It’s been a weird three weeks in America. My life goes on as normal, until a radio or TV voice intrudes with the words 'President-elect Trump', and I suddenly feel queasy, as if the floor just tilted a little beneath me. But then it passes, and I get back to worrying about whether the NY Giants can actually make the playoffs this year.

In the aftermath of 8 November, my mantra has become 'judge him by his actions, not his rhetoric' and I’ve adopted the worldview of journalist Salena Zito, whose analysis of Trump is that 'the press took him literally, but not seriously, while his supporters took him seriously, but not literally'. The hope she succinctly captures is that Trump wasn’t in fact elected by a bunch of rabid gay-hating, misogynistic, neo-Nazi nutters, but instead by an overwhelmingly nihilist and disillusioned electorate that cared less about the specifics and more about the broader need for change; leaving Trump plenty of room to moderate his actual policy agenda. Rather than the 'hope and change’ of the 2008 Obama transition, we now have change – and then we hope for the best.

To date, the Trump transition has mirrored his campaign; disorganised and improvised with a broad direction of travel just barely discernible within a chaotic and often contradictory set of public statements. Rather than private meetings, we’ve had a parade of potential 'finalists’ for cabinet positions disappearing behind the golden lift doors of Trump Tower. Instead of the State Department briefing the president-elect before talking to foreign leaders, we’ve had the Australian prime minister getting Trump’s personal cell phone number from golfer Greg Norman and just calling him up for a chat. What’s clear is that, while we may get regular appearances by the Trump who 'will be so presidential that it will make your head spin', presidential Trump will continue to be joined on his reality show by his unpredictable and embarrassing doppelganger who works the night shift and suffers from Twitter Tourette’s.

Beyond tone, the last three weeks have also given us real appointments and some policy statements to chew on. In the positive column, there’s been a dialling back of some of the campaign rhetoric. In his first policy video, the campaign chant of 'build a wall' mutated into 'increased scrutiny of work visa compliance'. On climate change, we saw a pivot from 'a Chinese hoax' to 'I’m open minded'. Trump also backed off his promise to further investigate Clinton, although it shows how little he understands the US justice system that it wasn’t his call to begin with.

Finally, despite her lack of foreign policy experience, the appointment of Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina as UN ambassador is good news. It will put the daughter of Indian immigrants in a key bridge role with the broader international community, although you suspect that the majority of her time will be spent explaining that her boss didn’t really mean it.

Squarely in the bad news column is Steve Bannon’s appointment as White House senior strategist. Bannon built Breitbart News by peering into minds of angry white males and then feeding conspiracy-rich nutrients to the base instincts that live in their dark crevices. A man whose selection was applauded by the KKK and who embodies the worst rhetoric of the Trump campaign will now have unfettered access to the president and will help shape his agenda. The best case scenario is that Bannon proves to be just an economic nationalist, functioning as a populist conscience to ensure that billionaire Trump remains a tribune of the white working class.

Apart from Bannon, most of the other early appointments like attorney general Jeff Sessions, national security adviser Michael Flynn, and CIA director Mike Pompeo fall into the 'hard right but generally competent’ category, although all of them have at least some history of racism or Islamophobia.

Also in the bad news column is the realisation that the next four years are likely to see a conveyor belt of corruption scandals. Accusations of self-dealing already hang like a toxic miasma over Trump Tower, amplified by Trump’s brazen proclamation that 'presidents can’t have conflicts of interest'. It’s all very well to say the kids will run the business, but when Ivanka shows up to a meeting with the Japanese prime minister which Ivanka is it? Is it Ivanka the first daughter, or Ivanka head of international sales and marketing for Trump Hotels? Whichever Ivanka it was, her jewellery line wasted no time in sending out a promotional email marketing the bangle she was wearing at the meeting.

Without even getting into the craziness of Farage and the wind farms, we also had Trump’s first conversation with the Argentinian president covering not only world affairs but also some permitting issues for a new development in Buenos Aries. This brass-necked conflation of business and politics isn’t new in America, but it’s been a long time since we’ve had such well-founded fears that the US presidency will become a kleptocracy focused on self-aggrandisement and personal profit.

With a celebrity president the adjective 'unprecedented’ will quickly lose its potency over the next four years, so I’m trying to take a deep breath, ignore the noise, and separate the merely unfortunate from the truly dangerous. In the unfortunate category are things like a set of economic policies that owe more to the nationalism of Juan Peron in 1950s Argentina than they do to Ronald Reagan. The markets like the idea of deregulation and lower taxes, but the result is likely to be short-term gain leading to mid- to long-term pain. The same is true for his trade policy, where the ditching of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the renegotiation of NAFTA will be red meat to economic populists, but you’ll struggle to find an economist who believes import tariffs and a trade war with China will benefit the economy in the long run.

In the truly dangerous category are attempts to curtail civil rights and reverse the trend towards a more tolerant and inclusive society. Bad things have already happened as a result of Trump being elected, but they are on a local and personal level; ripples from the rock of the Trump presidency being thrown into the national cultural pond. Hate crimes are up, with the perpetrators buoyed by what they see as an affirming voice in the White House. Swastikas have appeared on Jewish temples. Hijab-wearing Muslim women have been harassed in the streets, and immigrant kids are getting bullied in school. But while sad and reprehensible, none of these actions are (as yet) the result of any formal policy or legislative agenda. However, it is worrying that Trump’s ‘sore winner’ accusations of widespread voter fraud may presage federal action to raise the bar for voter registration, which in turn will suppress minority turnout in future elections. I doubt, however, that Trump will go as far as Bannon, who in a fit of nostalgia for the 18th century, has mulled over restricting voting rights to just property owners.

Also in the dangerous category are actions that could undermine NATO and embolden both China and Russia to test America’s resolve in the Baltics or the South China Sea. That is why the still unfilled roles of secretary of defence and secretary of state will be the most important decisions Trump takes between now and January. If we have experienced and moderate people like Mitt Romney and General David Petraeus in those roles, I’ll feel a lot better about the next four years. If we have war hawks and loose cannons like Rudy Giuliani, then we could have a lot more to worry about during a Trump presidency than government corruption and aggressive deportation policies. (After this piece was written late Thursday, General James Mattis – popularly known as 'Mad Dog' – was appointed defence secretary).

While I struggle to see how the next four years can be a positive for my adopted homeland, I do have faith in both the moderating effect of its public institutions and ultimately in the core values of the American people. The presidency is by design a weak executive branch that requires the consent of Congress to both pass legislation and approve treaties. While Congress remains Republican-controlled, the fact is that on many issues Trump is not a traditional Republican, and once his honeymoon is over, that inherent tension will undoubtedly create friction on policy specifics.

Without 60 votes in the Senate, the majority will also struggle to push through any truly divisive legislation like a Muslim registry. If the Democrats are smart, they won’t just hunker down and attempt to block legislation, but instead will work to peel off the many moderate Republican senators who have already signalled their intent to be a bulwark against any extreme measures proposed by the new administration. We also have the bizarre sight of solidly Democratic states like California and New York talking up states' rights as a defence against federal overreach – a classic Republican script now appropriated by anxious liberals.

The Democrats must also accept that, although many Trump supporters voted against their own economic interests, the Democrats need to resist the temptation to petulantly punish them for it. For example, infrastructure spending has been on the Democrats’ wish list for years, so they should embrace Trump’s enthusiasm for it, but then fight to ensure that it doesn’t become a feeding frenzy of graft and corruption. Rather than try and block the repeal of Obamacare, Democrats should accept that it needs reform and try and shape the future solution.

Trump’s pick for health and social services secretary is an ardent opponent of Obamacare, so the Democrats could be seduced by the idea of just standing back and letting healthcare reform unravel piecemeal. In places like Clay County Kentucky, 87% voted for Trump, but the uninsured population dropped from 27% to 10% in 3 years under Obamacare, so repeal will hurt, but Democrats need to help solve the problem not just gloat at the chaos. Come 20 January the grieving needs to stop, and the Democrats need to move beyond identity politics and be humble enough to listen and react to the economic concerns of flyover country, their ignorance of which clearly cost them the election.

Finally, despite the events of the last few weeks, I still have faith in the American electorate. These are the same people who twice elected an African-American president, and national opinion polls still suggest we are trending towards a more tolerant and inclusive society. Ultimately the swing states of the rustbelt elected Trump based on his economic message, and a lot of his anti-immigrant and anti-trade rhetoric was framed as contributing factors in the narrative of those states’ economic decline. If he focuses on economic concerns, avoids serious international blunders, and moderates his rhetoric on social issues, the Trump presidency could go down in history as an interesting experiment in economic nationalism, but not an unmitigated disaster.

If instead he seeks to govern as he campaigned, then I am confident he will eventually trigger the anti-bodies of American democracy, and some combination of the Congress, the Supreme Court, state governments, and ultimately public opinion will rein him in. As you can tell, I’m trying to view my glass as half-full, but maybe I’ll top it up with a little more bourbon before I sit down to write a check to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Return to homepage

On our weekend arts and books page, Anthony Seaton remembers the birds that flew: a new book about the Scottish migrants. Plus Chris Bartter celebrates the Havana Glasgow Film Festival.
Click here
to read...

About a fortnight ago I received an email from an old American friend called Richard Cannaday. Richard, 55, told me, and I have no reason to doubt it, that he was sleeping naked by a stream in a park in the middle of the city of Dallas Texas.

Now you are probably already assuming that Richard is bonkers. There is certainly some evidence in support of such a thesis. For a start, he speaks at least five languages, one (Spanish) to such a high level that he has spent much of his life earning his living as an EFL teacher. He also has, he tells me, a degree in English from Edinburgh and spent at least a year studying Mandarin at Glasgow. With such a CV, to be sleeping naked beside a stream seems at very best to be dysfunctional.

So let me explain a little. From an early age Richard, who has given me full permission to write all this, has chosen to lead a life of global exploration, wandering the world living off his wits and often sleeping rough.

Within the last year he has worked at a hotel in Iceland, travelled to India to have his teeth fixed, been in China and is now working as a casual labourer in Dallas, Texas. The reason he has been sleeping naked is that in order to get enough money to survive he has to present himself with a fellow group of itinerant workers to a group of farmers and contractors who wander past them at dawn, choosing who they will. If he is chosen he gets $70 a day. If not he gets nothing. Now evidently it’s been raining in Dallas and so in order to present himself at his best (at one stage he wasn’t hired for 10 days and nearly died of starvation) he keeps his clothes clean and dry in a plastic bag.

Yes, the thesis can probably be sustained. He is bonkers. Though at the very least he is not going to die without having been entertained, having lived in dozens of different countries and having been married twice, once to a wild and beautiful Spanish gypsy who according to Richard had a voracious appetite for flamenco dancing and exotic sex. Usually in that order. (Sorry if that talk is a bit locker room, I’m just reporting what he said).

His life has probably been more fulfilling than that of many who might be classed sane. A mad and pointless existence? Well, arguably. Unless he can be persuaded to write a bit more.

During the last two weeks I have been in contact with Richard, trying to persuade him to tell me more about his life, if only to increase my own chances of tracking down that Spanish gypsy.

And that’s where Scottish Review comes in. My belief is that if Richard can only see his words being transposed in a respected medium like SR he will get his act together and set up a blog. He has after all been on the road for most of the last 50 years, and has that degree in English.

He has a story to tell, and I believe it’s worth telling. He also has me, his pal, and I have offered to be his conduit to a new and better life through publicising what has been his extraordinarily different way of spending his days.

So here then is his first report. He now tells me that he is no longer sleeping naked as he has managed to get hold of a tent and has also managed to get $174 a month of food stamps from the government to keep him alive.

And what of Trump? What do the guys in the casual labour market think of the news of his election? Well, speaking for himself Richard is obviously a bit frightened. Life in those 10 days without food was pretty scary and he worries that under Trump it will become scarier still. He is also astonished that 42% of Americans didn’t vote at all.

Perhaps his most interesting remarks in recent weeks have been about the artificiality of life in America. He says that he, and presumably his fellow casual labourers, are amongst the only people who don’t travel anywhere by car or bus, he talks about the distancing of the average American from reality and wonders if they have fully connected with what they have done in electing Trump.

My initial response to that email was one of dismissal, but it was a point he made several times, repeatedly underscoring his observations that in many of the other western countries he has lived, there was a better sense of the voting public understanding who it was they were voting for.

And what of his food stamps? What did he spend them on last month? Ah, now here’s a twist that is surely pure Richard. He bought a sack of rice into which he inserted his water-damaged laptop to see if the rice would fix it. It didn’t work, and his emails to me are now through the computers at the local library. Just in case you are wondering he has also been eating the rice. The other big crisis in his life was a tear in his work boots. He had to wait to be paid before he could buy some glue to fix them.

Maybe not so mad. Maybes aye, maybes naw. If he keeps up the emails and they turn out to be interesting enough I shall keep you informed.

Kenneth Roy’s new book, 'The Broken Journey: a life of Scotland 1976-99', charts in vivid and compelling detail the events and personalities of the last quarter of the 20th century in Scotland.

Allan Massie writes in The Scotsman:

Kenneth Roy has been surveying the public life of Scotland with a keen and sceptical eye for more than 40 years...The Broken Journey is a rich and fascinating survey of a country and a time which Roy views with rich and affectionate irony. Those too young to remember the time will learn a lot about the country they have inherited.

Published in hardback by Birlinn, 'The Broken Journey' is available direct from the Scottish Review at £25 (inc p&p). To order your copy or copies, please click below or call 01292 478510 with credit/debit card details.