The 1970s and 80s in New York City were as much about the “beautiful people”, conspicuous consumption and the disco scene as the 1960s were about protest movements (Vietnam war, civil rights) and hippiedom.
We are making this perhaps oversimplified generalisation to set the scene in New York City in that era for a self-promoting, egotistical playboy son of a very unscrupulous, rich man to show up. His name: Donald Trump and his goal was to dominate the gossip pages and tabloids as some kind of financial genius and irresistible specimen of the male species. And he did. Of course, today we know the extent of his financial genius with lawsuits, tax fraud and other criminal cases against him to start soon.
Checking out of a grocery store in the 1970s, one could not avoid the barrage of tabloids and newspapers blaring out his latest love affair, divorces, financial triumphs and bankruptcies. It is commonly known in New York that he himself used to call editors of the dailies as an imposter to drop a scandal or two. He savoured, was obsessed with being in the media constantly and that is why his niece, psychologist Mary Trump, in her best-selling book Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man, describes him as a sociopath and narcissist, lusting for power only for personal greed.
Fast forward to 3 November 2016. Can you imagine the shock and disbelief of people like us sitting in front of the TV set watching election night returns and sinking in despair and speechlessness as he was declared the winner (of the electoral college, though not the popular vote).
We came on our annual sojourn to Penang in January 2017. Of course, many Malaysians were curious: what did we think?
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We spared no words – our revulsion and disgust with this slimy slum landlord, misogynistic and white supremacist was clear but some Malaysians gave him the benefit of the doubt: “He’s a businessman and you guys don’t understand him!”
Well, my friends, this “businessman” has in four years done the following:
- All politicians lie including US presidents but never has one lied 20,000 times, according to the fact checkers database – an average of 12 lies a day (The Washington Post, 13 July 2020). He has single-handedly introduced a culture of lies, conspiracy theories and cult with him as cult leader. Remember, he spent eight years lying that President Barack Obama was NOT an American, even after he had produced a birth certificate from Hawaii
- The Muslim ban – Banning travellers from Muslim-majority countries from entering the US
- The US will reach half a million deaths from Covid-19 by February 2021. Trump has called Covid a hoax, prescribed wacky remedies like hydroxychloroquine and refuses to wear a mask, including poking fun at journalists and others who wear it. He thinks it’s not manly
- He is probably the first US president to try to thwart a peaceful transition of power after a fair and highly participative election
- The US is a nation of migrants, and it is said that by 2030 the majority of Americans will be non-white. Trump started his presidency by calling Mexicans rapists and later separating babies (from central America) from their mothers trying to cross the border mainly to escape gang and domestic abuse. The babies were kept in cages. To this day, US authorities are not able to locate mothers and relatives of some 500 babies
- He unleashed and emboldened white supremacist movements and sentiments that have always been here since the Civil War but were kept in check (went underground). He encouraged them to come out from their hiding place and “take back their country”
- He pulled the US out of most multilateral agreements, eg the Iran nuclear pact, the Paris climate change agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the World Health Organization (WHO)
- The cabinet and administration were so unqualified and incompetent, with so many resignations and much turnover that it was hard to imagine anything was even running; certainly, the coronavirus had free rein. He stated he was going to “drain the swamp” – which he did by hiring them to run his administration!
- The list goes on and on – pardoning criminals and murderers, kowtowing to an openly supporting Putin over his own intelligence, giving ‘face’ to Kim Jung Un, the North Korean strongman, and blackmailing foreign governments for favours, while ignoring our traditional international friends
So, friends, please be happy for us for we have suffered for four years waking up every morning to a new scandal, a new lie, a new rally with the “orange man” yelling into the mike and getting a group of scary white men all riled up and ready to do something – which they did it, storming the Capitol on 6 January. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his very sensitive video on YouTube, said that the mob at the Capitol reminded him of the frenzy whipped up by the German Nazis before “Kristallnacht” on 1 November 1938. We came very close.
Remember whatever Trump did, he was not alone. He misgoverned with the help of the Republican Party. Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, observed (13 January 2021): “My No. 1 wish for America today is for this Republican Party to fracture”, splitting off the principled Republicans (fiscal conservatives who like low taxes, small government and right wing federal judges but NOT seditionists) from the unprincipled Republicans or opportunists who will go along with anything as long as they can grab power for themselves along the way for some future political office and the ‘foot soldiers’ or Trump cultists, who are sometimes referred to as domestic terrorists. This may be good news for the Democrats. We are adding this last analysis because so many of our Malaysian friends keep asking “but 70 million people voted for Trump! How can you assume that he will not retain power for a long while?” This is why: the Republican party is not at all monolithic today!
70% of Americans are exhausted, yearn for normalcy, pray to get out of this pandemic and get back to our lives with children in school, grandparents like us seeing our grandkids – and being able to make our annual ‘pilgrimage’ too Beautiful Penang again.
Judy Cheng-Hopkins is a Penangite who worked in the UN for 36 years, ending as assistant secretary-general for peacebuilding. Her husband, Dr Thomas J Hopkins, was an academic and strategic consultant for the UN. Both are now retired and live between New York and Penang