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Thinking out loud about the New Dark Age

Times Square

Rounding up some loosely connected thoughts on the last week’s tumultuous political happenings:

— You know the end of Caligula, when he and his family are murdered and the idiot Claudius is proclaimed the new emperor? I can’t quite put my finger on why the last few days remind me of that…

— Real talk, though: Trump’s win shows the dark side of democracy. That’s simply a statement of fact. When people make ill-informed choices, such are the results. That doesn’t mean democracy as a process is inherently flawed; it’s better than any alternative, in both philosophical and real-world terms. It’s the way it’s practiced that makes the difference.

— This isn’t a failure of American democracy uniquely. It’s a failure of every democracy that people vote in their own selfish interests, before the common good. Actually, there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what the ‘common good’ really is, because people tend to universalise their own experience before factoring in others’ situations, if they even reach that far.

— It’s okay to be upset and angry about this, because just like Brexit in England, it’s bringing out the worst in people. But who’s to blame?

Everyone in America shares from that pie, they just get different pieces. As much as Trump supporters of all stripes must take responsibility for their choice and its consequences, so must those who didn’t bother voting because they thought Hillary ‘had it in the bag’, as if their opinions magically counted as a ballot without the effort of, y’know, going to a polling station. As do those who dismiss the notion that ‘privileged’ white people from severely depressed economic and geographical situations might not feel or be all that privileged. I could go on.

— Real life is complicated as fuck. That’s why people turn to autocrats and demagogues: it makes life easier, for them. Until it doesn’t. But then they’ll usually be the last to bear the brunt of it.

— It’s okay to say that Trump is a fascist, because he might as well be. What is a corporation if not a hierarchical dictatorship that makes profit? It’s pretty much all he knows, if he knows anything at all. The term is thrown around too loosely, however, so let’s save it for the ones who deserve it. That guy in the trucker hat who voted for Trump? He’s probably not a fascist, in fact his grandfather likely fought against the Nazis. He’s probably, deep down, not really an irrevocable racist, either; he’s just never been confronted with the real harm his biases inflict on others. That’s bigotry. Self-identified liberals are guilty of their own bigotry, too, when they talk about the differences between the coastal cities and ‘flyover country’. It’s something everyone can move past, it’s not set in stone. But it is fucking hard.

— There’s be a lot of talk about this with Thanksgiving coming up next week, but it bears repeating: conversation doesn’t work with people who don’t want to have a conversation. All this talk of reaching out to Trump supporters, blah blah, it’s futile with people who only conceive of the world from their own lived experience. (As if you or I never do.) Is it fair to engage with a Trump supporter, to understand the manifold motivations behind their choice, and say ‘Okay, I hear you’? Sure it is, but not without also saying ‘You think this is why things are they way they are, but it isn’t’. You might not get anywhere with that approach, in fact you probably won’t and you’ll have a shitty Thanksgiving. But it’s what needs to be done. Enough of this ‘anything for a peaceful life’ bullshit, America; you eliminated that option when you let Trump get on the ballot, let alone win the fucking thing.

— Democracy in the abstract: sometimes people need to make bad choices, and see why their choice was bad for them, so that they don’t make the same mistake next time. It’s one proof that the system works, over a period of time. But it doesn’t help people in the here and now. Here’s the best case scenario: Trump will be a shitty president, he won’t deliver the jobs and security his base craves, they’ll fuck up as much of the country as they can in the time they’re given, and the people will have their say about it four years from now. The worst case is already being tested as I write: cynical old me sees Trump provoking outrage by appointing an anti-semite crypto-Nazi to his transition team, only to drop him apparently out of deference to public opinion, while the distraction gives his administration all the leeway it needs to sneak less obvious but no less nefarious characters into the White House. It’s not like no one saw this coming.

— What is the court of public opinion in America now, anyway? Because from over here, you just voted a narcissistic bully into the world’s highest political office. He abuses women, he mocks those with disabilities, he’s a racist — the list only goes on. Even one of those should have been enough to ruin his chances and send him flying into the dustbin of history, but no. And that says a lot about America to us non-Americans.

— I mentioned Brexit before; let’s talk about that. Brexit’s turning point was years before the referendum. It was Gordon Brown’s ‘bigoted woman’ in 2010. That was the moment when closet bigots were absolved of their guilt in one fell swoop, though it took a few years until their bigotry was finally endorsed at the polls, not even by two Tory election victories but by the Brexit referendum. And boy, have Britain’s minorities seen the results of that over the last few months.

— Trump’s turning point was different, but the parallels are clear. Black Lives Matter is what did it for him. Bigoted people across America recoiled in fear of a movement they don’t understand; their fears were mollified by a Republican Party desperate to win at any cost; and their bigotry was endorsed by Trump & Co as they ran the most mean-spirited, spiteful, hateful US election campaign in living memory, setting an actual precedent America won’t want to live with in future. I’m serious; come back here in a century’s time and see how much the history books of your era play these years down.

— I’m glad to see many Americans sharing strategies to put real change into action, and reach out to those who will be most vulnerable under the Trump regime. There’s a chance this may not had happened had Hillary won, and liberals (for lack of a better term) would have remained in complacency. There’s a chance things may not have improved for the oppressed of all kinds. Maybe now people will really look out for each other. It’s a bright spark within this whole shit-show of darkness, anyhow, but it leads directly into my next point:

— Americans have to look after themselves. It’s their bed, they’ll have to lie in it. That doesn’t mean they can’t or shouldn’t clean it up first, but they have to do the work. It’s good for the rest of us to be supportive, but if this last week has been worth anything, it’s to open our eyes to the crap we put up with much closer to home. We’ve got our own sheets to change.

— Here’s another thought. There’s been some belated pushback over terms like ‘the alt-right’, normalising and legitimising all kinds of isms as if its some hipster fancy, and how insidious that is. But it’s worth exploring the language thing further: are terms like ‘left’ and ‘right’ useful or even meaningful anymore? There’s as much legitimising of dogma either way you go, and even if we break out of that binary opposition we’re still left with another one: things that are good versus things that aren’t. Freedom is good; freedom at the expense of others isn’t good. Fundamental human rights are good; not having them isn’t. That sort of thing. At least that has meaning and usefulness, and it’s the way things should be going. Don’t let racists, anti-semites and the like off lightly by branding them with a normalising catch-all term like ‘right-wing’, call them what they are. And keep at it until they’re gone for good.