Twenty-seven years ago today the Berlin Wall fell. It was the defining political moment of my lifetime. Until today. Unlike today it was a moment, to coin a phrase Barak Obama would use later, of audacious hope. The other 9/11 in 2001 came pretty close as a defining moment but it was surely the worst day in post-war American history. Until today? Perhaps. To echo the constant refrain which we had to endure through the night; it may be early to call.
How are we supposed to make sense of this? Another refrain which is etched deep in the psyche of those of us who grew up in the shadows of the war was that we’d had a warning from history. Yesterday that was a warning which millions of Americans voted to ignore. The land of the free has chosen to be led by a man who many have rightly labelled a fascist. What are we supposed to do?
It was easier to name call Trump a fascist when he was merely a candidate heading for possible defeat. But it’s actually more important that we name him one now. He is in harm’s way not out of it. And the horrible truth of that harm is laid bare in the message from the demographics. Yes, there was a division between the liberal middle-class east and west and the working class in between. But there was also a division between those who fear the other and the multiplicity of others who fear Trump.
Predictably, some on the left are already telling us that it was Clinton’s fault. We mustn’t blame the voters apparently because Bernie would have won. Their unflinching belief in the counterfactual is breathtakingly counterproductive. Bernie wasn’t the candidate. No matter that Hillary only just scraped the nomination. She was and the choice was surely starker than any voters have had to make before. And in a horrible twist, it seems she actually won the popular vote.
There is no value in blame. But equally, there is no value in simply excusing a choice wrongly made, even if it can be partly explained by yawning inequality which we can’t afford to ignore. Look at some of those who were quick to come to Trump’s applause, Marine Le Pen and David Dukes, and ask yourself if it can be described as anything other. If politics isn’t about right and wrong, if it doesn’t have a moral imperative, it is nothing.
And even in the theatre of politics that is unfolding now, we would do well to remember that. No sooner had Clinton conceded to Trump on the telephone, some political commentators were keen to emphasise that Trump must show grace. But what value does any amount of grace mean from a candidate who fought his opponent with a litany of falsehoods? A candidate whose rhetoric was embodied in the chilling cry of ‘lock her up, in the business of baying for blood.
In the event it was suggested by some that his acceptance speech was good and dignified or by others less enthusiastic that it was dire but not graceless. I watched it and could only conclude that it was both dire and graceless, and anything but dignified. There is no dignity in hypocrisy. This was not your usual contest hard fought where you can just make up afterwards as if nothing had happened.
Of course, we didn’t need any more inflammatory bile from Trump. And at that moment even I didn’t expect it. But if you watch the speech today, listen not to the words but the space between them. And remember not what was said and how in victory but what was said and how on the campaign trail. Before we allow ourselves to be beguiled by the apparent humility of the president, make sure we remember the hubris of the candidate. This was no more a convincing transformation than the about turn he made on his locker room misogyny.
This is not about being cynical. Trump has more than enough cynicism for all of us. It is not about being bitter. We have seen too much rancour in his supporters. It is about seeing this moment for what it is. A moment when a warning from history was at best obscured and at worst wilfully ignored.
Making excuses achieves no more than apportioning blame. But let’s not pretend a vote for Trump was anything other than a vote for a proto-fascist to lead the free world. Let’s not let him get away with being ennobled by the office of the presidency. Sure the American political system will have to function, albeit that the checks and balances are first and foremost in the hands of Trump’s own party. Sure governments will have to work with him on some level, but it would be folly to think that the endgame should be normal relations.
Many of us will never have felt more despair about the plight of mainstream progressive politics. And after the last few months, that’s saying something. The warning from history has been replaced by a warning in real time. But despair is not the solution. Never has the need for audacious hope been greater. After all, a contorted form of it is in plentiful supply amongst Trump’s supporters.
Somehow, somewhere, an alternative has to be created and nurtured. We might have to start from scratch. It’s new truths that are needed, not old myths. As a friend said on Twitter this morning, ‘History is clear: when the chauvinists and autocrats take over, you have to fight back hard. Understand and rethink but fight back as well.’