By Ronny Al-Nosir.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair […].
– Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
Those were the famous words used by Charles Dickens to open one of his most celebrated works, the 1859 novel A Tale of Two Cities. The fictional work aimed to highlight the contrasting lifestyles of the rich, wealthy and aristocratic Londoners and the poor, starving, tiers-État in Paris at the time of the French Revolution.
More than 150 years after its publication, those words remain ever salient, as we ready ourselves for the final showdown between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. After both the Republican National Convention and the Democratic National Convention, people have witnessed the worst of politics and the best of politics in full display. The good, the bad. Now, there comes a choice.
It can be said without exaggeration this election is one of the most important in the post-WWII era. For the first time in its history, one of the presidential candidates represents a legitimate threat to the very founding principles of the United States: the real-estate-mogul-turned-birth-certificate-conservationist-turned-presidential-candidate Donald J. Trump.
Trump may technically be a candidate for the presidency, but he is the furthest thing from being “presidential.” If you don’t believe me, look no further than President Obama and, well, Trump’s son. Both men, in their respective convention speeches, used the words “this is not the America I know.”
Trump Jr accused the current POTUS of plagiarism, ignoring the fact this same phrase was used by Obama many times during his presidency, as it was during George W. Bush’s time in office, Kofi Annan’s tenure as UN Secretary General, and in the Congressional Record in 1976. After dismissing this absurd charge, there is one thing Jr must realize: if his father becomes president, this will not be the America anyone knows.
There is a historical theory, Thomas Carlyle’s Great Man Theory, which can help explain Trump. Carlyle suggests history is made by a succession of great men who, through good or bad deeds, remake their societies in a positive or negative light.
While logical, this theory was criticized most notably by Herbert Spencer, who found no man can become a Great Man without a proper social context allowing him to rise. “You must admit that the genesis of a great man depends on the long series of complex influences which has produced the race in which he appears and the social state into which that race has slowly grown,” writes Spencer, “Before he can remake his society, his society must make him.” So, for Carlyle, the man maketh society, but Spencer argues the society, in all of its failings, maketh the man.
In the 1930s, a certain German chancellor who-shall-remain-unnamed claimed that only his method could right the wrong that was done to his people, and restore it to its former glory. The context supported his rise: Germany was a smaller country, crushed with sovereign debt, in the wake of the Treaty of Versailles and its war reparations. This punishing state of affairs were considered a diktat by the German people whose frustrations led them to put their trust in one man to correct these wrongs.
In an uncomfortably similar vein, Trump’s claim that he will “Make America Great Again” is based on the pretense that things are wrong in his country, that it has somehow lost its way. And in a sense, it has. Gun violence has never been so bad; Black Americans and other minorities still feel the burden of racism. However, if Hillary Clinton in her convention speech presented herself as a teamplayer, someone who, with the help of the people, could be a good president, Trump’s convention speech sent a message, loud and clear, that he and only he could fix whatever was wrong with (this) America.
But if he says that America must be made great again, then what period of greatness does he wish to get back to? Most likely, it is the Reagan years. After all, it was in the 1980s that Trump made his name as a businessman and rose to prominence. Yet Reagan had a specific foreign enemy to battle, the Soviets in a Cold War context; but beyond his railings against free trade, Trump’s enemies are American – brown, black, Muslim – but American, all the same. His speech at the convention emphasized that ‘law and order’ absolutely needed to be restored. The question is whose law and whose order.
Just as Spencer imagined, America has slowly taken the shape of a society where the likes of Trump can rise. 9/11 exacerbated fears surrounding Muslims and Islamic terrorists, gun violence has sowed fear and minorities have challenged their mistreatment by law enforcement. It is in this America, and only this America, that Trump has been able to divide and conquer, to press on the irrational fears that permeate the US and establish himself as its next ‘Great Man’. He is the ugly creation of America himself.
What is threatening the America we would like to believe in is the America we would like to forget. And it is only America, together, that can end it. Hillary Clinton is not perfect, nor beyond reproach, but she has set herself apart from Trump this past week as a leader who will seek to unite the country rather than divide it. Her DNC speech was positive, it sought to unite, and her relationship with both the outgoing president and her adversary Bernie Sanders shows a far less dysfunctional party than the Republicans. By moving to the centre, the Democrats stand to appeal to those Republicans who do not recognize the party of Reagan, Bush 41, or Bush 43 in the Republican party’s current leadership.
What we are witnessing is the tale of the two Americas. One of unity, the other, authority.
Ronny Al-Nosir is a proud Montréaler of Syrian and Kurdish descent who studies Political Science at McGill.
Through his writing and civic engagement, Ronny hopes to show that anyone who wants to can have a voice.