Asia Global Institute

A Morality Play is Unfolding in the US

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

A Morality Play is Unfolding in the US

Andrew Sheng, Distinguished Fellow of Asia Global Institute, says the Trump reality show that has taken over in the US and is upending all expectations about governance.

Just under a month after Donald Trump assumed the U.S. presidency, the old order has been turned upside down. Most of us thought an electoral candidate would rise to the occasion on winning, seeking reconciliation between the contending parties, smoothing ruffled feathers and then getting on with the serious business of governing. But, we have the new president coming out with all guns blazing, not only changing policies by the tweet, but also saying that the U.S. legal system is broken, taking on his intelligence agencies, the judiciary and America's closest neighbor. As a result, the judiciary firmly rejected his travel ban, and his national security adviser got fired.

As comedian Cecily Strong said to Alec Baldwin's Trump on Saturday Night Live: "You're doing too much, OK? I want one day without a CNN alert that scares the hell out of me."

Time out, please.

The hit TV series West Wing is nothing compared with the Trump Reality Show, which is more like a morality play. The Trump players are so righteous in what they believe that they are 100 per cent sure that what they are doing is right; as presidential senior adviser Stephen Miller said, the president's powers "will not be questioned." For the first time in world history, we have one leader connected directly, 24 hours a day, to the world by tweets, so that we can all gasp at where the U.S. is going as a country. We are now in a global media feedback frenzy that does not know how to stop. Trump tweets vigorously in response to media reports, and his close advisers respond with such vehemence and moral indignity that the media shoots back immediately with barrages of stories. CNN, The New York Times and the Washington Post have all seen spikes in their ratings or number of subscriptions, all because of this feedback loop.

Surprisingly, the financial markets are shrugging off all the nervous political energy, with the Dow Jones reaching an all-time high. Even Janet Yellen's hint that higher interest rates are approaching as the US.. economy begins to recover is treated as good news. Furthermore, the outgoing Fed governor in charge of pushing through major financial reforms like Dodd-Frank has himself admitted that the regulations have inadvertently hit the community banks. So, either the serious and smart money thinks that what is going on in Washington DC is only a blip, or they are aiming to push the market up and pull out before it all comes crashing down.

Stop the World - I Want to Get Off is a British musical first staged in 1961, which become a TV movie in 1996. This musical is a light-hearted but important supplement to George Orwell's 1984, which has become hot-selling again in the era of Trump. Orwell was ruthlessly honest about the powerlessness of the small man in big government. He introduced new words like "doublethink" - "the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them". Orwell also wrote Animal Farm, which introduced the phrase, "All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others."

Sound familiar?

Stop the World features the character Littlechap, who starts out poor and then becomes rich and successful, eventually becoming elected to public office. In between, he gets involved with various women - Russian official Anya, German domestic Ilse and American blonde cabaret singer Ginnie.

The songs in this musical are eerily evocative of what is happening before our very eyes. There's I Want to Be Rich, followed by Welcome to Sludgepool, Gonna Build a Mountain, then Glorious Russian and Family Fugue. The second act starts off with All-American, followed by the hit, Once in a Lifetime. The last song, What Kind of Fool Am I? , made famous by the Broadway singer Sammy Davis Jnr, perhaps says it all.

A morality play is unfolding before our very eyes. Whether it is satire, comedy, farce or tragedy, we simply have to watch it with our eyes wide open.

This article first appeared in the South China Morning Post on February 17, 2017 as "A morality play, featuring Trump, unfolds in the US. Will it end in farce or tragedy?" Please click on the link to access the entire article.

The views expressed in the reports featured are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Asia Global Institute's editorial policy.


Andrew Sheng

Member, Asia Global Institute

Andrew Sheng


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