THIRTY-SIX years ago, I stood with my children on Pennsylvania Avenue watching the presidential motorcade carry the newly sworn in Ronald Reagan back from Capitol Hill to the White House.
I was no longer an Ambassador, but thought the kids should see the spectacle, however distasteful I found the election of such a man.
Today those who line the streets will witness the inauguration of another man deemed by liberal-minded persons like me unfit for the job and the dignity of America’s head of government and of state – Donald Trump. And there are solid reasons why his assumption of power should make us uneasy.
He is a nationalist and a protectionist, a chauvinist and a vulgarian, very possibly a fool. He has no sense of the fragility of peace, or of prosperity, or of the environment in our chaotic world. He is naïve about Vladimir Putin and paranoid about Islam.
He thinks he can strengthen the American economy by engineering a construction boom and jaw-boning American corporations into defying market forces. He wants to control global migration by constructing a new iron – or cement – curtain between rich and poor countries.
He sees no need to limit humanity’s propensity to foul its own environmental nest. He wants more nuclear warheads.
He will undo all that President Obama has achieved to end the United States’ unpopularity throughout much of the rest of the world; and he wants to expose his fellow citizens to the full rigours of the healthcare market which, for the less affluent one third, means sickness and perhaps death.
All of this is odious to anyone who believes that the 21st century world needs the opposite of all these things: intelligent diplomacy; firmness in East-West relations; reversal of nuclear proliferation; reduced CO2 emissions; faster improvement in living standards in poor and war-ravaged regions; sustained free trade; an American foreign policy based on dialogue rather than just hard power; and an American society at greater peace with itself.
But maybe this is not the whole story. American democracy has a long modern history, some of it raw and all of it vigorous, if also – at times – deformed by the power of money.
Donald Trump is – give or take the vagaries of the electoral college – the current democratic result; and this has become the occasion for much hand-wringing about ‘populism’, demagoguery and other rude words for what democracy does when it offends ‘nice’ opinion.
It is relevant to recall Alexis de Tocqueville’s 19th century essay on American democracy, written by an intelligent French observer after an extensive tour of the United States during the time of Andrew Jackson’s practice of extreme democracy. Having enumerated in his penetrating analysis all the evils to which mob rule, rank egalitarianism, popular ignorance, disregard for minorities’ rights and herd behaviour can lead, de Tocqueville finally concludes that, nonetheless, such ascendancy of the popular will is worth the aggravation.
For myself, who now looks back from this extreme limit of my task, and discovers from afar, but at once, the various objects which have attracted my more attentive investigation upon my way, I am full of apprehensions and of hopes.
I perceive mighty dangers which it is possible to ward off – mighty evils which may be avoided or alleviated; and I cling with a firmer hold to the belief, that for democratic nations to be virtuous and prosperous they require but to will it.
Right now America has willed Trump; but only for four years. In 2020 they will choose again; and by then personal virtue and low inflation may well seem to be things they undervalued in 2016. They still need to find a way to share their wealth more widely, something which they have lost since 1970.
But, being Americans, they will get it right eventually. They have chosen their Jackson and their Nixon and their George W. Bush; but so too have they chosen Abraham Lincoln, F.D. Roosevelt and Barack Obama.
Wise men, who love America and understand its periodic lunges into folly and danger, will not mind too much having to wait four years for the real America, democratic and long-sighted, to reassert itself. There is no other global hegemon that on its record, and on its values, offers a better future to its friends and neighbours.
Meanwhile, much harm can be done. Wise statesmen will need to play for time, time for the United States to rediscover its better self, which indubitably is still there.
Peter Jay is a former British ambassador to the United States. He later became the BBC’s economics editor.