of the world.

Caro is our guide through a life that evokes everything good and bad about the American dream, and it’s a pleasure to dive again into his works. 

Why you don’t want to be a Tim

I said I wasn’t going to write a lot about politics on this here blog, but the Tims of the world went and pissed me off.

Tim was one of several in a New York magazine article featuring young people who say they probably won’t vote in next week’s primaries.

TIM

How did not voting work out for everyone who skipped 2016? 

I first voted in a US election in 1992. I first voted in a New Zealand election in 2008, and because I’m a dual citizen, I get to vote in both countries now (New Zealand has national elections every three years; America’s presidential elections are every four, and the ‘mid-terms’ every two, so I get to vote a lot of years). 

I’m pretty happy in New Zealand, where I’ve lived for 12 years now, nearly 1/4th of my entire life. We’ve got an awesome Prime Minister right now in charge who’s way cooler than I’ll ever be, and I like having a leader I respect and feel like I can root for. But I still vote in the US, too. I even vote for the sheriff and council in the little mountain county I grew up in and I vote on the 40 or so bizarre and incomprehensible propositions California loves to put on each ballot. 

vote

The voter turnout difference between New Zealand and the US depresses the heck out of me. In New Zealand’s 2017 national election, 79% of enrolled voters voted. In the United States, 55.5% of the voting age population showed up. In New Zealand, you’re required to enrol to vote at age 18 (or when you become a citizen). In the US, you’re not. 

Despite wanting to keep this blog a T—p-free zone, I don’t hide my political leanings and my feelings on the current direction of the US. I regularly get New Zealanders and others telling me they’re horrified about what’s happened to my country. But I still vote. Even when they make it kinda hard for me to vote overseas – this year, for some reason I had to re-register in California again – I vote. I never quite know if my vote gets there or if it “counts” or “matters”. In my voting lifetime, I think I’ve backed a lot more losers than winners. But I still vote. 

It should be easier in America, I fully admit. There’s gerrymandering, there’s voter suppression efforts that reek of racism, there’s about a dozen different ways to cast your vote depending on what state you live in, not all of them foolproof, and for some reason, America still thinks having Election Day be on a Tuesday, a regular work day, instead of a weekend or even a public holiday, makes sense.  

The pendulum swings a lot in the US. It swung one way in 2008, another in 2016. Who knows which way it will go next? I don’t have time for anybody living in America in 2018 who doesn’t have time to vote this year. Who thinks it won’t matter. It may not change things – I’ve given up election forecasting for good after the last couple of years – but what the hell else will? 

I mean, seriously, Tims of the world. Just do it.