It has been a disorenting, dispiriting month. The ascent of a racist, misogynist reality television star and unrepentant online bully to the US Presidency beggars belief – over three weeks on, and the thought still sends me into mental somersaults. President-elect Trump is not a unique phenomenon. His victory is confirmation that we are entering a brave new world. Brexit, anti-refugee violence and the growth of far-right parties in Europe and Australia are all part of the same global surge of nationalism and protectionism. And there will be more to come.
Thank goodness then for the corresponding explosion of great writing aiming to make sense of it all, and searching for a path forward. Below is my selection of the words, images and podcasts that have helped me to best grapple with the seismic changes in America, Australia and beyond. They tackle nationalism, culture, the complicity of the media, globalisation and, most importantly, where we go from here.
For sheer outpouring of emotion, nothing captured the feeling of those sad, shell-shocked first few days better than Kate McKinnon’s performance of ‘Hallelujah’ on Saturday Night Live. She sings the late, great Leonard Cohen’s iconic cry of regret, despair and love in character as Hillary Clinton, stripping her comic portrait of everything but the white pantsuit and a single wink. Tears in her eyes – McKinnon’s or Hilary’s, it is impossible to tell whose – she turns to camera and concludes: “I’m not giving up, and neither should you.”
For initial bursts of shock and despair, read David Remnick’s resolute An American Tragedy and Andrew Sullivan’s fatalistic The Republic Repeals Itself. Both read the tea leaves of Trump’s campaign and see only darkness ahead, but carry that same resolution not to give up:
Trump was not elected on a platform of decency, fairness, moderation, compromise, and the rule of law; he was elected, in the main, on a platform of resentment. Fascism is not our future—it cannot be; we cannot allow it to be so—but this is surely the way fascism can begin.
For a more diverse array of voices from across the political aisle, I learnt a great deal from the post election episode of This American Life, The Sun Comes Up, which speaks to police officers, african americans, soldiers, teachers, muslim americans, Mormons and immigration lawyers about how they’re feeling in the aftermath, and their expectations for the future. Even more comprehensive is Aftermath: Sixteen Writers on Trump’s America from the New Yorker, which features short essays from Toni Morrison on whiteness, Jane Mayer on climate change and Mary Karr on bullying. For an election that I watched from afar for too long as entertainment, it is sobering to read and listen to such deeply-felt personal reactions and to see the potential human costs laid out.
Much has been written on how, and why this happened. Few saw it coming; the polls were wrong, the news media were wrong, and the campaigns themselves were caught unawares. JD Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy has been feted as a window into ‘Trump’s America’, and he has written articulately throught the election about how Donald Trump seduced America’s white working class – his essays are a fascinating insight into an experience that’s utterly different from that of cosmopolitans the world over, and rings true for rural areas throughout the United Kingdom and Europe that have swung hard right. The Guardian’s expansive 10-part photograph & essay series on ‘The View from Middletown’, examining the election while embedded in small mid-western town, is also well worth reading. Or if you want to crunch the numbers, take a listen to Vox‘s Ezra Klein interview Ron Brownstein, who suggests lower turnout from the Democrat’s coalition of young people, women and minorities shoulders equal blame for the result (and inexplicably keeps returning to Game of Thrones for battle analogies)
Looking beyond the United States, I found Jonathan Haidt’s When and Why Nationalism Beats Globalism to be one of the best overviews of the new conflict that’s boiling over in western democracies, and a theory I’m a big believer in. Haidt sees the pivotal issue not as ‘left behind’ communities, ala Vance, but the clash in values between globalists (cosmopolitans who put great value in individual rights and protections, shifting towards universalist views of the world) and nationalists (citizens who believe in the primacy of the duty to one’s country, and the country’ responsibility to put the interests of it’s people above all others). He points in particular toward approaches to immigration, illuminating why the refugees have become such a flash point in Australia and Europe.
With many analysts, from the New York Times to President Obama himself decrying ‘fake news’ and social media as partly responsible for the election result, Peter Pomerantsev’s Why We’re Post-Fact at Granta is an essential read. Pomerantsev refuses to place the blame on technology alone, but instead examines how the erosion of truth in politics has been a decades-, even centuries-long process that we’re increasingly ill-prepared to reverse:
This equaling out of truth and falsehood is both informed by and takes advantage of an all-permeating late post-modernism and relativism, which has trickled down over the past thirty years from academia to the media and then everywhere else. This school of thought has taken Nietzsche’s maxim, there are no facts, only interpretations, to mean that every version of events is just another narrative, where lies can be excused as ‘an alternative point of view’ or ‘an opinion’, because ‘it’s all relative’ and ‘everyone has their own truth’ (and on the internet they really do).
So then, what comes next? My favourite, and in hindsight perhaps the most depressing, cartoon of the election cycle was by Paul Noth at the New Yorker. A flock of sheep look up at a billboard in their pasture trumpeting a wolf for President. The wolf’s slogan reads “I AM GOING TO EAT YOU”. One of the sheep looks up in admiration: “He tells it like it is.” Turns out the wolf won this round, and we disbelieve his promises at our peril.
In the near term, we can and should worry about the liberal legacy of Barack Obama (read Remnick’s exceptional insider’s look, Obama Reckons with a Trump Presidency), the humanitarian crises and imbalance in the Middle East, Australia’s off-shore detention camps and the very real possibility of further right-ward drifts in Europe. A global drift towards authoritarianism is very real, and its success threatens decades of progress on climate change and human rights, irrespective of national boundaries.
And if Donald Trump does prove to be an authoritarian, a fascist? There has been no shortage of ink spilt on comparisons with Adolf Hitler in Germany, 1933. And in defience of Godwin’s Law, I think in this situation we’re right to ask the question. Not because Trump is Hitler (although Michiko Kakutani’s cheeky review of Volker Ullrich’s biography, Hitler: Ascent makes an audacious case), but because the rise of Trump and his alt-right confederates is unprecedented in the post-war history of western democracies, and we threaten to normalise this event if we fall back on comparisons to George W. Bush or Tony Abbott. There is more to learn from writers who have lived or researched beyond our experience. Masha Gessen, a journalist from Russia who watched freedoms wither under Putin, shares her Rules for Survival in an Autocracy:
Rule #1: Believe the autocrat.
Rule #2: Do not be taken in by small signs of normality.
Rule #3: Institutions will not save you.
Rule #4: Be outraged.
Rule #5: Don’t make compromises.
Rule #6: Remember the future.
Timothy Snyder, historian and author of the troubling Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, has written a similar 20-point guide to defending democracy under a Trump presidency. I don’t believe these rules are only applicable to Americans, but are a worthwhile reminder of what is at stake in any democracy confronted with a fractured electorate and plumetting faith the political system. In her follow-up essay Trump: The Choice We Face, Gessen writes with searing clarity about why it is important to learn from history, and why our best response is not to play ‘what if’, but to take a stand:
We cannot know what political strategy, if any, can be effective in containing, rather than abetting, the threat that a Trump administration now poses to some of our most fundamental democratic principles. But we can know what is right. What separates Americans in 2016 from Europeans in the 1940s and 1950s is a little bit of historical time but a whole lot of historical knowledge. We know what my great-grandfather did not know: that the people who wanted to keep the people fed ended up compiling lists of their neighbors to be killed.
One of the best books I read this year was Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man, a memoir of Levi’s improbable survival in Auschwitz, an unflinching stare into the face of humanity at its very worst. I hadn’t read it expecting to find resonance with modern politics, but in the months since I haven’t been able to shake Levi’s description of how these tragedies begin, and where they lead:
Many people—many nations—can find themselves holding, more or less wittingly, that ‘every stranger is an enemy.’ For the most part this conviction lies deep down like some latent infection; it betrays itself only in random, disconnected acts, and does not lie at the base of a system of reason. But when this does come about, when the unspoken dogma becomes the major premise in a syllogism, then, at the end of the chain, there is the Lager. Here is the product of a conception of the world carried rigorously to its logical conclusion; so long as the conception subsists, the conclusion remains to threaten us. The story of the death camps should be understood by everyone as a sinister alarm-signal.
Wherever we are in the world, and whatever unique challenges we face, we cannot afford to wall ourselves away, and dehumanise those on the other side. It is a time to be angry – to advocate, to agitate, to make art, and to make our voices heard. One of my favourite authors, Junot Díaz, writes passionately about the greatest weapon at our disposal: radical hope. His call to action is as good as any I’ve read in these turbulent weeks. I’ll quote him at length, because I cannot write nearly as well, nor match his bold, generous heart:
So what now? Well, first and foremost, we need to feel. We need to connect courageously with the rejection, the fear, the vulnerability that Trump’s victory has inflicted on us, without turning away or numbing ourselves or lapsing into cynicism. We need to bear witness to what we have lost: our safety, our sense of belonging, our vision of our country. We need to mourn all these injuries fully, so that they do not drag us into despair, so repair will be possible.
And while we’re doing the hard, necessary work of mourning, we should avail ourselves of the old formations that have seen us through darkness. We organize. We form solidarities. And, yes: we fight. To be heard. To be safe. To be free.
For those of us who have been in the fight, the prospect of more fighting, after so cruel a setback, will seem impossible. At moments like these, it is easy for even a matatana to feel that she can’t go on. But I believe that, once the shock settles, faith and energy will return. Because let’s be real: we always knew this shit wasn’t going to be easy. Colonial power, patriarchal power, capitalist power must always and everywhere be battled, because they never, ever quit. We have to keep fighting, because otherwise there will be no future—all will be consumed. Those of us whose ancestors were owned and bred like animals know that future all too well, because it is, in part, our past. And we know that by fighting, against all odds, we who had nothing, not even our real names, transformed the universe. Our ancestors did this with very little, and we who have more must do the same. This is the joyous destiny of our people—to bury the arc of the moral universe so deep in justice that it will never be undone.