ADDRESSING the Americans in the audience at the Cambridge Folk Festival last weekend, one singer spoke of how he had included Alaska in his tour of the United States during the 2008 presidential campaign, in the hope of bumping into the vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
The motive was clearly not admiration, but horrified fascination. The audience laughed. Even so, the singer opined, there must be many who would have preferred to see her elected “rather than the teapot you’ve ended up with”.
There was something singularly effective about calling President Trump a teapot. The silliness of the epithet reflected the daftness quotient of the man who has become the 45th President of the US, even despite the gravity of his being the finger on the nuclear button as tensions mount over North Korea’s reckless missile experiments.
An element of sheer farce has now descended on the White House. Many who welcomed the departure of the oxymoronic Sean Spicer as its press spokesman grew ever more incredulous at the antics of his replacement, the slicked-back Wall Street hedge-fund manager Anthony Scaramucci, who swiftly launched the most extraordinarily foul-mouthed tirade against President Trump’s chief-of-staff, Reince Priebus — who Mr Scaramucci called, in one of his more printable comments, “Reince Penis”.
Next, the second Mrs Scaramucci filed for divorce, revealing that she despised both President Trump and her husband’s shameless sycophancy towards him. Then, as swiftly as Mr Priebus was ousted, his executioner, Mr Scaramucci, was axed by the next chief of staff, General John Kelly.
The levels of obscenity, and the speed of the twists in the events, outdid anything offered up by even the most fertile political satirists. A television programme with such a surreal, absurd, and vulgar circus would stretch audience credulity too far — even with a coarse former reality TV star such as President Trump at its centre.
But then, as Oscar Wilde observed, life imitates art far more than art imitates life. Political satire, Tom Lehrer said, died the day the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Henry Kissinger, the American politician who, during the Vietnam War, oversaw the American bombing of Cambodia, which resulted in the death of about 50,000 civilians.
At Cambridge last week, even that doyen of contemporary American satirists, the folk singer Loudon Wainwright III, was forced into a different mode of commentary. He asked his banjo player, the Canadian philosophy lecturer Chaim Tannenbaum, to sing the 19th-century patriotic song “America the Beautiful”.
Every American schoolchild knows the first verse of the anthem, with its prayer that God shed his grace on America from sea to shining sea. But you rarely hear the rest of it, with its request that God “mend” the nation’s “every flaw”, and do so “till selfish gain no longer stain The banner of the free”.
Sometimes a serious song can say what even the most scabrous satirist cannot manage. The banjo-picker’s lone tenor voice soared poignantly to the heavens. The core values and spirit on which the US was founded, it pleaded, must not now be allowed to be forgotten, as he sang:
God shed his grace on thee
Till nobler men keep once again
Thy shining jubilee.