Thursday, 16 February 2017

Schama's Trump hysteria drowns out considered criticism of new administration

High-pitched screeching - Simon Schama.
Donald Trump’s first weeks in office have drawn strong reactions from his many critics right across the world.  Prominent entertainers, politicians, journalists and other public figures are among those who have articulated their opposition to the new US president in strident terms, on stage, on television, in print and, most vociferously, online.  

This deluge of political opinion has typically been expressed at a painfully high pitch, but few voices have shrieked more shrilly than that of TV historian, Simon Schama.  Schama is a successful, respected academic, whose training you might expect to impart a veneer of perspective and detachment, but for weeks he has pumped out hundreds (thousands?) of tweets about Trump, with an unmistakable timbre of hysteria.  

He’s compared the new US president to Hitler and Mussolini.  In fact he has ransacked thoroughly the annals of 1930s European history, in order to draw parallels with modern US politics.   Theresa May’s official visit to Washington DC to discuss a free trade deal was compared to Neville Chamberlain’s trip to Munich that ended in a tacit agreement permitting Hitler to invade Czechoslovakia.  Schama has taken to calling the British prime minister ‘Theresa Appeaser’, which may be skilled wordplay, but is also an outrageous, wildly inappropriate slur.

This fevered response to Trump is particularly odious, because it comes from a trained historian, but it is only an extreme example of the Pavlovian, content free clamour that accompanied the president’s ascension to power.  Whether or not such primal scream therapy makes liberals feel better, it is dangerous, because it inevitably crowds out more considered criticisms of the new administration.    

Trump’s political pronouncements are certainly frequently unseemly, worrying and even dangerous.  Despite a widespread expectation that he might moderate his rhetoric in office, he issued a flurry of ‘executive orders’ aimed at enacting controversial policies like building a “wall” on the border with Mexico and stopping certain Muslim travellers from entering the US. He’s surrounded himself with unpleasantly nationalist advisers, like Steve Bannon, who founded Breitbart News, a polemical website specialising in populist, right-wing clickbait.  

None of which makes Trump or his staff fascists, Nazis or even white nationalists.

That type of language starts to deflect from more substantive appraisals of his presidency.  However deplorable you believe Trump’s travel ban to be, it isn’t comparable to plotting genocide against an entire race or religion.  Inflated comparisons of that kind only devalue debate around his policy, and it actually lets the president off the hook.  

Neither is it good enough to rail against people who point out that perhaps some of the commentary around Trump is a little bit out of proportion.  The belief that calm, reasoned argument usually leads to more clarity than inflamed name-calling does not imply necessarily hidden sympathies for the new president.

The many protests against Trump that have taken place across the world have admittedly been animated by youthful zest, but they’ve also attracted a wearily familiar cast of complainers.  It’s not necessarily a slight to examine the substance of complaints from young, earnest protesters, the consistency of their arguments or the source of their motivations.

Is it cynical to suggest that, sometimes, invective against Trump is more about asserting the virtue of the complainant than a critical assessment of his arguments?  The protesters, the celebrities and even the academics are telling us something about themselves, their identities and their values, rather than engaging in political debate, which would, in any case be premature.  Trump is someone against whom they can define themselves.  

They’re furious that the new president isn’t “their kind of person”.

I sympathise.  He’s not my kind of person either.  I abhor his crassness, populist soundbites and pugilistic, un-statesmanlike demeanour.  But, none of that entitles me to make wildly overblown claims about his extremity.  I am not a historian.  How much more circumspect should be a professional whose discipline is evaluating the impact of human affairs over decades and centuries.  Schama’s hysterical tone puts the entirety of his work into doubt.