Um, so yeah, newsflash: Trump won.
Fair dues to him and his band of merry men, I suppose, although not exactly what anyone on the left-leaning side of life really expected. That being said, what’s done is done, and the American people, not to mention the world at large, now have President Trump for at least the next four years. Yippee.
As this new reality slowly sinks in, out here in the liberal heartland of Venice Beach California the mood is nothing short of post-apocalyptic. People are walking about head in hands, stunned, asking the same thing over and over again: “How could this possibly be?”
To which my simple response is: You Were Warned.
For example, some time ago at least one especially adroit commentator observed that people not taking Trump seriously, combined with general voter apathy in the USA, might well lead to this eventual outcome. “After all, you don’t want to be waking up the day after Trump is elected, and saying: “Oh, fuck.” (That was a comment from my 21 March 2016 blog, btw, which has turned out to be a pretty spot-on description of what’s happened).
Or Michael Moore’s brilliantly prescient piece from a couple of months ago (see http://michaelmoore.com/trumpwillwin/) in which he called the overall result, and quite freakishly did so almost on a state-by-state basis. His central argument being that “He [Trump] is saying the things to people who are hurting. It’s why every beaten down, forgotten, nameless stiff who used to be part of what was called the middle class loves Trump. Trump’s election is going to be the biggest ‘fuck you’ ever recorded in human history.”
Which most elegantly explains “How?” Although of far more interest, at least to me, is a different question: “Why?”
And on this front the excuses, recriminations and blame are currently flying thick and fast. “No-one liked Hillary.” “She was the wrong candidate.” “We should have run Bernie.” “People in the middle of this country are inherently racist.” “This was the last hurrah of the angry middle-class white American man.” “This was a vote against the status-quo.” “This was a vote against the Washington elite.”
All of which reasons are probably individually true, at least to some extent. But none of which feels really satisfying to me as a proper explanation of why millions of people, when left alone in the anonymous confines of a polling booth, actually put pen to paper and ticked the box labelled: “Trump”.
Because much as it may be comforting for liberal-minded folks to think that somehow this election result was the product of a few crazies on the lunatic fringe, the reality is that Trump’s victory was brought about by the actions of millions and millions of ordinary people, exercising their free will. Most of who, presumably, are decent and sane. And not all of whom are, by definition, racists and xenophobes.
Not to mention that the exact same thing is going on elsewhere in the world. Like in the UK, where the normally docile British recently stuck two fingers up to the whole idea of continuing to be part of a (more or less) united continent. Or like a year ago, when Poland elected a super-right wing government. Or like all over Europe, where extreme right wing parties are gaining ground at a frightening pace, from Sweden to Denmark to Hungary to Austria to Spain to France. Or like in Israel, where a pretty right-wing government has been in place for the last eight years. Or like in Turkey, which is swinging right in a way that is positively harrowing.
Anti-“anyone who isn’t me” sentiment is on the rise, everywhere you care to look. Separatist movements are gathering momentum. Despotic-style leaders are increasingly common actors on the world stage, although not because of military coups in banana republics, but rather as a result of popular choice in first-world countries. Things like shutting borders, turning back refugees, ripping up free trade agreements and “building walls” are topics now firmly up for discussion at polite dinner tables.
I could go on, but you get the point. This US election result is not a random blip to be viewed in domestic isolation, but part of a clearly identifiable global trend. One where ordinary people everywhere are willingly signing up to a much more insular, withdrawn, religious, conservative, closed, “fuck you” kind of philosophy.
Clearly, the whole world is experiencing an especially conservative moment just now. We are living in an era where “they” are slowly ascending, at the expense of “us”. “Us” being those who enjoy living in open and free societies, where anyone is generally at liberty to say, do and think whatever they like. And “they”, being fundamentalists of whatever persuasion, who believe in something very different: that theirs is the true, right and only way, and the rest of us had better accept their wisdom, or else.
Putting it slightly differently, if the election of Donald Trump has shown us one thing, it is that an anti-globalization mindset has now taken hold, even at the very heart of the liberal, free-thinking world. Something that is, admittedly, a rude shock to those who, like me, have got used to secular pluralism being the dominant cultural meme of our time.
All of which of course begs a slightly bigger, if not also slightly personal question: what is a passionately pro-globalist, liberally minded fellow to do now, short of sitting back and watching this strange new reality TV show unfold?
On the one hand, I really do want to believe that things are not as bad as they may seem. I want to believe that all of the current angst and hand-wringing is a bit of a media beat-up, and that Trump will turn out to be an OK and maybe even great American President, who will actually get stuff done, and who will tone down the worst of his rhetoric once he settles into the job.
More than that, I want to show respect for those on the other side of this particular conversation. I may not agree with them, or even like them, but I want to believe that most people – even those who voted for Trump – are fundamentally good. That they have a point of view which is just as valid as mine, and even though there will always be a core group of true racists and xenophobes out there, just because someone doesn’t agree with me doesn’t automatically make them one.
I mean, isn’t that the very definition of liberalism? – accepting the validity of other perspectives, even if they are diametrically opposite to my own.
But then, on the other hand, I have been thinking a lot about my grandmother these past few weeks, a lady who lived through the horrors of Nazi Europe and the Holocaust. I remember her telling me of how when Hitler first appeared on the scene, nobody ever really believed the things he said, or promised to do.
“We had faith in the system and the goodness of people”, she’d say. “We looked at the world as we wished it to be, and not as it actually was,” she’d say.
I recall how my grandmother told me that even some Jews initially supported the rise of the Third Reich, on the basis that it was good for the country and the world and the economy. How some believed that the virulent antisemitism preached by the Nazis was an exaggeration, and that it would eventually blow off once they were in power.
And my grandmother often told me how even as the Jews of her ghetto were being herded into trains, to be sent away to their certain deaths, people were still trying to convince themselves things were “not that bad”.
Even as I write these words, I can already hear the sound of bleating. From those on the liberal side of the fence, who will inevitably tut-tut, and say something like: “c’mon, that’s laying it on a bit thick, don’t you think?” And of course from those on the conservative side, who will no doubt be jumping up and down in rage, crying foul at my obviously sensationalist claptrap, and accusing me of engaging in liberal scaremongering at its worst.
But please, if you can, suspend your judgment for a few seconds, and hear me out. Try to understand that what I am saying here is not cheap political point scoring. Rather it is a genuine expression of a very real sense of inner conflict. One that has recently taken hold inside of me, and which I suspect quite a few other people might be feeling, too.
You see, I do not see this US election, or the wider anti-globalization wave currently washing over us, as some form of modern-day equivalent to the rise of Nazi Germany. I can’t. I have lived my whole life in thoroughly Western, generally safe and essentially democratic first-world nations, so I am simply not programmed to see the world any other way. I’ll be the first to admit that referencing WWII in connection with the recent US election feels like a slight misuse, if not abuse, of history.
Equally, I have read lots of stuff in the past few months where Donald Trump has been likened to Hitler and other tyrants through the ages, either explicitly or implied, and I recoil instinctively at that comparison. Something about it feels wrong and unfair to me, although I can’t tell you what exactly. Other than to say that somewhere deep down I have a sense, or maybe it is more of a hope, that The Donald may well turn out to surprise us all, on the upside.
Belying an even broader bias that is hard-coded into my DNA: a belief in my heart of hearts that the world today is a very different place to the one into which my grandmother was born. I have blind faith in the power of our evolved democratic institutions, and an expectation that they will ultimately serve and protect us all. I like to believe that humanity as a whole has moved irrevocably forward in the past seventy years, has learned something from history, and that goodness will thus ultimately prevail.
Yet despite all this, something still niggles at me, gnawing away in the pit of my stomach.
Because I am being confronted by the very real prospect, for the first time in my life, of “them” becoming a part of “us”. “They” are no longer just out there, where they can be labelled and identified and guarded against. Now “they” are our neighbors, work-mates, colleagues, friends, even family. And “they”, self-evidently, are becoming the controlling majority, to boot. Something which I am finding not only super-confusing and super-confronting, but pretty damn worrying as well.
Until this moment, I have always lived in a world where shit does indeed happen, but it happens somewhere else, in another place run by “them”. Whereas inside of my place, safe and sound in a little bubble of “us”, everyone has always played by an understood set of rules. Despite individual differences, I have never had cause to doubt the existence of an underlying secular liberal lingua-franca in places like Australia, America and England.
Now, I am not so sure.
And, as so often happens at times of stress in my life, the memory of my grandmother and her life experiences keeps popping into my head. A smart woman, possibly the smartest person I have ever known. Yet she, along with every other smart person in her world back then, got completely blind-sighted by what happened, even as it happened right in front of their eyes. That feels just a little bit like what is going on right now, doesn’t it?
More than that, Hitler would never have been able to do what he did without the support of millions and millions of ordinary people. Most of who were presumably decent and sane. And not all of whom were racists and xenophobes. Doesn’t that, rather disturbingly, also feel more than just a little bit like what is going on right now?
So if you are reading this and happen to be one of those folks delighted with the US election result, I say congratulations to you, you got what you wanted. But please, don’t gloat or take it for granted. If you believe yourself to be a decent and sane person, who is neither racist nor xenophobic, realize that you have a golden opportunity, through your words and actions in the coming years, to show people like me that my niggling fears are baseless.
And if like me you are feeling depressed by this election result, stop crying into your latte, and instead urgently start trying to figure out what you can do to support and foster the kind of world you want live in. Which at a minimum needs to involve treating as valid the concerns of all those folks who feel so disenfranchised they are willing to risk bad shit happening as an alternative to the status quo.
Sadly, I don’t have a clever punchline to end with today. Trump won, fair and square, and if you trust in our system, there is no choice but to respect that outcome, and figure out how to live and work for change within a new, albeit unwelcome reality.
Although that doesn’t mean I’ll be ignoring the unsettling feeling that has been brewing inside of me for quite some time now, and which this US election result has brought into sharp relief. A feeling of being confused, conflicted, and just a little bit scared at how the world looks at this moment in time.
I think I’m going to get back to writing fluffy travel pieces for a while.