History holds that the shortest American political speech on record belongs to John ‘Long John’ Wentworth when he was running for Mayor of Chicago in the 1860s.
When a large crowd gathered outside his office, demanding that he come out and address them a scowling Wentworth was reported to have said:
“You damn fools, you can either vote for me, or you can go to hell.”
US President Donald Trump does not have Wentworth’s gift of brevity, but he is essentially saying the same thing.
While most successful politicians attempt to hold out an olive branch to their opponents and talk about “governing for everyone” in their election night speeches, Trump has broken that mould.
Those who demonstrate against his policies are dismissed as “rabble” and “rent-a-crowd”. The Democrats in Congress are “sad” news outlets that criticise him are inevitably “failing”, even members of his own Republican Party who speak out against him “could not even win an election for dog-catcher”.
Yet time and again, the president has returned to the heartland of his support with rallies in the mid-west and south of the country where the jibes and insults to his opponents always raise a cheer. It is as if the election campaign is still in progress — and in a way it still is.
Almost every action since the inauguration, from the Mexican wall to the rolling back of climate change initiatives, has been aimed at shoring up his political base — and when there are things he cannot do without the support of law-makers in Congress, most notably the axing of his predecessor’s Affordable Healthcare Act, he lashes out in one of now infamous Twitter tirades.
Trump’s aim, of course, is to beat the waverers into submission, but some are refusing to lie down. They include Arizona Senator and former presidential candidate John McCain, who had is doubts about the president from the beginning and is now increasingly the focus for mounting opposition to him within the Republican Party.
In a recent speech accepting an award for his decades of public service, McCain defended American idealism and condemned “half-baked, spurious nationalism” that was dividing Americans.
He castigated those who would “abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe” and “refuse the obligations of international leadership”, who would rather “find scapegoats than solve problems”.
“We live in a land made of ideals, not ‘blood and soil’ (a reference to the Nazi slogan chanted at recent right-wing rallies which Trump has been hesitant in condemning). We are the custodians of those ideals at home and abroad.
“We have done great good in the world, but we will not thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent. We would not deserve to”.
The saddest thing about the tenor of McCain’s speech is that it seems to be almost an anachronism in the current climate.
Governments change and policies will be framed which take the country in a different direction than had been the case previously — that is simply part of democracy, and those who disagree know the time will come when their opposition will be heard.
But what we are experiencing today is getting perilously close to gang warfare — a battle for survival with barrages of hate-filled tweets aimed at getting just enough votes to hang on to power while those who disagree can, in John Wentworth’s words, “go to hell”.
If the US continues down this course it is in danger of experiencing greater divisions within its society than at any time since the Civil War — and that is not a situation the nation, or indeed the world, can contemplate lightly.