It was in March of this year. A few weeks before the inauguration, Joe Biden was inaugurated. On the streets Georgetown, one among the power-hubs in Washington, I encountered a senior European diplomat that I had met.
Very quickly, I directed the conversation toward the new government. “How is it to deal with them?” “What’s it like dealing with them?” I asked.
He said, “It’s amazing,” He said, “There is order and discipline again. There’s a process.
“And what is the down side to Trump’s administration?” “And what’s the downside to Trump administration?” I inquired.
‘There is order, discipline, process and a chain of command…’
Trump’s Trump years truly were the Wild West. After seven years of being the BBC’s North America correspondent for seven years, it’s hard not to reflect upon how dramatic each day was during his four-year tenure. It was beyond anything I had ever imagined.
Trump famously called me “another beauty” at his inaugural presidential news conference. He had been curious about what had happened when he tried to ban travel from predominantly Muslim countries.
In the early days I would find myself typing, almost hyperventilating, that today, this Monday/Tuesday/Wednesday… history was made when Donald Trump said/did/tweeted this or that. Because we’d been through many other moments in the meantime, I was almost certain that Friday would be my last day of those historic moments.
This was Berlin in 1930s, rolled up by the sinister end of Roman Empire. Each day was filled with stories, backbitings, sackings and leaks. It was chaos.
With my security card, I could literally wander into the West Wing and meet various officials. Before you knew it, you’d have a juicy story. It was something like shooting fish from a barrel for journalists.
Trump called me “another beautiful” during his first news conference as a presidential candidate. This was because I asked about the chaos that followed when he attempted to implement his ban on travel from mostly Muslim countries.
For diplomats who were reporting back to their nation’s capitals, it was the best of times, too – churning out endless exciting telegrams.
Washington DC’s beauty monde is home to diplomats, journalists and policy wonks. Under Biden, their lives changed from crack cocaine-based daily life to just half an hour of lemonade every week (if they are lucky).
OK, maybe not the best for our former ambassador, poor old Lord (Kim) Darroch, whose candid and supposedly confidential assessments of the Trump presidency were leaked to The Mail on Sunday, and The Donald bit back in inimitable style, leading to Kim being declared – in effect – persona non grata.
Have you ever seen anything similar before? No. But even that episode – colossal at the time – was, again, very quickly yesterday’s fish-and-chips paper.
So I kept returning to the thesaurus, looking for other words than “unique”, “extraordinary” and “unprecedented”.
Biden is here. With him, the return of discipline and a system of command was possible. That’s what I mean by total dullness.
This is a fact I was reminded last week when Trump appeared on TV again in his upbeat interview with Nigel Farage, GB News.
The Washington DC beau monde’s diplomats, journalists, policy-wonks, and think-tankers saw their lives change overnight. Instead of a daily dose of crack cocaine, they now get half a bottle of lemonade shandy every other week (if they’re really lucky).
Biden’s communication style has been consistent with the American writer Mark Twain’s maxim: “I would have written you an interminable letter but I was too busy.” Also, it’s not a good idea to use just one word when you can write a thousand.
His slowness and inexplicable speed are a hallmark of his personality.
It is true that he has been the same person for all of his 79 year. The story of his arrival in London to serve as Vice President to Barack Obama was told to me.
Nick Clegg – then deputy PM – was to take him to meet our National Security Council. Biden’s team claims he is able to remain for fifteen minutes. Over an hour later, Biden is still telling stories, and no one else has managed to get a word in edgeways – his staff are acting out eye-roll emojis.
It is indeed a challenge to your concentration to listen to a Biden speech. Trump’s remarks are a clear indication that he won’t stick to what was printed on the page.
When I think back to my time here, I wonder what I would have said in spring 2014 when I applied for the job.
There would surely have been many conversations over Sopel’s fate: he has lost his way.
As I traveled the length of this country, there were three moments that made me realize Trump was an incredible force.
It was the start of August 2015 and I was there in Dallas, Texas. Trump – and remember we were still 15 months ahead of the presidential election – was speaking at a rally in the city.
The American Airlines Arena, which has a capacity of 20,000 was rented to him. This arena is often associated with big basketball or ice hockey games.
As I traveled the length of this country, there were three moments that made me realize Trump was an incredible force.
People queued for hours, in all manner of home-made costumes – it was stars and stripes galore.
It was full. It was hard to think of any other politician capable of attracting such a large audience well more than a year before an election. They loved him. He was taken seriously, but they didn’t take him literally. They were aware that he was exaggerating and made a few sloppy errors. But they would laugh at him – and with him.
The scene was repeated at all his rallies in America, with people waiting in cold temperatures and driving in snow. It started in Manchester in New Hampshire in the early morning, then continued in California in long lines under the scorching sun to listen to their next president.
When I visited Spartanburg, South Carolina, the second lightbulb moment occurred. I spoke to this woman, a fine Southern belle, with the most delicious voice – the vowel sounds all really drawn out.
She says she loves my accent. She says that I love her accent. Then she explained why Trump is her favorite: “He thinks what I’m thinking. But he’s not allowed to tell me.” That was the phrase that stuck with my heart. This phrase was repeated over and over in America.
Trump stood up for the plight of large segments of society who feel they are overlooked. He spoke out on behalf people whose views weren’t ‘PC’ but they could not express. Hillary Clinton called them ‘the desplorables’, one of her most regrettable words.
These voters, who could not be heard – would not be heard – by the liberal elite in Washington DC, now had Donald Trump as their mouthpiece and champion.
And even if his speeches were chaotic – and can you imagine a more difficult job than being Donald Trump’s autocue operator – he stuck to key messages: building the wall, keeping Muslims out, renegotiating trade deals, treating military veterans better.
Many people found it offensive, but it was still appreciated by many. He redefined the concept of voting. Millions of Americans who had slipped off the grid were now registering to vote – and they were going to tick his name.
A third observation I made was the distinct difference it made to be at a Hillary Clinton rally. Yes, there were people who turned up, but they didn’t show enthusiasm. From a mile away at a Trump rally you would find stalls doing a roaring trade selling Trump merch – hats, badges, flags all with Make America Great Again emblazoned on them. MAGA was making a lot of money. Hillary was a different story.
Let’s go back to January 6, 2021 and the Trump rally, which would become the trigger for an attempted rebellion at the Capitol. This was when a mob that supported the 45th president tried stop the peaceful transfer to power to the 46th. A dark day for democracy. The vote count and the recount were particularly difficult. These legal challenges were filed.
Trump Campaign did not bring any case to court proving the voting irregularities allegations. Trump’s appointed Attorney General declared that the election result was fair. The Trump-appointed head for election security claimed it was the most secure election in American history.
The results of all 50 American states had been verified as correct. Mike Pence Vice President, who was slavishly loyal until that point to Trump, visited the Capitol in order to fulfill his constitutional obligation.
Nearly all of the White House’s senior staff knew Trump was losing and were open to accepting it. But one man couldn’t – wouldn’t – accept that.
Trump rallies have been described as having fun. You can feel it as a party, with the colour and costumes. But on that frigid and grey January morning on the Ellipse – a patch of ground that runs to the south of the White House down to the Washington Monument – the mood was sulphurous. He was now taken literally by his supporters.
He told them that the election was stolen. They believed him.
I met two men that morning who had driven down from Boise, Idaho, to be in Washington – a round trip of 4,800 miles.
These men were ready for any kind of trouble. They wore uniforms in Robocop style, and carried backpacks with everything you need. I was made aware that they are ready for violence. Later, that night I’d see one of them hanging off the Senate gallery and then leaping down to the well in the chamber. Finally they were seated in the reserved seat for Vice President.
He has since pleaded guilty for his part in what he called the ‘boogaloo’ – a slang term used to describe America’s second civil war, something these zealots wanted to bring about.
While civil war isn’t yet here, it wouldn’t be wrong to assume that the tensions have subsided in the months following that unsuccessful rebellion.
America remains bitterly divided over everything and everyone.
Biden is a tireless worker to bring down the political temperature and, in his opinion, Trump’s view of it, is less polarising.
However, America’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and the belief that the Democratic Party is too far Left have contributed to his low approval rating.
We are now at 2024.
Biden is not lying, but it’s hard to believe that he will be running again. A man that was not in his prime when he started the campaign seems to have been weighed down by the responsibility and weight of office.
Kamala Harris is His Veep Naah. It’s not difficult to see.
You wouldn’t believe the amount of backbiting that she has in Washington DC. I think there are no Republicans who would prefer her as their candidate for the presidency. Her approval ratings are terrible.
What about the Republicans?
If Trump does decide to run for the nomination again, then I don’t see any one who could stop him.
His support is still huge. After the impeachments of January 6 and 2, can he rebuild his base from the dysfunctional four-years? Can he win the suburbanites, moderates, college-educated females and independents that voted against him in 2020?
This is a huge task.
Now that I’m leaving the country divided, others will have to think about these intriguing questions.
Let me finish with one last thought. One last thought. When I first arrived in the country, 2014 was a time of great surprise. It was their politeness as well as their courtesy. On the streets, people will say “good morning” to you. People ask you how are doing. I would get into a taxi and exchange pleasantries before saying I wanted to go to the White House – or more accurately, the corner of 17th and Penn.
My office was full of hardworking, young interns who would often call me “sir”. Although I’ve heard many different things about my BBC career, “sir” wasn’t the one I was used to. That civility remains even though I’m leaving America in 2021 is something I can confirm.
This could be the key to saving this great country from the boogaloo.