When Donald Trump came to Edinburgh to give evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s economy, energy and tourism committee on wind farms, the activist and writer Andy Wightman sat in the public viewing area wearing a t-shirt that read “I hate bullies & liars”. For some, a wardrobe choice like that may have seemed unusual, even inappropriate, particularly in a formal setting – and what had Donald Trump ever done to deserve such accusations? I remember a younger, ignorant and more impressionable me arguing with a more informed relative about the merits of the golf course that Donald Trump was building on the Aberdeenshire coast – it’ll create jobs, I’d say, there were statistics on the news. They would sigh, gazing at me with the mournful expression of someone watching the entire sad history of institutional complacency unfold in slow motion through the innocent protestations of a clueless teen.
In my defence, there were statistics on the news – and my ignorance of the issue was, I hope, not unusual. Trump’s lies and bullying, to which I was first exposed thanks to Anthony Baxter’s passionate, infuriating documentary “You’ve Been Trumped”, are now a step closer to real public scrutiny after the film’s UK television premiere on BBC2 last night. But in that documentary we see how the BBC and the vast majority of the Scottish and UK media establishments happily disseminated Trump’s astonishing untruths. As Baxter’s film makes painfully clear, the economic and environmental arguments in support of the development were largely fiction: many were either wildly exaggerated or simply invented. His course was given the go-ahead based on little more than his personal word, and his abuses of the environment and local residents went largely unchallenged by the powers that be as he flashed imaginary cash and promised imaginary jobs.
Having clambered hungrily across the carcasses of local government resistance, Scottish Government scrutiny, the scientific community, the environmental lobby and planning law, Trump turned his beak to the local residents of the Menie estate. His bullying is documented by Mr. Baxter in clear, undeniable terms: ugly walls of earth are dumped in front of windows, water supplies are disconnected and ignored, property is violated and Trump himself describes one resident’s home as a “slum” and a “pigsty”. The record of abuses goes on and on, but you get the drift. For those who had seen “You’ve Been Trumped”, Andy Wightman’s t-shirt wasn’t shocking; what was surprising was the absence of similarly forthright expressions among the others in the room.
I write this having just returned from a weekend in New York. Sitting wearily at my desk, still entranced by the great urban stalagmites of Manhattan, I gazed at a twitter feed that seethed with all the fury that 140 characters can contain. The British and Scottish publics have finally seen Trump for the liar and the bully that he is, and that is undeniably progress.
Back to New York. At 725 Fifth Avenue, Trump Tower thrusts upwards from the earth, the vast corrugated pattern of its west face leering out over the city. It appears at home among structures of similar scale and excess. It screams for attention, but its screams are matched word for word by every other protrusion of metal, glass and concrete that the Big Apple flings towards the heavens. This is a cacophony that the people of New York seem content – even proud – to accept.
But the volume of Trump’s roar, and the brutal mentality of quasi-imperial profit and entitlement that spits it forth, is grotesquely out of place in Scottish society – and we don’t seem prepared to silence it. It echoes and thunders through the fragile dunes of Menie, overturning a delicate natural balance. His feral ambition charges into every nook and cranny of a small and apparently defenceless community, sniffing out new opportunities for the relentless consumption and absorption that lies at the heart of the capitalist survival instinct. Our government bends over backwards to accomodate him. It is to the great credit of the Menie residents that they stood against him with such solid, dignified resolve.
But the wider community of Scotland did not appear to stand against him. From the politicians of Holyrood to the officers of Grampian Police, few attempted to send “The Donald” homewards to think again. Our institutions (the media, the police, the government, even a university), infused with such fleeting confidence after devolution, failed. Their checks and balances failed to operate. They were not transparent where they ought to be, nor were they accountable where they had to be. They failed in their single most important function: to promote justice and fairness at every opportunity. A nation intended to be a “progressive beacon” was left in the dark as the noise and strength of a global corporate heavyweight came to the gates of Scotland’s supposedly “social democratic” city on a hill and found them wide open.
This is not something for which we can blame Westminster. This was – and is, for Trump’s abuses continue – a tragedy made in Scotland and enabled by the ineptitudes of our own devolved institutional structure. Far from being automatically resolved by independence, the relative weight that can be thrown around by wealthy interests will only increase in the event of a Yes vote (you didn’t think Rupert Murdoch was helping out Alex Salmond for nothing, did you?). But this is not an argument against independence. On the contrary, our present inability to drown out the howl of wealthy interests shows just how desperately Scotland must remake itself on an anvil of truly pervasive justice and democracy. Our progressive beacon is not yet lit, and only a radical overhaul of our institutions and ambitions can provide the spark to brighten those dark corners that bullies and liars find with such ease.
If you haven’t seen “You’ve Been Trumped”, watch it here. When it’s finished, think about the Scotland you want to see. Within the union or without, we cannot heal the scars of Menie. But we are blessed with national virtues and resources that bring people from across the world in search of the profit, pleasure and picture-perfection that Trump hunted for on the east coast. We must begin a radical re-imagining of how we conduct ourselves and our business if we are ever to protect ourselves from the designs of those who see only the colours of money in the gold, silver and green of our forests and munros. That requires the re-shaping of our systems of local government, our democratic processes and our attitudes towards business, land ownership, the environment and communities. An independence that retains the political and economic structures that let the taint of Trump’s greed into our country is a betrayal of the hope that our movement is built on, and a vague shadow of our transformative potential. Perhaps the changes we need will not come immediately with independence, but they will never come as long as we cling to the old, conservative structures of patronage and profit that define the status quo.