I’ve been turned numb by politics precisely twice in my life, and they both happened this year. The first was when the country of my birth, the UK, opted to vote to leave the European Union amidst a wave of misinformation and hysteria about immigration. The second was Donald Trump’s election as the 45th President of the United States of America.
The election of Trump brought the same feeling as Brexit, but it was magnified tenfold. I argued with people about Brexit, and many people voted for what seemed to me to be the wrong reasons; to be short-sighted, to be lacking fact and nuance. That said, I could see some of the reasoning and worries raised about remaining in the EU were legitimate ones; a growing EU super state, the potential for shared pension pots, strain on public services, the Euro as a currency in and of itself, the perceived failures of assimilation into UK culture, and national sovereignty are all legitimate concerns that explain a vote with which I disagree. I could see why they would vote that way, even if it was not not something I could do myself.
I can’t even begin to say the same for Donald Trump, and it intensifies that numbness I feel.
This is a man who has lied repeatedly and flagrantly on the campaign trail, has called Mexicans rapists, called for a ban on all Muslim immigration into America, admitted sexually assaulting women amid waves of other misogyny, cosies up with tyrants like Vladimir Putin, wants to treat a public economy as if it were a business, and on top of everything else, seems to take pride in not reading books.
Perhaps the only shared argument between the two campaigns with any legitimacy is that of workers feeling left behind by globalisation, but the way this was framed in terms of demonising immigration as a concept and immigrants as people takes away any legitimacy it may have had in my eyes.
So, Donald Trump has won, and now one of two things is going to happen:
In the best-case scenario, we discover that his braggadocio and bombast were little more than an act, and he backs away from his more outlandish statements. Perhaps he works with politicians and the media in a way we did not think possible in order to genuinely try to do the best possible job to run the country.
He has fallen out with many of his House Republican and Senate colleagues, so an optimistic take is that he may have to do some coalition building, which might force some of his thinking from his days as a Democrat to resurface.
This, of course, has problems in its own right. Donald Trump built an almost cult-like status around himself, and it is difficult to imagine the reactions of his voters if he doesn’t deliver on his promises and looks to compromise instead, but that is a thought for another day, perhaps.
The worst-case scenario is the direct opposite of the above, and Trump genuinely meant everything for which he campaigned. And given the fickleness of modern politics, it would be no surprise if the ‘enemies’ he made within his party in the House and the Senate backed him to the hilt on his more extreme policies in order to get some of their own ideas through as well. Paul Ryan has already buddied up with Trump and it would not be much of a stretch or a surprise to see Marco Rubio and his ilk swallow their pride and do the same, in order to maintain what they see as their vision of the Republican Party of the future.
This is where we cannot give up the fight.
Donald Trump has been elected President, not king. This gives him a mandate to run the country as he thinks best, but it does not give him carte blanche to do what he wants for the next four years.
The fight for liberalism is not over; it is only just beginning. If you are shocked by a Trump presidency, if you feel it is not your country, say so. If you feel your fellow humans are not being treated with dignity in your country, write about it, let people know, write to your representative telling them what you are seeing is not acceptable. It’s not enough to take an interest in politics once every four years, go out and vote in the midterms, make it harder for Trump to get things done, just as Republicans did for Obama.
Organise. Whether we like it or not, it is undeniable that Trump built a movement, and that is what Democrats must do, too. The party is aging and arguably right of centre, which hardly inspires movements to be formed. Even its left-wing champions Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are a throwback to a previous age, one of unions and workers’ rights.
The inevitable and only reasonable counter to right-wing populism is the promotion of a viable left wing alternative. In times when people feel disassociated with the political system, demagogues will defeat the centrist establishment; you only have to look around the world to see it happening in country after country, in continent after continent.
Trump’s election is the litmus test for the Democrats. What they are doing is not working, and it needs to change. They have the opportunity to use this to build a movement of their own, but it is up to us to help them to do that. Apathy is not an option; apathy is what the right wing thrives on, the feeling that we can’t change anything, even when that is not the case. That’s why it’s called conservatism. The past is the past, and we can’t change that, but now it’s time to build a future.
be, and indeed is, the only way.
Benedict is an interviewer, podcast leader, and is political writer and commentator. Benedict is also editor-at-large for Conatus News.