If it has been a while since you took a long look at European politics or if you have only glanced at the news stories about the French or British elections, I am sure that from a distance the continent has the air of a dead poets society—a land that remains full of charming villages and cafés which, after closing hours, might well be playing the accordion music of national socialism.
Greece remains bankrupt, the ward of Angela Merkel and German banks, for whom the word austerity (Sparpolitik) can be translated to mean: “More money for us.”
Eastern Europe is now the breeding ground for numerous far-right nationalist parties, including Hungary’s Jobbik, the country’s third largest political party (appropriately kitted out with arm bands), which toes a neo-Nazi line, with elaborate code words for homophobia, anti-semitism, and affection for Putin’s hard lines.
Not to be left out of this masked ball, France and Britain are grasping for their own self-destruct levers.
In the recent presidential election almost 34 percent of the French electorate voted for Marine Le Pen’s (Trumpishly angry) National Front party, while the United Kingdom is tearing apart its political system over the referendum that passed to leave the European Union (known as Brexit).
Mind you, none of these political fissures will be on display when, this summer, you land in Athens to spend ten days on a Greek island, or in Paris when you check into a pension off Saint-Germain-des-Prés, where for €120 a night you can still complain to the indifferent night clerk about the broken plumbing.
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Nor is it any easier for European residents—to use George Orwell’s phrase—to go “down and out in Paris and London.” I have lived in Europe since 1991, and in that time I have often traveled in search of its dark side. But everywhere I go, Europe on the ground bears no resemblance to the apocalypse so often described in the movie trailers.
Last spring, for example, I took my bicycle to Paris and went all over the Islamic suburbs (les banlieues) in search of the headwaters of terror, which had just staged attacks in Paris and Brussels.
Instead of finding the charred remains of burnt tires in the streets or dilapidated housing projects doubling as ISIS recruiting centers, I ended up riding around suburban neighborhoods, admittedly many with Arab accents, but still along streets far less mean-spirited than those in Chicago’s South Side or Buffalo’s Emerson (where I have also ridden of late).
In summer 2016, after the Brexit vote in Britain signaled to me that the European Union would be coming apart along its ethnic seams, I took a series of trains from Geneva (where I live) to Istanbul, along the fault line that runs from Bratislava and Budapest to Belgrade, Sofia, Edirne, and Istanbul.
Surely, on such a trip through the Balkans, I would see Europe at its worst—brown shirts on the march in Budapest or skinheads campaigning in Belgrade for Greater Serbia.
To be clear, much of Eastern Europe remains over the horizon of European integration; most countries have retained their local currencies—even if they are EU members—and Turkey has more influence in Bratislava than does Brussels (not to mention better prices on furniture and plumbing).
For all the articles I have read in the press and academic journals about corruption in Bulgaria, recession in Romania, and revanchism in Hungary, on the ground in Eastern Europe I found much that was positive.
Budapest, Bratislava, and Sofia, for example, are inviting “sidewalk” cities, with affordable restaurants (good luck in Paris eating for less than €100), cold beer, and shaded green spaces.
Only in Belgrade did I see Europe on the edge, when out for a walk I came upon a city park that had been converted into a Syrian refugee camp, complete with cardboard lean-tos, heaps of trash and waste, dogs and rats on the fringes, and scenes of despair with mothers trying to feed their small children.
Nor in the Belgrade park did I see any of the romance of poverty in Paris and London that Orwell described when he wrote: “He might be ragged and cold or even starving, but so long as he could read, think and watch for meteors, he was, as he said, free in his own mind.” The people I saw were prisoners.
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Still in search of Europe’s political disintegration, I went recently from Switzerland to pre-election Britain, where the Brexit vote has thrown the country into a constitutional crisis. Before arriving, I made a detour across France, where, at least on television, I got a taste of France’s presidential election.
The last two candidates standing were Marine Le Pen (mère au fascism) and Emmanuel Macron (in all details think of Benjamin Braddock, played by Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate), whose wife is 24 years older than he is. They met when he was in high school, and she was among his teachers. (Benjamin: “Oh no Mrs. Robinson, I find you very desirable. I think you are the most desirable of all my parents’ friends.”)
Unlike Britain, France voted to remain faithful to the European Union, although it would be hard to say that the political system is stable, given that the winner, Macron, is a political neophyte (with an invented political party) holding office for the first time.
Le Pen’s candidacy was an update on her father’s National Front party that in the late twentieth century grew to notoriety on a platform of Holocaust denial, xenophobia, anti-semitism, Muslim-baiting, and denunciations of a united Europe. She added a scarf and lipstick to the pig.
I would like to report that in my travels across France—a country I have gotten to know well—that I could sense the ugly political divide (between fascist isolationism and European centrism). But this European crisis is not one that features ship workers striking in Le Harve or student riots around the Sorbonne.
On this trip, I passed, as I do often, through Lyon, Paris, and Bordeaux, but in none of the cities, save perhaps in a few districts of Paris, did I sense a culture on the political edge.
Quarters of Paris, for example, do have the feel of African or Arab slums. But the real divide in France (Paris vs. La France profonde?) is that between agricultural landowners (generally in favor of European integration and its subsidies) and the worker councils that have turned France into a labyrinth of syndicalist resistance.
Le Pen’s supporters come from two regions: the industrial north of France (once divided by the trenches of World War I but now mired in unemployment) and the deep south along the shores of the Mediterranean, which is less a gold coast of St. Tropez-like hotels and more a suburban city of high-rise dwellings in which immigrants and retirees dispute for power.
Macron’s centrism won the rest of France, although rest assured that he was every voter’s second choice—a vote for Robin because Batman didn’t make it to the second round in the presidential run-off.
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Because France prefers to commit political suicide in stages, not until June will it elect a parliament as fragmented as the electorate across the country—with the Socialists (left) and Republicans (right) making up for their absence of a candidate in the presidential election.
Macron might have won the presidency, but his En Marche! party, fielding parliamentary candidates for the first time, could well struggle to outpoll the greens or even the anarchist federation.
Without a parliamentary coalition Macron’s presidency will have no luck delivering on his school-boy promise to “remake France”. A lifetime politician, former President François Hollande made the same promises, and he left office with an approval rating of 4 percent.
What’s the problem with France? In short, the French want everything. They want a 35-hour work week, retirement at age 55, universal health care, subsidized housing, a big meal with wine at lunchtime, six-week vacations, free university tuition, price controls on baguettes and coffee, time off for their psychiatrists and mistresses, high-speed trains to Paris (although nowhere else), lower taxes, an imperial foreign policy (at least in Africa), and, finally, the illusion that the government owes more to Mirabeau, Marat, and Danton than it does to some Leipzig workers’ council.
Macron might look good and speak well on television (he did on the ones I was watching), but rest assured he’s a department-store mannequin (perhaps modeling Obama’s Branson line of cruise wear?) and incapable of rounding up the shoplifters.
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Instead of taking a night boat across the English Channel, I flew into England on easyJet, the airborne bus company that derives most of its commercial pleasure from treating passengers as hostages.
I was headed from Luton Airport to Oxford, but because there is no direct train service and spotty bus connections, I ended up first having to go into London and then out to the university, a trip of about four hours.
I was spending the night in Oxford, thanks to a generous friend who booked me a room “in college” (your freshman dorm room plus a tea kettle) and invited me to dinner at “high table.”
After unpacking in my lodging, I sat for a while in a cloistered garden—Williamsburg, VA came to mind—and walked to Blackwell’s, the bookseller that, according to a plaque, has been in operation since 1879.
I first went to Blackwell’s in September 1974, as part of a London semester with the Institute of European Studies that had a lot of Hitler biographies and E.H. Carr histories on the reading list.
Blackwell’s had then the look of a bookworm’s Mount Olympus—at least in the eyes of a college junior. Now, sadly, even its endless stacks and vast collection, complete with Tibetan histories and the letters of Siegfried Sassoon, are no match for Amazon’s prices or selection.
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I am surprised that Club Med or some other posh travel companies are not promoting high-table tours, because little can match the pleasure of such an evening in Oxford.
Mercifully, I was traveling with a tie and jacket, but they paled in comparison with the black robes that most of the academic fellows wore to dinner, which unfolded on a long wooden table, set with china and candelabra.
The dining room was worthy of kings and queens, and on the walls were portraits of eminent Victorians. I would say one was Lord Salisbury and another Palmerston, but in truth I didn’t catch the names of the overseers, all of whom were encased in gold frames and suspended from what felt like the heavens.
If there was a logic to the seating plan, I missed it, although by good fortune I was seated near the head of the table, from which the don delivered, in Latin, what sounded like grace (Benedic, Domine, nos et dona tua…) but which could have been a summons in Harry Potter (Exspecto Patronum…) issued by Albus Dumbledore.
Conversation at high table was fragmented. I had thought the presiding don might tap his glass and ask all of us to proffer an opinion on the death of Cicero. Instead everyone chatted with the person on either side, much as you might at a wedding dinner.
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Fortified by a glass of red wine (Château La Garde 2006, for those keeping score at home), I plunged into chit-chat with the presiding don, which was made easier because the gods of etiquette sat me next to someone whose books I had read (although here I confess had not admired) in the 1990s.
Because I wasn’t invited to high table to critique his use of history, I kept the conversation light, giving the don room to tell amusing anecdotes about Margaret Thatcher, with whom he had worked and known well.
In an attempt to humanize the Iron Lady, he even talked up her sense of humor, while admitting that it was probably in “the single digits.”
When I pressed for an example of Maggie’s stellar wit (all I remembered was how she had handbagged George H.W. Bush over the first Gulf War, telling him, “Don’t go wobbly on me, George…”), he repeated one of her favorites.
It involves a man entering a book shop in France and asking to buy a copy of the French constitution. In response, the clerk says: “Sorry, sir, we don’t carry periodicals.”
In case that knee-slapping joke is lost on you, it refers to the many constitutional crises in French political history. Apparently Thatcher loved telling the story to French President François Mitterrand, among others.
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Although dessert is served at high table (yes, the Brits call it “pudding”), it was perfunctory; ours had the taste of sweetened Weetabix. For cheese, port, and Madeira—the cigars mercifully have been dropped—we had to go elsewhere in the college. Passing the wines around the table, one of the guests deployed what looked like a croupier’s rake to circulate the bottles.
Only a few members of the college and their guests came to dessert, so the conversation was livelier and, as the port made its rounds, focused on the June 8 general election, which will effectively turn Britain into a one-party state.
Even those who might otherwise vote happily for the Conservatives are in despair about this election, which Prime Minister Theresa May called to give herself five more years in office and to end any dissent about the conditions under which Britain will leave the European Union.
In Britain, many make reference to “hard” Brexit and “soft” Brexit. Under a “soft” Brexit, Britain retains many of its trade concessions with the rest of Europe, and British pensioners continue living happily along the Costa del Sol.
Under a “hard” Brexit, the EU tells Britain to piss up a rope (yes, the English are wonderful at slang), and the UK is reduced to just another Channel Island, with fewer European privileges than, say, the Isle of Man or Guernsey.
While enjoying the cheese and walnuts, I heard all about how David Cameron got Britain into the mess over Brexit. He called for the referendum as a way to marginalize the Eurosceptics in the Tory party, and to silence other fringe elements, such as the UK Independence Party (UKIP), who were turning parliament into a kennel for yapping terriers.
Not long before, Cameron had won reelection and thought now was the time to confront his demons on the far right of the Conservative party. He might well have been despairing over Archbishop Thomas Beckett, of whom it was said in 1170: “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”
Instead of heresy, it was Cameron who was run through with a sword, because, as a high priest of the London bubble, Dave had no idea that fishermen in Hull, pensioners in Coventry, and fox hunters in Surrey were tired of Brussels, illegal immigrants, meat regulations, fishing quotas, open borders, and nasty little wars in Afghanistan.
Now out of elective office, Cameron is only in the news when taking delivery on a £25,000 luxury shed/man cave for the garden of his Cotswolds estate.
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The problem with referendum democracy is that it is long on bumper stickers, but short on details. Hence Britain voted for Brexit without a clue as to the terms it will be getting with Europe in the future.
In place of Cameron as prime minister, it got Theresa May—the Miss Havisham of English politics—who said famously that “Brexit means Brexit,” which in her mind means: “Leave it to me and the lads to cut the best deal with Brussels. In the meantime, bugger off.”
Normally, in this election, Britain should have the Labour Party in opposition, which might campaign, say, for another referendum, once the Brexit terms are known.
Unfortunately for British politics, the new head of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, has fewer political skills than the leadership of the West Dunbartonshire Community Party or maybe the Residents Associations of Epsom and Ewell.
Under Tony Blair, so-called New Labour became a center-left party of progressive investment bankers and enlightened hedge fund managers.
Blair was Britain’s Bill Clinton—in theory a progressive but in practice someone obsessed with appearance fees—and he alienated Labour’s traditional base of Glaswegian ship welders.
Meanwhile, the Liberal-Democrats, who had aspirations to occupy the rationale center of British politics (somewhere between Cameron’s fox hunters and Corbyn’s grievance councils), fell on hard times when they went into a coalition government with David Cameron’s Tories and immediately put the boot to English students by raising tuition to £9,000 a year (up from £3,000).
Instead of finding a middle ground, the Lib Dems were shown the door in the last election, and are now down to nine members of parliament (Conservatives have 330 and Labour 220).
After Labour, the next largest party in parliament is the Scottish Nationalist, which cares mostly about independence for Scotland (in part so that the Scots can stay in the EU).
For whatever reasons, Jeremy Corbyn sounds like Theresa May on Brexit, only saying he’s in favor of good deal with Europe and that another referendum is not necessary. Nevertheless, a plurality of Britons, according to a Times of London poll, now thinks voting for Brexit was a mistake.
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While everyone I met in my travels across the country wanted to talk about Brexit, Corbyn’s strategy for the election is to ignore it and, instead, campaign as if he were the reincarnation of Clement Attlee, the postwar Labour prime minister, of whom Winston Churchill said: “A modest man with much to be modest about…”
Corbyn talks about (if in a low voice) nationalizing the trains, post office, and power plants—something not even party stalwarts support—as if Britain’s halcyon days were in the 1970s, when striking coal miners dominated the debate and cold pork pies were a staple on British Rail.
Come June 8, Britain could get the worst of all possible worlds—the Conservative Party in power for another five years, perhaps with a 100 seat majority and a fragmented opposition; no clear position in the government as to the terms that would make Brexit unacceptable; and no chance for another referendum even if the EU (as it is threatening) tells Britain that future relations will only be negotiated after Brexit is made final and only after Britain has paid billions of Euros in penalties to the remaining EU countries.
In foreign affairs, Britain risks a recession should it find itself cut off from European markets. And there is a chance that both Scotland and Northern Ireland will seek separation from the United Kingdom rather than go it alone with May’s brave new world.
At least Britain might find solace in Trump’s America or Putin’s Russia, neither of whom support a unified Europe despite it having brought seventy years of peace to the continent.
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To get from Oxford into London, I took a long road through bucolic English countryside, the kind of meandering that Thomas Hardy so often described in his Wessex novels.
In my case, rather than amble around Christminster with Jude the Obscure, I met some of the descendants of the writer John Buchan (The Thirty-Nine Steps, the Richard Hannay series), who showed me the house where the prolific writer-politician lived for most of his adult life (Elsfield, near Oxford) and wrote, among other novels, Greenmantle, about the political rise of Islam. In it he writes famously: “There is a dry wind blowing through the East, and the parched grasses wait the spark.”
Then, that evening, before even going to my hotel (OK, the blow-up mattress on the floor of my son’s student flat), I went to see Occupational Hazards, a dramatization of Rory Stewart’s memoir, A Prince of the Marshes, which describes the descent into chaos of the American occupation of Iraq between 2003 and 2005.
Stewart is a member of parliament and standing for reelection. Before working for Paul Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), he walked across Afghanistan (yet another eccentric Englishman, in the footsteps of Wilfred Thesiger, Robert Byron, and Lawrence of Arabia).
Although I had read his book when it was published, I still found the play a vivid cautionary tale on nation-building, or what followed when Bush the Younger took up the Thatcherite burden (although by then she was out of office) and decided “not to go wobbly” for a second Iraq invasion.
In the book (the language is different in the play), Stewart writes:
The CPA in the Green Zone wanted to build the new state in a single frenzy. Instead of beginning with security and basic needs and attempting the more complex things later, we implemented simultaneously programs on human rights, the free market, feminism, federalism, and constitutional reform.
I can well imagine that Donald Trump’s own imperial adventures will end in such convoluted illusions.
Sitting in the Hampstead Theatre, I did wonder why the 2006 memoirs of a Tory MP, now up for reelection, were meriting a West End revival in 2017.
Is it to make the electoral point that Labourite Tony Blair had blindly followed the United States into the sinkhole of Iraq? Or is it to remind Stewart’s constituents that the minister, in his earlier life, had bravely stared down apostles of terror?
Later I looked up Stewart’s views on Brexit, and found a statement that could easily have been drafted by the love child of Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn. Stewart writes:
Britain must now make the best of Brexit. The decision is made, and we should be energetic and optimistic. We need to remind people that this is still the same Britain, that the things about Britain that we fundamentally enjoy, remain the same. I personally believe that we need to invest now more than ever in rebuilding Britain’s international position. More than ever, we need nimble and intelligent ways of thinking about Britain in the world.
It sounds uplifting, as did so many lines in the production. But reading through his statement about Brexit and “rebuilding Britain’s international position,” I remembered that the celebrated MP (also a Minister of State at the Department for International Development) had temporized while, recently, Theresa May made a lot of Trumpian headlines about threatening to cut off Britain’s foreign aid. There might be a good play in that? It might even be called Hamlet.
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While I was in London, to wallow further in election outrage, I went to a convention hall in Westminster (just opposite the abbey) where two days of meetings were devoted to “Brexit & the Political Crash.”
In theory, the convention was open to all sides in the Brexit debate, although for the most part those who seized a microphone—either on stage or in the audience—had come to voice their despair that Theresa May had closed off the debate on Brexit and that Britain had become a one-party state.
The brochure for the meetings even came with a selling blurb from thriller novelist John Le Carré, who wrote: “How do we repair the damage to ourselves, our constitution, and our European friends?” (No one on stage had the heart to point out that the novelist owed his literary fortune to a divided Europe.)
I only stayed for a morning at the conference (which, after a while, reminded me of that Monty Python sketch in which Graham Chapman says: “I think all right-thinking people in this country are sick and tired of being told that ordinary, decent people are fed up in this country with being sick and tired…”)
Still, a morning was long enough for me to hear the novelist Ian McEwan deliver a funeral oration on British politics and to take in the panel remarks of political spinmeister Alistair Campbell.
An older man with a lion mane of a haircut, McEwan described how the political debate had become the reserve of “the low minded to the mean spirited to the murderers,” an allusion to the killing of MP Jo Cox, who was campaigning for Britain to remain in the EU. He added darkly: “No Remainer has ever killed a Leaver.”
McEwan thought it equally fatal, to the British body politic, that both May and Corbyn were refusing to campaign for another referendum, despite the first vote having taken place before any final Brexit terms were known.
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Campbell was a fix-it man in Tony Blair’s government and, by rumor, the inspiration for the character of Malcolm Tucker, the delightfully foul-mouthed political operative of In the Loop and The Thick of It, both set inside British politics (Tucker: “When the Opposition’s here, you tell them nothing except where the toilets are, and you lie about that…. I’ve got a to-do list that’s longer than a fucking Leonard Cohen song.”)
On this occasion, rather than string together f-bombs, Campbell (who in person is likable, well spoken, and shrewd) was imploring the Labour Party back to relevance. He said: “If the country decides it’s [Brexit] a catastrophic mistake, it’s allowed to change its mind.”
Nor could he believe that his Labour Party, which not long before had won three general elections, had become as marginal as the greens or the East Devon Alliance.
Maybe he had forgotten the words of his alter-ego, Malcolm Tucker, who said: “People don’t like their politicians to be comfortable. They don’t like you having expenses. They don’t like you being paid. They’d rather you lived in a fucking cave.”
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It was while I was in London, hearing about “the strange death of liberal England,” that Donald Trump’s firing of Director Jim Comey was playing out on television screens designed to resemble talkie newsreels.
Trump is as much a specter in British politics as is Theresa May. Wherever I went—from the high table in Oxford to Westminster—the British knew far more about U.S. politics, the FBI, Watergate, and constitutional precedence than Americans will ever know about the Glorious Revolution or the Profumo affair.
On my last night, dinner was held up an hour (at the country house of friends) while we watched the entire broadcast of Sean Spicer’s press conference on Comey, the one in which Spicer says that neither he nor the president had anything more to add to the tweet that suggested that the White House might have taped Trump’s loyalty-oath dinner with the now unfrocked FBI director. (I know, it does sound like a TV Guide sit-com summary.)
Personally, I enjoyed the chance to see Trump through British eyes, especially as his presidency might well determine whether the European Union will survive.
Already several American presidents have contributed to Europe’s desperate state of affairs.
George W. Bush did Britain no favors when he handbagged Tony Blair into joining the Iraq invasion. Much of the Brexit anger in Britain began over the military and financial costs of Iraq, which, lest we forget, was billed as a NATO adventure.
Nor did the presidency of Barack Obama treat Europe as anything more than an estate in liquidation, probably for back taxes.
Obama turned his back on insolvent Greece and golfed on the Vineyard while Russia invaded Crimea and eastern Ukraine, much the way he was indifferent (except for that mythical red line) to the Syrian civil war and the plight of refugees drifting toward Europe.
Even though Obama’s Arab Spring promises had a hand in fomenting Syrian rebellion, he felt no responsibility either to take in refugees or broker a peace.
The United States has admitted some 16,000 refugees from the war, about the same number as have been admitted to Serbia, Bulgaria, and Switzerland. Turkey has taken in more than two million.
The Brexit vote might have turned out differently had many British citizens not viewed the Calais refugee centers as Trojan horses, about to be towed into Pippa’s wedding.
Nor should it be forgotten that the Obama administration waged a vendetta against a number of European banks, including Deutsche Bank and BNP Paribas (for dealings with Iran and banking secrecy), but then refused all reciprocity when it came to disclosing the owners of Delaware limited liability corporations, many of which now, I suspect, are hiding the flow of hot Russian money into the pyramids of the Trump corporations.
In short, the European crack-up rests as much on American shoulders as it does on those of David Cameron or UKIP’s Nigel Farage.
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Perhaps the most illuminating conversation I had about the Trump shadow hanging over Europe came at the Institute of Advanced Studies, part of the University of London.
There I interviewed Professor Sarah Churchwell, who is a professorial fellow in American literature as well as holding the chair for Public Understanding of the Humanities.
I approached her because she has written extensively about The Great Gatsby and F. Scott Fitzgerald (Careless People is an excellent book), and because I am always searching for updates to the novel—my way of keeping it timeless.
In this instance, Professor Churchwell (American by birth, Princeton by education and temperament) made the connection between Jay Gatz and Donald J. Trump, who, as best as I can tell, sprang from the Platonic conception of Studio 54.
Before going to London, I had reread The Great Gatsby, mostly so that I could remember growing up on Long Island (where the novel is set), although when I was a boy, no one called it, as Fitzgerald does, “the slender riotous island.” By then it had too many shopping malls.
I warmed to the idea of Trump as Gatsby, and Churchwell’s point that, in the novel, Fitzgerald is describing those who would be in charge when America descends into plutocracy. He writes: “It never occurred to me that one man could start to play with the faith of fifty million people—with the single-mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe.”
* * *
Part of the novel’s appeal is the mystery surrounding Gatsby’s past; it is suggested that he “killed someone,” fought in the war, is a cousin of the Kaiser, or owns a chain of drugstores.
Churchwell, however, is more direct in calling Gatsby simply a bootlegger—in much the same manner that other accounts bluntly describe Trump as a stock swindler. She writes in her book: “Fitzgerald always knew that his central character was a gangster.”
Partly because Hollywood has so often cast Gatsby in the white suits of its leading men, it is harder for us—she concludes—to see him as did Fitzgerald, someone who had faith only in the immortality of cash. Only through money can he find love, redemption, friendship, or success.
Gatsby assumes he can repurchase Daisy’s love much the way that Trump believes that his millions and Trump Tower suites will turn him into Thomas Jefferson.
Does it not sound like Trump at Mar-a-Lago when Fitzgerald writes of Gatsby: “He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them one by one before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many-colored disarray.”
Thinking of Trump as Gatsby made it much easier for me to understand why the President needed to fire FBI Director Comey, as he will anyone who comes too close to unraveling his mysterious past. (“I heard he’s Putin’s cousin….”)
Trump, like Gatsby, wants only to live in the eternal present, without anyone looking into his draft status, his tax returns, his childhood in North Dakota (or was it Queens?), or how East Coast society shunned him as an errand boy of the Russian mob or as a reality TV host.
* * *
Only when I was back from Britain—as loaded down with books as Gatsby is with dreams—did I remember the extent to which Fitzgerald worked allusions to Oxford into his great American novel.
In the many speculations that come up about Gatsby’s mysterious past, one is that he has attended Oxford University in England. Jordan Baker—the golf pro and occasional girlfriend of (narrator) Nick Carraway—when she is asked who Gatsby is, says: “Well, he told me once he was an Oxford man.”
A telling of the same tale comes from Meyer Wolfsheim, Gatsby’s gangster-friend, who says (in his Lower East Side accent) to Nick: “He went to Oggsford College in England. You know Oggsford College?”
Later in the novel, when Daisy Buchanan’s enraged husband Tom (yes, another literary alter ego for FBI Director Jim Comey) sets out to prove Gatsby a fraud, he focuses on his wife’s lover’s connection to Oxford, after saying to Nick: “Who is this Gatsby anyhow?”
It leads to a confrontation between Tom and Gatsby, in which the latter explains, nonchalantly, that, yes, after World War I, he had attended courses in Oxford that the army had offered to demobilizing soldiers.
Clearly the tone of Gatsby’s answer to Tom is that he never pretended to be a fellow at one of the colleges, or even someone trying to fake it at high table.
Tom buys none of the innocent explanation, much the way, earlier in the book, he says to Jordan when she insists that Gatsby really had studied there, “An Oxford man!…. Like hell he is! He wears a pink suit.”
Tom Buchanan or Director Comey could say the same about me—as much as I would love to be, I am not really “an Oggsford man”—although just to be clear, and in my own defense, I have never owned a pink suit.