The Conch Shell Shatters

Originally published 13 December 2016


Fighting for democracy in the age of Trump

So this is how liberty dies.

“I want to be a President for all Americans.”

If not for the emotional exhaustion of the past year, it might have been funny.
For Donald J. Trump – bully; racist; grabber of pussies of pussies; mocker of the disabled; a man who thinks building casinos is comparable to losing one’s son in war –  to speak of unity is so ironic that one expects Alanis Morisette to blare from the nearest set of speakers.

But perhaps that was the trouble – we laughed too much. It is now clear that liberals world-over vastly underestimated American malcontent.

The question of why Trump won will be puzzled over for decades to come. In a talk on “Global Trumpism”, Martin Blythe argues that the same economic conditions which birthed Golden Dawn in Greece have loosed Trump upon America. The state-driven decimation of the working classes throughout the developed world bears much blame for today’s populist backlash.

The great irony is that no matter what Trump promises, those jobs cannot be brought back. It will always be cheaper to manufacture overseas than in America, and tariffs cannot halt mechanisation. Instead, Trump, whose Republican congress wishes a moratorium on regulation and fiscal spending, will usher in an age where the government does even less to help its poorest citizens, while scapegoating minorities to maintain “unity”.

Trumpism, then, is not the answer. It is the rose-spectacled yearning for an economic era now functionally beyond reach. It is also the return of open and ghastly racism. But, above all, it is the shattering of traditional democratic norms.


All you have to do is follow the worms

Trump’s election has upturned our understanding of how democracy works. During his campaign he cheerfully violated every electoral convention – courting the Klan; mocking the disabled; open racism – these “gaffs” alone should have rendered him unelectable; to say nothing of his overwhelming opposition from the nation’s newspapers. Trump’s economic policies, they rightly pointed out, were incoherent on an unprecedented level. He literally lied more than he told the truth; considered trade as a boxing match; and promised horrors the presidency is (thankfully) incapable of (for instance, “opening up” libel laws – no such laws exist on a federal front).

But none of this mattered to the people who voted for him. Why? Well, in desperate economic circumstances it makes sense that they’d happily ignore his flaws if they thought a candidate would at last listen to them, but the real answer runs deeper.

The OED has chosen “post-truth” as its word of the year, and it’s not hard to see why. The term is an apt description of today’s world. While people have voted on intuition rather than facts for decades now, what makes the post-truth world unique is that politicians now campaign on this basis –  relying not on facts, but on what feels true – that Barack Obama is a Kenyan Muslim who founded IS; or that Hillary Clinton has murdered dozens of subordinates. These claims are reinforced by a media climate which panders to echo chambers and falsehoods – Facebook is the largest source of news for most Americans, but as it produces no media, it claims no fourth estate responsibility.

There is a culture of “news” pages on the left and the right which routinely and unashamedly publish falsehoods. These stories pander to people’s suspicions about the world and, thus (as it’s a biological fact – confirmed by dopamine levels – that the human brain prefers “facts” which reaffirm its convictions to those which challenge it) they are inimitably shareable.

Couple that with a climate where the traditional media is considered perennially dishonest (a claim repeated by Trump himself) and the stage was set for an election where his tax returns or allegations of sexual assault simply did not matter, as his supporters sooner believed his Tweets than the Washington Post.

Where, then, does that leave those of us who believe that facts should matter in democracy?


Shall We Overcome?

The path to victory against Trumpism is steep and multifaceted. The first and most critical step is galvanising political involvement. If the 41% of eligible Americans who stayed home on election day had instead turned out to vote, Hillary Clinton would likely have won. If Democratic voters were as routinely motivated as Republican ones, not only would the senate be blue-er, but local policies which have allowed Republicans to maintain unrepresentative support (voter ID laws; gerrymandering) would not have passed. This principle applies across the post-truth world: Only by opposing regressive policies at every turn can we kill them in the crib.

The next step is to rebuild an empathetic political culture. The victories of globalisation (which are, let’s be clear, huge – over a billion people lifted out of extreme poverty in the last twenty years is not to be sniffed at) have allowed us to forget those who are left behind. Rural America feels, accurately, that its urban neighbours have forgotten it; while manufacturing workers see themselves as the last of a dying breed. The cures for these maladies are not to be found in Trumpism, but in a greater emphasis on retraining programmes (on which America spends a pittance) and, most of all, in a political culture which values such perspectives.

Equally valuable are the perspectives of minority groups. To Kill a Mockingbird remains among the most important books in American history because it unmasked racism to people who had chosen to ignore it. Similar jolts to middle America are required now. Make no mistake, artists from minority backgrounds have been telling extraordinary stories of their experiences for many years now – from Do the Right Thing to Transgender Dysphoria Blues – but the burden lies with “liberal allies” in power to share such testimony. A staggeringly high number of Trump supporters have simply never met a Muslim. When shown human experiences, empathy will, in most cases, overwhelm exclusion.

Finally, fake news must be fought. Facebook employees have set up a taskforce to monitor and dismantle false stories on the site. This is an important but minor step – it would be wise to lobby the company to take an official stand thereon. Facebook can no longer pretend it has no fourth estate obligations. 2016 has proven that it does.

These steps seem daunting, if not impossible. It is easy to assume that in our bifurcated political sphere, all attempts at outreach are futile. This is not true. Grassroots political work can mitigate Trumpism’s damage. If Facebook tackles fake news, its largest platform will be removed. Respecting blue collar voices will keep them from resorting to racism. And while we might not reach sexteganarian Trump supporters who believe Barack Obama was born in Kenya, their grandchildren are statistically likely to be on our side. And even if they’re not, minds can be changed – just look at the modern consensus on marriage equality.

Donald Trump does not respect democracy. He considered a fair loss impossible; played fast and loose with the obligations of the US Constitution; and peddled conspiracy theories designed to undermine the rationality of voters. His underhanded tactics have won him an election. But he has not yet won the war.

If those who stand against his demagoguery and falsehoods do so openly and consistently, the fight for liberal democracy may yet be won. But the battle must be hard fought. We have far too much to lose.

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