It’s a popular view, something about which we Brits tend to joke incessantly, that Americans just don’t get irony. I don’t think it’s true: a lot of American humour is both dry and ironic. Still, the new post-truth world that sees the election of Donald Trump may simultaneously be also post-irony (or post-ironic): perhaps that’s an inevitable consequence, indeed.
Take the picture above, snapped by a sharp photographer and widely circulated on Twitter. It demonstrates how Trump supporters could celebrate the inauguration of their protectionist leader who will stop America being flooded with cheap imports – by buying that handsome item made in China.
Trump’s speech was scary stuff, if you believe everything he said. I find it hard to tolerate the way he speaks slowly and with exaggerated clarity – as if he’s talking not to a global audience but to a complete nincompoop sitting right in front of him. In those stilted, patronising tones (as if to say, “Do try to understand me, you morons”) he reiterated his message of putting America first: because, of course, all previous administrations have been selling American down the river.
I don’t think so. But then, you mustn’t believe anything I write, because I’m branded part of the unpatriotic, smug liberal elite, just because I have the temerity to feel that the electorate got it wrong by voting out of the EU and dare to question our current leader’s approach to Brexit (which, by the way, following the referendum I accept we must pursue).
So, can The Trump really undo all the good work of the Obama administration? Can he build walls both physical and metaphorical, the latter taking the form of trade restrictions not seen for decades? Can he reopen derelict factories in the so-called rust-belt, and kick start (or re-start) industries long obsolete or rendered uneconomic by foreign competition?
More sinister, perhaps, than whether or not he can work the economic miracles he promises, what about some of the reckless language about war, peace, Russia, NATO and the UN?
There is hope for the world! For Trump has as yet no idea (as Obama hadn’t, eight years ago) of the power of the institutional brakes he’ll encounter. Just as Theresa May in the UK has found it less easy than perhaps she hoped to initiate and pursue change, Trump is likely to feel the same. I speak from experience.
Really, you cry? What do you know about running a country? Nothing, of course. But I have learnt over 27 years of bitter experience that nothing happens as quickly as a leader hopes. Winston Churchill famously said of Headmasters [sic] that they are invested with powers a Prime Minister can only dream of. If only that were true!
A young and energetic head in 1990, I thought I could change things rapidly, fuelled by a powerful vision of where I wanted things to go and a gift for explaining. Though I possessed both, change was only slowly and painfully achieved. I’m not complaining, and if I talk of “bitter experience” I don’t mean that my 27 years of headship have been sour: quite the opposite.
But leaders have to learn that it takes time to get people around them and on board. The wheels in organisations turn with painful slowness: the wheels of nations still more reluctantly. There are always reasons why even a good idea cannot be implemented yet: and there’s endless historical context that people insist on explaining to the new leader.
It happens everywhere. When I moved onto a second school headship, moving to Newcastle in 2008, I reckoned 18 years’ experience gave me a fair bit of knowledge and wisdom about running schools. They did. But I had forgotten nonetheless how long it all takes. People aren’t necessarily hostile to change: just nervous, and unwilling to move out of comfortable and often well-reasoned ruts into unknown territory.
Moreover, there’s another eternal truth: one maybe the figurehead – whether head, Prime Minister or President– but no one has a monopoly on rightness or reason, and only a despot can stifle disagreement.
A senior colleague was recently giving a talk to follow school leaders the other day: she touched on issues of leadership and found herself in a discussion about where the locus of power really lies in a school. Of course, it’s meant to cohere around the head. But there’s also another locus of power, always a particular figure to whom people turn if they really want something done quickly.
It may be the catering manager: I’ve known it to be the senior caretaker. Whoever it is, there’s always that unofficial figure to whom even the head needs to turn if something is really to be implemented as desired.
I don’t know who that figure will prove to be in Theresa May’s government, let alone in the United States. My only hope, as I view the Trump administration with some horror, is that he won’t get far down that terrifying agenda in four short years. Oh, and then there’s another brake on those leaders in a hurry, the inconvenient (for them) safeguard for the rest of us of our respective democratic systems, Parliament and Congress/the Senate.
Both Trump and May have sought to appeal to ordinary people, the “constantly overlooked”. A billionaire property magnate and a product of the political establishment both claim to despise surely represent them no more than their predecessors whose record they set out (with magnificent unspecificity) to denigrate. How long before those whom they claim to champion spot that overwhelming irony?
For now it appears electorates on both sides of the Pond are content to be both post-ironic and post-truth. Don’t worry: both truth and irony will return in force, and that’s why, even while the current position is almost beyond belief, it’s certainly not beyond hope.