While all attention is focused on what will happen at the forthcoming presidential election in the United States, the real question may well be: what will happen after the new tenant enters the White House?
The question is not fanciful. For two centuries the US has enjoyed a consensus under which the loser in every election accepts the results and offers to work with the winner for the public good. All those involved in American public life agreed, at least implicitly, that democracy cannot function without compromises that at times may even be humiliating for some.
This time things look different. The Republican nominee Donald Trump has circulated the rumour that unknown hands are at work to rig the election in favour of his Democrat rival Hillary Clinton, hinting that if that did happen his supporters might have recourse to violence.
For her part, Mrs. Clinton’s camp has fed its rumours into the machine, including the claim that Russian President Vladimir Putin may hack US electoral computers to ensure Trump’s victory.
Since the earliest days, all American presidential elections have generated a great deal of verbal violence and bitterness. However, the US has seldom been divided salami-style in accordance with ethnic, religious and ideological “identities.”
Salami-style politics started with Barack Obama in 2008 as he built his “rainbow coalition of minorities”. Eight years later that “rainbow coalition” isn’t what it was in its heyday. Yet, it has managed to inject long lasting resentment and bitterness into American politics. It has made chagrin and victim hood not only acceptable as political tools but even profitable.Today, you could enter the public arena with a chip on your shoulder and demand retribution for real or imagined wrongs done to your distant ancestors.
The Obama family have done more than their bit to promote the culture of what the French call “ressentiment” (deep seated resentment). Barack himself has toured the world to portray the US as a big bad wolf and to apologise to real or imagined victims.
The First Lady Michelle Obama has brought her own pails of water to the mill. In her address to the Democrat Party Convention, she offered a top notch performance of “ressentiment”. She said every morning she wakes up in the White House she remembers that the building was built by black slaves.
She conveniently forgets that Barack is only half black and that his black half had no history of being slaves in the US because they were not Americans in the first place. She also forgets that the original White House, built in eight years and first used by President John Adams in 1800, had been the work of the Irish architect James Hoban and his gang of Irish “navvies”. There may have been some blacks among the workers who built the original edifice. But there is no evidence they were Hoban’s slaves.
In any case, the building in which Michelle wakes to nurse her “ressentiment” isn’t quite the one completed in 1800. The British burned the White House in 1814 while setting Washington on fire. Once restored, the White House underwent several transformations in 1901, 1927 and 1946, long after slavery had been abolished in the United States. In 1948, under President Harry S Truman, the building was remodelled again, keeping only the outer walls.
Had Mrs. Obama not been so full of hatred for the US she might have said that every morning as she wakes up in the White House, she celebrates American democracy that gave her, a descendant of slaves, the opportunity to marry a mixed-race free man who became President of the United States.
The Obamas do not have a monopoly on “ressentiment”. Earlier this month a certain Colin Kaepernick said to be a star in a San Francisco football (not be mistaken with soccer) team, refused to stand up during the performance of the American National Anthem known as the Star Spangled Banner.
When he explained why, this is what he said: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour.” He was, of course, referring to the shooting by policemen of a number of blacks under dubious circumstances.
The incident triggered an avalanche of home-made Hate-America sentiments. Four lines from the end of the third verse of the song were cited as “proof” that the US deserves demonization. The lines are:
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
What the retailers of “ressentiment” ignore is that Francis Scott Key wrote Star Spangled Banner in 1814 as a war song after the British invasion force had bombarded Fort McHenry in Baltimore. By that time, the British had beaten back a US attempt at seizing territory in Canada, driven right down to Washington where, as already noted, they burned the White House.
The British who had invaded with around 20,000 troops could not have sustained their war effort without reinforcement on the ground. They did by recruiting, and in some cases, press-ganging, black slaves who ran away from the fields where they worked for white masters, hence the song’s reference to “slave.”
The British also recruited mercenaries in Europe hence the song’s reference to “hireling”. At one point the British created a unit called “Colonial Marines” made of black slaves, European mercenaries and white American defectors.
In the end the Brits failed to destroy the newly-indpendent United States or to “dethrone Mr. Madison”, as the British commander called the then US President James Madison. Over 6000 Black Americans who had fought alongside the Brits left with them to be resettled in Canada and Jamaica.
The song that has caused so much “ressentiments” castigates those, slave or free, who sided with the enemy at war. The merchants of “ressentiments” are not to be found in Obama’s “rainbow” coalition. One could also find them in Trump’s camp which has attracted adepts of other types of “ressentiments”. But that has to wait for another column!