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Coming up trumps

05 February 2016

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LAST week’s most frightening TV programme was The Mad World of Donald Trump (Channel 4, Tuesday of last week). Matt Frei’s account of the Republican hopeful was more appalling even than the horrors of today’s religious extremism. It was a record of the egregious folly of a free people — people who choose to believe his populist rantings, lap up his bullying of women and contemptuous dismissal of immigrants and foreigners, and cheer his scenario that their ills, such as poverty, unemployment, and a sense of powerlessness, are the result of a conspiracy against them which he will destroy.

It is the thesis of Mein Kampf, and causes as much despair in the Republican establishment as among Democrats. Frei skewered many of Trump’s claims: the evidence was clear that his wealth, although obscene, is nothing like as great as he claims; that his business record shows far less unbridled success than he pretends; that his bankruptcies have destroyed the livelihoods of many of the blue-collar workers who consider that he will be their saviour.

His bandwagon is a juggernaut, crushing all opposition and criticism, refusing to engage with any reason or argument. The prospect that this presidential candidate, who appears not to have bothered to produce anything like a programme or strategy for government, could control the levers of nuclear power is terrifying; the vast number of people who freely to choose to support him is a source of existential despair.

It was a relief to turn to real fossils: Attenborough and the Giant Dinosaur (BBC1, Sunday of last week) was a delightful account of the discovery in Patagonia of the bones of a new species of plant-eating sauropods — one of which is the largest land animal ever discovered. Its skeleton is virtually complete, and we saw the cast of its bones being gradually reassembled, and then, thanks to the marvels of CGI, clothed with organs and epidermis. But perhaps the best thing was Attenborough himself, boyish in his delight and enthusiasm.

Richard Fortey is, perhaps, my favourite palaeontologist, and he is presenting a new series that explores how evolution works by examining how the isolation of islands makes them perfect to demonstrate the process of differentiation and specialisation. Nature’s Wonderlands: Islands of evolution(BBC4, Mondays) last week featured a very old island, Madagascar.

Fortey is particularly good at setting the creatures within their ecological habitat, and has a trademark coda to each programme: he sits down and tucks into a local meal, explaining how the food relates to the natural world.

I have far too little space to give justice to The Story of China (BBC2, Tuesdays): the splendid panorama of history and geography justifies the enthusiasm that I usually find a challenge in Michael Wood’s presentations. He is wholehearted in his immersion in the continuing life of this extraordinary land, encouraging us to see it as the world’s oldest continuous civilisation, its turmoil less important than the legacy of dynasties and political ideologies. And religion and philosophy are given, for once, their central position.

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