AT last there was some good news for those of us who regard ourselves as social and liberal democrats. The decisive defeat of Donald Trump is a signal to right-wing populists the world over that inclusive, moderate politics has life in it yet and that democracy in the true sense rather than dressed in its postmodern falsehoods can triumph. But watching the American presidential election results come in at snail’s pace left much room for doubt.
Trump has been a disaster for America and by extension the World. A catalogue of human depravity readily attaches itself to him: xenophobe, sexist and misogynist; serial liar (25 000 lies over four years when the monitors gave up counting); tacit supporter of extreme right-wing militia organisations and dangerous conspiracy outfits such as QAnon; (probable) racist; narcissist and braggart. His use of Twitter has been scandalous: the incident that sticks in my mind is his abuse of London’s mayor Sadiq Khan as he flew to a state visit in Britain. He has cast aspersions on that holy of American holies, members of the US military. And as he faced the truth that he will be exiting the White House, he attempted to trash and thwart American laws that govern the conduct of elections, bringing the whole concept of democracy into disrepute.
This is a man hardly fit to run a village grocery store let alone the world’s remaining superpower. There is a longstanding myth that those who have made bucket loads of money are best suited to heading institutions. This completely ignores the way most fortunes are made: by gross exploitation of blameless people. In Trump’s case his six business bankruptcies – failures in other words – have ruined the lives of many other people. Exactly how did that qualify him to be president of the USA? The uncomfortable truth is that Trump is a hollow man clothed by the electronic media – a celebrity of zero virtue.
Yet, in the 2020 presidential election well over 70 million Americans voted for him; more than gave him their support in 2016. What does their behaviour say about them? (This question is currently asked of Americans, but can equally be applied to supporters of right-wing populism worldwide). It is fashionable to complain about politicians, but they are not a breed apart. What does political allegiance to right wing populists say about their supporters?
Do they admire character traits that those of us brought up in decent homes and schools were taught to despise. Why do women vote for men who show scant respect for their gender? Who would support a man whose endless tweets demonstrate the mind of an immature child? In the case of America there are crazies with small arsenals and the ubiquitous religious fundamentalists. But they surely do not make up nearly half of those who recently voted, so we can assume that the rest look and behave reasonably normally. Do they endorse Trump’s catalogue of character weaknesses? It is argued that voters need to look up to ‘ordinary people’ with whom they feel comfortable (apparently someone without claim to further education and any sort of intellectual expertise). But Trump is far from ordinary. And do British voters admire Boris Johnson’s philandering, exploitation of people, narcissism, and erratic and bumbling behaviour? Do these traits make him a man of the people?
The surge of populism reflects poorly on humanity. Politicians are opportunists, but it is electorates that give them opportunity. We can discount the xenophobes, racists and other riff-raff that crop up in any population. But it would appear that millions of people, generally well-off by international standards, are consumed by an anger that encourages them to vote for extremists. A significant component seems upset by thoughtfulness and rationality, logic and common sense. They tend to know the answers to questions they cannot even begin to frame; and alarmingly they include people with a university education. On the surface people are better educated than ever before and armed with instant communication. But we seem to be in a new mental Dark Age.
A number of well-placed people have argued that Trump is unstable. His utterances prove that he is paranoid and unable to distinguish truth from fiction (a friend points out that technically it’s incorrect to call him a liar); in short a fantasist. The recent trend towards epic lying as the new currency of politics did not originate with Trump, but he has vigorously fanned the flames fed by social media oxygen. He and right-wing populists worldwide are the successors of the Nazi Josef Goebbels who was the first demagogue to use modern technology to reinforce the uncomfortable realisation that big lies repeated often and insistently enough can become perceived truth.
After 20 January 2020 Trump will no longer possess government power, but although a one-term loser he will still wield enormous influence through what has become a hard-right Republican Party. Alternatively, he may set up his own party or television station to peddle even more extremist and divisive political poison. Ironically, unshackled from constitutional constraints Trump could be more dangerous as an ex-president, one who rejects the decorum traditionally displayed by his predecessors. To those of us brought up in European democracies the USA often appears to be a nation on another planet: its gun laws alone suggest that. But it would be foolish to deny that if democracy is compromised in America, its survival everywhere else will be seriously in doubt. Trump in political exile could make right-wing fanaticism even more potent.
- Published in The Witness 2 December 2020.