Sitting in a Manhattan dive bar a week before the election of Donald Trump as president, I listened to American friends half-joke about which concentration camp they’d end up in, should the Republican demagogue come to power. We all laughed nervously at the possibilities: would there be a special journalist camp, perhaps? A camp for each ethnic minority? The talk turned serious. One friend said he would leave the country: a Trump America would be no place to raise a child.
Though Donald Trump still seemed an unlikely president, he was still a mainstream candidate in a two-horse race. He always stood a good chance.
Nonetheless, the result has shocked most people: the Brexit result may have given some warning that the centrist consensus was broken, but the eventual outcome in the US still blindsided most.
And many are still in denial. On CNN, pundits praised Donald Trump’s victory speech: he was magnanimous, apparently: the rhetoric about building walls, banning Muslims, jailing opponents, would soon stop as the realities of office sunk in.
This, surely, is the same complacency that allowed Trump to rise so far in the first place: deep down, we are so convinced of the existence of a liberal consensus that we don’t believe people actually mean what they say when they deviate from it. The likes of Trump, or Milo Yiannopoulos and his alt-right acolytes, are simply “trolls”, whose function is to tease us with their outre opinions. Nigel Farage is simply game for a laugh.
“Trump’s ascent is a kick against the very ideas of invention, of expansion, of opportunity: The City Upon A Hill reduced to a real estate opportunity by a shyster salesman”
The past year has shown that they play this game a lot better than we do: they are happy to let liberals laugh it up, while appealing to an ever-widening base who enjoy the outrage, revel in the anger.
It feels now that we have no answer to these people: the stock social democrat responses to bigotry, to insularity (“education!” “opportunity!”) don’t cut it any more. Indeed, social democracy seems like something that has run its course, from FDR to Clinton, Attlee to Blair.
What has replaced our supposed reasoned argument is a kind of romanticism, in reaction to the relative enlightenment of the second half of the 20th century: Boris Johnson recently referred to the “Sturm Und Drang” of post-Brexit British parliamentary politics. Most reports missed the fact that Sturm Und Drang as a romantic concept was dramatically desirable, a move back toward the soul and away from cold empiricism. We are not so much in the world of “post-truth”, as in a world where the truth of raw emotion outweighs the truth of any fact.
But shouts and slogans are no truths at all. This way, let there be no doubt, lies brutality. from Raqqa to Washington DC, we are witnessing a low, dishonest time, as WH Auden wrote of the 1930s.
That America should be engulfed by this visceral horror is a particular blow: The United States, is, after all, the greatest Enlightenment project, for all the good and ill that entails. Trump’s ascent is a kick against the very ideas of invention, of expansion, of opportunity: The City Upon A Hill reduced to a real estate opportunity by a shyster salesman.
What’s left for us to dream of? There’s no point looking back. Our victories are of a different era. But the fight must be refreshed, and belief in humanity restated. To return to Auden, we ironic points of light must continue to show an affirming flame.