February 17, 2024

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The current preliminaries to the forthcoming American election are both appalling and fascinating (the appalling usually fascinates in a way that the meritorious seldom does). The contest seems to be boiling down to which of the two candidates’ mental gaffes is the more disqualifying for the position he seeks.

It is by now well-known that a majority of Americans want neither candidate, and it is the commonest of commonplaces to say that it is an indictment of American democracy, the political system, or at least of something or other, even if one cannot quite work out what it is, that in a population of 330,000,000 no better persons can be found to contest the presidency than Messrs. Biden and Trump. The only service that these two can render their country is to stand down; but unfortunately, neither seems to be the standing-down type. They rather remind me of the only time I attended a magistrates’ court in England (as a spectator, I hasten to add). An accused had been acquitted by the magistrates, but he was not to be denied the speech that he had prepared in case of unjust conviction. He would not leave the dock, even though told to do so by the clerk of the court, until he had finished his harangue.

There were two plainclothes policemen sitting behind me, and one said to the other, “I think ’e needs some ’elp.”

“The contest seems to be boiling down to which of the two candidates’ mental gaffes is the more disqualifying for the position he seeks.”

When one considers the limpet-like hold these two men seem to have on their respective political parties, one feels in the presence of an inexplicable mystery that reduces one to a state of complete impotence and helplessness, amounting almost to despair. How is it possible that two men, whose manifest and manifold failings are immediately visible to the great majority of the population, can so hypnotize their parties that they can find no one else to represent them? This is surely a sign of the deliquescence of the West, for the dislike, if not contempt, for these two men is only an extreme example of what is felt about political leaders throughout much of the Western world.

No doubt politics as a profession and craft has never, or at any rate seldom, attracted the finest flower of humanity. Power, or office, as an end in itself is not, and has never been, what the best of men seek. Nevertheless, one has the impression that the caliber of our politicians has never been lower, at least not within living memory. The successful politician of today seems to have no mental or cultural hinterland, no real character other than ambition and desire for the limelight. This is not an entirely new phenomenon: Maynard Keynes was once asked what he thought Lloyd George, the British politician, thought about when he was on his own, and he replied that when Lloyd George was on his own, there was nobody there. In other words, he needed an audience to exist, even for himself.

Such a type is brought forth by the possibility of a constant audience, and therefore has never been a time more propitious for the multiplication of the type than the present, when the possibilities of mass communication for all have resulted in mass narcissism. Never in the field of human history has so much drivel been communicated to so many with such persistence.

It has been said that a country gets the government it deserves, but this can only be true, if it is true at all, on the whole, not for every individual person in a country. It must surely be true, however, that our political leaders emerge from a cultural context and in some sense reflect that context. If they are vacuous, humorless, without principle, and so forth, then one may surmise that they have emerged from a culture that shares those characteristics.

Some time ago, I was asked to review the memoirs of the British former prime minister David Cameron. I agreed—for pay, of course. As Doctor Johnson said, no one but a fool ever wrote except for money, to which I can now add that no one but a fool ever read David Cameron’s memoirs except for money.

They ran to 700 quite closely printed pages, and I think I can quite fairly say that in this immense concatenation of words there was recounted not a single amusing incident, there was not a single original thought or a single striking phrase. He met important people, even world-historical figures, in his years of office, but had absolutely nothing of interest to say about any of them. David Cameron would return from Armageddon and describe it in the blandest of clichés, at most as being a little noisy, and perhaps with a bit of smoke. In the entire book, he displayed no interest whatever in ideas, in art, science, philosophy, music. It is not his fault, perhaps, but his face remains as characterless as his mind and his prose: a face neither intelligent nor stupid, neither kind nor vicious, a face on which nothing whatever can be seen, marked by no experience of life, no suffering, no joy, no good humor, no ill temper, no generosity. Yet beneath the surface of such nothingness must seethe at least one characteristic: ambition untethered to any purpose.

His characterlessness is perhaps a defensive consequence of the ideological heat of our times. To make a joke, to express a strong opinion, is to court vituperation or worse from one quarter or another, to the possible ruination of a career. His blandness and, if I may be allowed to coin a word, his nonentitiness have been rewarded, despite his proven incompetence, by a return to high office.

When one looks at the faces of the American candidates, what does one see? On Mr. Biden’s face, the same vacuousness as that on Cameron’s, though animated from time to time by a sort of senile querulousness: He is now the Mrs Gummidge of world politics and, as with her, everythink goes contrairy with him.

There is character on Mr. Trump’s face, true, but unfortunately it is bad character. From a certain angle, he looks very like Mussolini (though, of course, Mussolini was much more cultivated than he). He is always playing a part, so that he thinks that he is being serious when he juts his jaw and squints. This is a bad actor acting seriousness.

I have never met any of the people above, and they may be very different in private—if, after years of public life, there is a private for them to be.

Theodore Dalrymple’s latest book is Ramses: A Memoir, published by New English Review.


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