This evening, I attended a panel discussion at Jewish Book Week in London entitled “Trump on trial”. The three panel members were all distinguished writers who viscerally loathe US President Donald Trump. What follows is an account of highlights of this discussion which I provide without further comment.
The first panellist was historian Simon Schama, who immediately after Trump’s election called it a “cataclysmic moment” and said “democracy often brings fascists to power, it did in Germany in the 1930s”.
The second was Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland whose new thriller To Kill the President, written under the name Sam Bourne, imagines an assassination plot hatched against a volatile demagogue in the White House – who does things like tweet, lie and grab a female aide by her genitals – for fear that he intends to launch a nuclear attack.
The third was novelist Howard Jacobson, whose latest novel Pussy, written in a “fury of disbelief” about Trump’s election, is a “comic fairytale” about a man called Prince Fricassus who imagines himself to be the Roman Emperor Nero, fantasises about hookers, is idle, boastful, thin-skinned and egotistic and has no manners, curiosity, knowledge, idea or words in which to express them – and who may therefore be the very man to lead his country.
Noting that the panel contained no Trump defender, the chairman Jonny Geller asked the three to identify two good things or successes that Trump had achieved.
Schama replied that Trump was liquidating positive governance in America. He was appointing to critical government agencies people whose “only qualification” was they would destroy them. Thus for example Scott Pruitt, who was appointed head of the Environmental Protection Agency, was “abolishing regulation on toxic chemicals”; Education Secretary Betsy de Vos “doesn’t believe in public education”. Trump was a “deeply disgusting, reprehensible, dangerously unbalanced individual. The only good thing he does is once in every four days he plays golf”.
Jacobson replied: “I refuse to say a good word about Trump because he is a profoundly, deeply stupid person”. Before Trump’s election, Brexit had provided a prior example of people “doing extraordinarily stupid things”. Jacobson had started writing Pussy the day Trump was elected. Although as a novelist Jacobson believed in allowing his characters to develop in unexpected ways, when he realised he was beginning to feel sympathy for his Trump-avatar he stopped writing because Trump was “so loathsome, repugnant and foolish nothing could be said for him”.
Freedland replied that in some ways Trump was “criminally stupid” but he also had a “deep reptilian intelligence” because he “understood resentment and what would endear you to a base audience”. His success was to discombobulate liberals. A right-of-centre Town Hall website writer, he said, had gloated that Trump’s infidelities were enraging liberals. Trump had made the left realise their own conservatism.
Geller: “Perhaps he is an artist with chaos impulses”.
Jacobson: “He’s the product of democracy: let the people have their say and it will end very badly”.
Freedland observed that the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban had said he was building an illiberal democracy. Every day, Trump was trampling liberal democratic norms “in the most crude and alarming away” by “stirring up hatred against judges, the New York Times, the FBI” and other institutions.
Schama rejected Jacobson’s suggestion that Trump was the product of democracy. “He only won in N Carolina because of massive voter suppression there”. Now, though, the good news was that identity politics was acting as pushback with working class white women turning against him.
Freedland said he was driven by ego, with “copious evidence of narcissism”. There was an argument that he was suffering from cognitive decline.
Schama: “It’s very unclear he can actually read anything; he just gets briefings from Fox so he lives in an echo chamber of drooling sycophancy”. Although Trump “wasn’t like Hitler”, his “loathsome disgusting cabinet” were “vile enablers” like the industrial barons of the thirties in Germany “who thought Hitler was just a joke”.
Jacobson: “He’s a hero of ignorance. I see a curtain of darkness having fallen as a result of people being allowed to make the wrong decisions”.
Where Schama saw only “incontinent vulgarity” Freedland, however, allowed that Trump was “quite funny, a good comic performer”.
But was Trump good for the Jews? asked Geller.
Schama replied by asking how could he be good for the Jews when in Charlottesville there were stormtroopers, yet Trump had said there were some very fine people there [at theCharlottesville protest against Confederate statues which attracted white supremacists ]. More people were now reading neo-Nazi sites such as Stormfront. There had been antisemitic posters about George Soros [criticised by Trump supporters] in Orban’s Hungary. Not, he added, that Trump was responsible for that.
Jacobson: “Whatever is bad for humanity has to be bad for the Jews”.
Freedland: “The idea that Israel had any kind of hard time under Obama is ridiculous. Moving the US embassy to Jerusalem makes a two-state solution impossible and a one-state solution inevitable”. This, he said, would be very bad for Israel.
Referring to the spate of anti-Jewish bomb hoaxes a while back, Freedland said Trump had suggested that maybe the Jews were doing this to themselves. [Trump had reportedly said of the threats to Jewish targets that “the reverse may be true”, and then said threats to Jewish institutions could be intended to make “others look bad”]. In the event, said Freedland, one of the hoaxers turned out to be a “crazed Israeli”. But Trump “didn’t know that. He just assumed Jews would do it”. He was simply a “stone cold racist”.
Schama: Trump had produced an injection of belief into the “nativist” view that blacks, immigrants or Jews weren’t part of the white nation.
A questioner from the audience asked: “Instead of blaming voters as being stupid, why not ask what liberals did wrong in causing Trump to be elected?”
Schama: “Hillary undoubtedly had a tin ear”. This was because she presented policies which had too little voter appeal.
Freedland said the fact Hillary was a woman was a much underplayed factor since she was the victim of misogyny.
Schama said the taunt “lock her up” was replete with “repellent misogyny and witch-baiting”. And Trump’s campaign was also a racist attack on President Obama and “bought into every kind of odious conspiracy theory”.
Soon after which point, the meeting ended.