1. I am finding myself in the middle of the first complete presidential campaign, with no incumbent in the running, since I came to the US. Of course, a lot of it feels unfamiliar. First and foremost the mind-boggling realisation that the contest would be taking more than 1.5 years to play out rather than a more efficient and sanity-preserving 2-4 months. There’s the ubiquitous rule of money, and of quite advanced techniques of manipulation; the veritable hate-fests, when the supporters of primary candidates turn on each other. Well, the last bit may not be so different from Europe, but everything takes place quite out in the open here, so it feels harsher than in the previous three countries where I’ve lived and, to the extent I was allowed to, voted.
Here, of course, I am a non-citizen with no rights. Maybe this lack of agency makes it harder to cope. But I can write.
And then we had the extraordinary weakness of the Republican slate, which was in tune with the pretty remarkable approach the party’s elected representatives at the federal level have been taking: to practice near-complete obstruction of the political process and then point to the result as proof that government doesn’t work. (It seems like cheating to me…) My niggling suspicion is that even a disaffected, conservative electorate that is sceptical of government does, indeed, want something to get done.
So, an opening appeared, and in this opening moved Donald Trump. A rich man who inherited millions, a reality TV star and entrepreneur with mixed successes and a trail of lawsuits and disgruntled business partners, turned political dilettante. A “strong man” type, too, and an authoritarian nationalist with no consideration for principle. A guy who pestered president Obama for weeks over his birth certificate but won’t release his own tax forms.
And, of course, a man whose interests are completely opposed to those who now follow him: a representative of the very class whose good fortunes have been achieved on the backs of those who experience the stagnation of their families’ life chances. The only thing he’s going to do for their well-being is to remove psychological barriers, give them permission to cast themselves as victims of a rigged system and of the more recent groups of immigrants in a country founded on immigration. Oh, and white supremacists are celebrating.
2. This kind of opening is nothing new of course. We’ve seen a few of these in Europe. Berlusconi. Le Pen. Successive xenophobic law-and-order parties in Germany, which are hoovering up the latent neo-Nazis to varying degrees. The Brexit vote in the UK.
It isn’t hard to recognise the signs of a modern fascist gaining traction. The ingredients are: a real, diffuse, reasonably widespread feeling of disaffection and powerlessness on the part a good swath of the electorate; and on the side of the candidate, a cynical willingness to lie baldly, to double down on criticism instead of responding to it, to stoke — even invent — fears, to push the buttons of law-and-order sentiments, to paint your opponent as the enemy, to find and relentlessly exploit scapegoats.
3. Every democratic system has at its core an area of consensus. It’s not set in stone and can, bit by bit, be changed, but the debate about the contours of the consensus is itself part of democratic culture: can we still be who we are without, say, freedom of speech? without the due process of law? can we be who want to be if we have a death penalty? mass surveillance? This is healthy stuff, and it’s the healthier the more citizens are participating in the debate.
And it’s a debate that can get pretty bruising. So there must be opportunities to heal. Shared cultural experiences. Rites of passage. In the US, displays of patriotism. In Europe, displays of allegiance to a national sports team (or, by golly, a singing competition). As bulwarks of democracies go, these look woefully weak. But they are what we have.
And candidates who throw this consensus overboard tear deep down into the fabric that holds together a democracy.
Trump was scary when he first showed up, but he really moved up when it became clear he could win. If citizens vote the way polls look right now, a majority of white voters will vote for him. As will either a majority or a large plurality, close to 50%, of male voters. It’s pretty hard to believe.
4. The saddest part is that there isn’t much we can do about it at this point.
Faced with this situation, the level threat to our social contract, my friends’ and my reactions have taken on a quasi-feverish urgency. We have a need to analyse and understand, so we read and share and comment. We also have a need to bond, and reassure each other that, no, we aren’t crazy and something extraordinary is going on. So we point out lies and shake our heads over transgressions of what we thought were part of the core consensus.
These things must be said of course. If we don’t, the vacuum will be filled, and hate and discrimination will become more acceptable. At a minimum, our texts will be read by the teenagers who can’t vote yet and those few who are currently in search of ethical and intellectual guidelines for how to evaluate what politicians do. And maybe we can give our Trump-supporting relatives a small pause.
But as far as stopping the train in motion is concerned, these things don’t really make much of a dent. Many good people with principles will not vote for him anyway. If they are leaning towards conservatism, they may abstain, or vote for the Libertarian candidate, maybe. Some Republicans will hold their nose and vote for Clinton, like the French Socialists, Centrists and many Communists did in 2002, when Le Pen made it into the presidential run-off round against Chirac. (Chirac ended up getting elected with 82% of the vote. Back then, we thought 18% for the fascist was a disgrace.)
All of these are merely stop-gap measures, though. I know of only one way the build-up of persistent right-wing populist movements has ever been toppled: by going into a catastrophe and coming out at the other end. The UK is facing the Brexit vote fallout right now. And even that path doesn’t guarantee the problem won’t reappear forthwith.
5. What really needs to happen isn’t something Clinton will achieve. Nor would Sanders have been able to, though I’m glad he ran a sufficiently effective campaign to have some of his ideas enter the mainstream. It’s also not something that can be done before the election.
As I see it, there are two things that need to happen. One is an economic turnabout. The fruit of economic growth, or even simply of economic activity, of productivity, automation etc. have increasingly been moved away from salaries into profits. Away from the the people as a whole, into the pockets of a very small number of very rich people. Who can stop this? I don’t know. (Here is some food for thought, in the meantime.).
The other one is to reanimate the political culture, and that means to talk with the fascists. Not Trump and his operatives, but those who are voting for him, or at least some of them. Where there’s common ground, and real problems to solve, it can be done. But that won’t cover all of it: some of our neighbours are saying ugly and harmful things right now. The ideas that have now become acceptable again are, truly, objectionable. I know why I think xenophobia is wrong. I know that my co-workers who are Muslim or black or members of other minorities-under-suspicion don’t deserve any less than anyone else.
Changing people’s attitudes isn’t easy, but possible. There are precedents. When I was a child, there was a moment when I realised that for my grandmother’s generation, France was “the hereditary enemy”. What a silly idea, a hereditary enemy, I thought. I was maybe 10. France, for me, was where kids from richer families than mine got to go on vacation. A country with sun and elegant clothes and good food. And hey, my home town was twinned with one from there, so there were opportunities for exchange trips and summer vacation encounters.
This change of minds was, of course, the fruit of the cataclysm of WWII, plus some very deliberate policy choices. Someone paid for and managed all those twinned towns, and language classes and exhibitions. It was worth it, a hundred times over. (Hereditary enemy! Just imagine…)
Similarly, in less than a generation, gays and lesbians, through coming out and being visible, have in a very short time made remarkable progress in the degree to which our lives are deemed acceptable by the straight mainstream. Some of my neighbours may still not be sure whether they “approve of homosexuality” in the abstract — probably… not? — but they know me, they know my partner and me, and we’re part of the community. It’s good enough. We got heaps of congratulations when we got married. (I admit, I was surprised by some.)
How to pull people back from xenophobia, from brash rejection of anything that isn’t “real America”, from a string-them-up attitude: I don’t know. It’s maybe not possible until the poisonous yelling has cooled down somewhat. But what I do know is that we have to be firm in our values, in sticking to the democratic core consensus, justice, anti-racism, equality and so on. I saw a word cloud of the Twitter feed directed at Mr. Trump’s wife, and it was mostly made up of slurs that are derogatory synonyms of “prostitute”. Misogyny is wrong, whoever the target. It’s in the fascists’ interest to operate a race to the bottom, and I’m not going to comply.
Satire, cartoons, pointed formulations have their function, but it is mostly to keep ourselves sane. They also can have a price.
6. And in the long run? Could we rebuild those democratic cultures? Could we commit to the idea that education — at all levels — is something we as a society want to pay for, and not only because it improves an individual student’s chances of getting a better job (though it does that too), but for the tools for thinking the student is getting access to? And that we fund the arts and sciences (and legal and social services and…), and not only because it’s something that generates job growth (though it does that too), but because it’s something a society, a culture does?
I’d like to see a time when someone who finishes required schooling can be expected to have thought about how the components of their government work and complement each other; has written essays or given presentations about what sentences are appropriate for what crime; knows how to check the truth of a claim, and can distinguish an ideological from a factual statement; understands how rhetorics works for persuasion and marketing. Not to favour any particular opinion: as far as I’m concerned they can come down on the side of the death penalty (which I abhor) and get an A+, but they must have grappled with a variety of mutually contradicting arguments and appreciated the difficulty of coming down for any one particular side.
7. So if Americans ask the question “how could so many X support Y?”, they should now know. And X and Y don’t have to be “Germans” and “Hitler”, though of course it does apply precisely. It happens in many places, and it’s not an easy thing to overcome. I hope we all make it through this.
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