13 Sep 2018
Speakers great and small
U.S.A. is the slice of a continent… U.S.A. is the world’s greatest river valley fringed with mountains and hills. U.S.A. is a set of bigmouthed officials with too many bank accounts. U.S.A. is a lot of men buried in their uniforms in Arlington Cemetery. U.S.A. is the letters at the end of an address when you are away from home. But mostly U.S.A. is the speech of the people.
John Dos Passos got some things wrong in his great American novel, U.S.A., not least that America was ready for political revolution. Surviving that mistake, Dos Passos made the journey from Marxist to Barry Goldwater Republican. Yet he also got big things right in his trilogy, especially the wonderful truth that “mostly U.S.A. is the speech of the people.”
Spending the past couple of months in America was to experience again the power and variety of the many forms of American speech.
To enjoy the special vocabulary and vigour of the Broadway musical, that wonderfully stylised yet infinitely flexible version of American optimism set to song.
To read each day the earnest prose of great American newspapers (praise the Lord, and peruse the New York Times and the Washington Post). The first sentence of an American broadsheet yarn can be a four-clause omnibus of piled-on fact. For an Oz hack, used to a lifetime of boiled-down, single-thought, fifteen-word intros, the American tradition is a feast of ornate oratory. America is so expansive, even its hacks can take a lot of space.
For a political tragic, it’s to make the pilgrimage to Washington’s Lincoln Memorial. Marvel at the power of two of the greatest speeches ever delivered — the Gettysburg Address and the second inaugural — their texts carved on the walls to either side of Abe’s statue. At its finest, American speech soars.
American speech can be earnest, slow and deliberate, a counter to the bombastic bile of the current president. And better than Trump, America’s voices can be smart as well as sharp: in stand-up comedy, or rap, or the everyday cheerful wisdom of the guy who drives the bus.
A wonderfully tart example of what I enjoy about American speech was the version of a “no smoking” sign outside a bar in Maine: “If you are seen smoking here we will assume you are on fire and take appropriate action.”
And so, to embrace Dos Passos, America can be experienced by the variety of its accents, matching the variety of its people.
It’s one of the many differences between Australia and America. The Australian accent goes in a relatively small range from rough to rounded. From Cottesloe to Cairns, from Darwin to Dimboola, it’s hard to pick where Australians are from merely by the sound of their vowels.
The American accent cartwheels and transforms repeatedly, almost as it crosses state lines. And lots of other elements overlay those regional differences, especially, these days, the Hispanic influence.
As I mentioned in a letter from Washington last year, an Australian in the United States is branded on the tongue. The moment I open my mouth, they know I ain’t from ’round here. The thought attributed to Oscar Wilde, Bernard Shaw and Winston Churchill can be adapted for us: America and Australia are two allies separated by a common language.
The separation works in ways both large and small. One of the funny new elements these days is Australians’ feelings of superiority about our coffee culture. The Americans sent coffee drinking around the world — now, if they’d only learn to make a good cup! Long prosper the Oz contribution to cafe world: the flat white.
On the larger differences, the former Liberal leader and ambassador to Washington, Andrew Peacock, listed four areas where the national beliefs of Australia and the United States differ sharply: the meaning of political freedom; the role of religion in public life and the challenge of American exceptionalism; the place of wealth and economic status in society; and attitudes towards war and the standing of the military.
Michael Evans uses those Peacock points in a fine essay for Quadrant on the different political cultures of the two allies. He adds a fifth: different frontier legacies.
America’s frontier produced the personal liberty, individual energy and spirit of innovation of the land of the free and the home of the brave. In the Great Southern Land, the harsh bush frontier fostered social equality and collective endurance alongside a talent for improvisation. The similarity in the foundation stories is the way Indigenous peoples are pushed to the margins of the picture, or painted out completely.
Americans distrust government and seek to divide and balance the powers of Washington. Australians are disillusioned with Canberra, not because they want it to do less but because they expect more.
A tragic illustration of difference these days is in attitudes to guns and the right to bear arms. John Howard tells a nice yarn about being asked about his proudest political achievements, after he gave a speech at the George W. Bush presidential library. The first two (joining the United States in the war on terror and balancing the budget) got loud applause. Then the third: “‘We brought in national gun control laws.’ The audience went ‘uuuhhh’… It was like the sound of air exhaling from a balloon.”
From guns to education to healthcare, the Oz–America contrasts pile up. Common languages (just), deeply contrasting cultures. And that bring us to Donald Trump.
Trump’s language is limited, much like his store of ideas. He is a demagogue who rouses without rhetoric. A bemusing feature of Trumpworld is the narrow range of his rant. It’s intense rather than deep. Much emotion, little intellect. You might call it boiled-down Hemingway, if that wasn’t an insult to Hemingway.
A Trump rally speech-cum-monologue is an extended riff on his tweets — the Twitter feed rendered as conversational opera. The president hasn’t much use for facts, because in Trumpworld a Trump word equates to a fact. His “voice” in all forms is consistent. Short sentences and simple words offer his imaginings. The Donald is central. There’s always an enemy. The pushback is always emotional. And everything is big, oh so big — claims and aims become achievements as they leave those lips.
The privileged tycoon has captured his people by speaking in the most common manner. Admit the political impact of Trump speech, even if the meaning can dismay.
The trade war on China and Europe and the imbroglio with Canada show the strengths and weaknesses of the way Trump uses language. He’s having a hard time explaining the war he’s chosen, other than the usual boasting bravado. The president’s voice is all about assertion, not explanation or persuasion.
Trump started the tariff combat because, he says, the United States is getting a “lousy deal” and the rest of the world is “killing us.” Politics involves simplifying what’s complicated, and this is simple us-against-them-till-we-win stuff.
The trade war’s price effects on American life are starting to enter conversations. Last year, Trump supporters were happy to tell me that “he knows what he’s doing.” When similar chats touched on the trade war this year, his supporters hope he knows what he’s doing.
Here’s hoping that in declaring war, Trump is after great deals: to game the system, not destroy the system. Hope that in playing trade poker he’s prepared to take a lot of money off the table and let the game go on. And worry that Trump’s zero-sum mentality may wreck a complex system. The president’s refusal to endorse judges for the World Trade Organization — disabling the dispute-settlement mechanism — strikes at the global rules and their operation.
Nihilistic vandalism is strange trade policy, although it might be good politics. In last year’s American letter, I argued that the surging US economy and Trump’s ability to inspire his base meant he’d win a second term as president. Those factors still apply.
America is humming. The official jobless rate is down to 4 per cent, second-quarter growth hit 4 per cent, and the rebuild from the great recession has delivered the longest bull run in market history. Parts of America that voted for Trump feel confident and are experiencing growth. Trump mightn’t be responsible for much of this, but whatever happens on a leader’s watch belongs to the leader. He’ll claim all the credit.
But the Trump effect is so extreme it’s clouding the usual equation for a second term. That equation reads: strong economy plus sitting president with strong party support equals re-election. Unusual elements could unbalance the maths. Trump is a revolutionary. He’s made a hostile takeover of the Republican Party. He crashes and trashes his own party the way he crunches everything.
A year ago, it was possible to argue that Trump would deliver standard conservative policies, that he wouldn’t be as bad as his language. Responsible adults would see that Trump settled down to become a conventional Republican president. Sorry, people, not happening. Or, in New Yorkese, fuhgeddaboudit! Trump is doing what he said he’d do. With gusto.
Trump is changing the Republicans, but the party has little hold on him. That’s as scary for the party as it is for everybody else.
Australia hopes that defense secretary James Mattis can hang on, but the idea of “responsible adults” standing between Trump and whatever he wants is very last year. Trump is ripping pages out of the rulebook — pages about how American presidents behave, how they talk to America, how they get re-elected.
Trump isn’t interested in uniting America, pitching for the centre where the traditional majority is found. As conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg observes, “Donald Trump is the first president in living memory who seems utterly contemptuous of even appearing to care about voters outside of his base in a sustained way. He often refers to ‘my people’ as if he is president of his fan base and no one else.”
Trump doesn’t want to broaden his base, just harden it. The base will re-elect him as president, unless he so enrages a lot of other bases that they unite to overthrow him.
The fascination of America’s November midterm elections will be the extent to which Trump’s voice energises an anti-Trump coalition to shout back at him. November’s vote is a test run of whether other American voices can combine to be louder than Trump’s.
That answering voice would sound like John McCain’s farewell statement: “We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe. We weaken it when we hide behind walls rather than tear them down, when we doubt the power of our ideals rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been.” ●