The President is gone, long live the President.
The past eight years is history – a bad history – and the next four or eight years is uncertainty – a worrying uncertainty. I know that Barack Obama was the worst president in my memory, but I also know that I’m gravely concerned about large parts of Donald Trump’s program (never mind his personality and temperament), which is something I’ve never experienced before at the moment when the other three Republican presidents were sworn-in in my lifetime.
I can’t say if Obama has been the worst president since Jimmy Carter or worse than Jimmy Carter, since I can’t remember Jimmy Carter. Since I grew up in communist Poland, I only remember his communist contemporaries, Brezhnev in the Soviet Union and Gierek in Poland. The 1970s were truly terrible. My first international political memory dates from 1979, when I overheard my father listening to Radio Free Europe (illegally, of course) about the anti-Soviet insurrection stirring up in Afghanistan. With a long – and tragic – history of anti-Russian insurrections, that’s something all of us Poles could have gotten on board and cheered on, maybe even a 7 year old.
My second international political memory is listening to the official Polish radio in the run up to the 1980 presidential election, with the speaker telling us that Ronald Reagan was a crazy cowboy who would start a nuclear war. That scared the little pants off a sensitive 8 year old. Reagan might have been a cowboy but he was not crazy, even if much of the American left wholeheartedly agreed with the Eastern Bloc communists on that point. The world did come close to a nuclear war, particularly in 1983, but mostly in the commies’ heads and not because Ronnie was about to press the button on his desk.
I would learn about the American – and the Western – left only when I went to live in the West myself later in that decade. To a reasonably politically aware (how lucky we were then not to have the word “woke”) Polish pre- and early-teen it could never have occurred that somewhere out there in the free world there were people – a lot of them – who were not happy about democracy and capitalism and would instead cheer socialism on. My 1980s world was very Manichean; there was the Soviet Bloc, where 90% of the population hated our communist overlords and wanted to be free, and the Free World, which also hated our communist overlords and wanted us to be free and themselves to stay free. How naive I was (and to be fair it wasn’t just me).
Regardless, we loved Reagan in Poland because he spoke truth to (communist) power. There was no usual polite bullshit, no varnish; we knew that the Soviet Union was an evil empire because we lived in it; we too were hoping – almost against hope, and certainly against recent history – that it would be soon consigned to the ash heap of history. We loved Reagan because he supported Solidarity and slapped the sanctions after the 1981 martial law, because he was chummy with our Pope and with Maggie Thatcher, because he stood up to the reds everywhere around the world. He was the sunny, optimistic, passionate face of freedom, democracy and prosperity that we all wanted to share in.
I was in Italy in 1988, three weeks before my family was to fly down to Australia to start our new life, having gone through all the proper paperwork processes in the previous 16 months. I remember cheering the news that George Bush was elected together with a Polish friend of mine who was about to leave for the United States. He is now a surgeon in New Jersey and votes Green. Our lives take different and unpredictable paths.
Bush Sr was the first American president I could follow reasonably closely, having become addicted to (real) news in my new Antipodean home. I wasn’t sufficiently switched on to domestic politics in the United States, so I was surprised and disappointed when he wasn’t reelected after the First Gulf War. I still think he was a decent man, but I think less of him as a leader than I did at the time.
Bill Clinton’s presidency coincided with my real political awakening and the frenzy of my own political involvement in Australia. I read the three books that made me a conservative (P J O’Rourke’s “Holidays in Hell”, Michael Medved’s “Hollywood vs America” and William Rusher’s “The Rise of the Right”) and I would spend more time in university libraries reading up “National Review”, “The American Spectator” and a host of other, smaller publications, than I did reading for my official studies. With hindsight, Bill wasn’t too bad – certainly a better Clinton – a rogue to be sure, but not a particularly destructive one. This was a time before a giant asteroid wiped out centrist Democrats.
George W and Barack H between them quite neatly divided the 16 years of my working life in politics. I was a staunch defender of Bush Jr., and I blogged about it in my previous online incarnation. He wasn’t the best president by any stretch of imagination, but he was better than Al Gore would have been, and he also wasn’t the nightmarish caricature created by the left (unsophisticated cowboy ignoramus – like Reagan – a warmonger and a new Hitler – the left truly is a boy who cries fascism, and then wonders why fewer and fewer people take them seriously).
Obama’s presidency was a symbolic victory but a practical disaster. Most historians being on the left, the left gets to write history, win, lose or draw. Therefore he will be remembered more fondly than he deserves to be. If lofty rhetoric were horses, beggars would ride into the famed American sunset. In reality, Obama leaves his country weaker economically and internationally, and more divided and miserable than at the dawn of the Age of Hope. I will remember him as the President who doubled America’s debt to almost $20 trillion – more than one thousand billion dollars for every year of his presidency – with nothing to show for it.
I didn’t barrack for Trump through the primaries or the election, but “my” candidates clearly did not capture the anti-establishment populist zeitgeist that elevated Don to the White House. While I enjoy the intense butt-hurt he is causing to the left, I remain worried about his political program. To my mind, Trump combines the worst aspects of the 1930s American politics – he takes the protectionist, interventionist domestic economic policy from the FDR Democrats and the international isolationism from the Taft Republicans. I’m concerned about how he will manage to Make America Great Again without making government even greater and the sphere of liberty even smaller.
In the end, and in line with my grandmother’s favourite dictum that things are rarely as bad or as good as people think they are, I think Trump will not be as apocalyptic as the left thinks or as a great as his supporters expect him to be. Hillary was going to be more of the same failing status quo; with Trump there is a chance of something different, maybe even very different. Whether that something different is good or bad, or more likely a mixture, remains to be seen. If, comes 2020, Russia is (still) out of Eastern Europe, ISIS is out of Syria, and America is out of the long recession doldrums, I will consider the Trump presidency a pleasant surprise.