When respectable commentators tell us the crisis will blow over, they are usually right. Most of the time, the shock passes and the status quo reasserts itself. Most of the time, men of the world can lie back in their comfortable chairs and guffaw at the Chicken Lickens who thought the sky was falling down.
But most of the time is not all of the time. And it most certainly is not our time. In the revolutionary years of 1914, 1917, 1929, 1933, 1939, 1979, 1989 and 2008, those who said we would soon be back to normal were history’s fools. This year is a revolutionary year for the radical right. It is at once predictable and extraordinary that authoritative voices are telling us to keep calm and carry on.
Despite all appearances to the contrary, Donald Trump is just a traditional conservative, they say as they prettify venality and sanitise hatred. Great opportunities lie ahead, splutters Boris Johnson, Trump’s British twin. The constitution will bind him and the media will check him, others insist, as they show they have no idea of how weak serious journalism has become. Like playing Russian roulette, those trying to minimise the shock of the revolution in American politics may be lucky. Trump may not have meant what he said in the campaign and will settle down to a presidency of indolent corruption. They cannot possibly know the revolver won’t explode, however, and are being dishonest when they pretend they can.
The rest of us should ignore them and concentrate on what we know for sure. We know that a man who talks as if he was born to lie, who carries grudges like a gangster, whose sexual rapacity propels him to demean and assault women, who admires the Putin kleptocracy and who wants to impose bans on adherents of a global religion is now the president of a great power. We also know that, faced with an election they had to win, America’s liberals were too unpopular to stop him
If we were just talking about the United States, we could concentrate on the shocking irresponsibility of the Democratic party in running an establishment candidate in a country that was sick of the status quo. It is bizarre to see people who condemn cultural appropriation engage in political appropriation. But maybe US leftists are right to think that a portion of Trump supporters were secretly on their side and a more radical Democrat would have won them over.
Unfortunately, this is not just an argument about the wretched Clinton campaign. Not only in America, but across the democratic world, liberals and leftists are becoming used to waking up in the early hours and learning that they have lost. Again. They did not expect the Conservatives to win the British general election or the British to vote to leave the EU. They didn’t see Trump coming. They won’t see Le Pen coming. Poland may be the future. In a country that had a centre-left government within recent memory, not one member of the Polish parliament now calls himself or herself a social democrat or socialist. Debate is between the internationalist right in opposition and the authoritarian nationalists in power. Theirs may be our future too.
To suffer such calamitous defeats and not feel the need to change is to behave as irresponsibly as the US Democratic party. It is a myth that Trump and Brexit won because of overwhelming working-class support. Nevertheless, they could win only because a large chunk of the white working class moved rightwards. Debates about how to lure them back ought to reveal the difference between arguing with and arguing against your fellow citizens, which most middle-class leftists have not even begun to think about.
You can only argue against committed supporters of Trump. If they believe all Mexicans are rapists and Muslims terrorists, you cannot compromise without betraying your principles. Fair enough. But before you become self-righteous you must accept that the dominant faction on the western left uses language just as suggestive of collective punishment when they talk about their own white working class. Imagine how it must feel for a worker in Bruce Springsteen’s Youngstown to hear college-educated liberals condemn “white privilege” when he has a shit job and a miserable life. Or Google the number of times “straight white males” are denounced by public-school educated women in the liberal media and think how that sounds to an ex-miner coughing his guts up in a Yorkshire council flat.
Emotionally, as well as rationally, they sense the left, or at least the left they see and hear, is no longer their friend. They are men and women who could be argued with, if the middle classes were willing to treat them decently. You might change their minds. You might even find that they could change yours. Instead of hearing an argument, they see liberals who call the police to suppress not only genuine hate speech that incites violence but any uncouth or “inappropriate” transgression.
For too many in the poor neighbourhoods of the west, middle-class liberals have become like their bosses at work. They tell you what you can and can’t think. They warn that you must accept their superiority and you will be in no end of trouble if you do not.
In Spain, his great 1937 poem on political activism, WH Auden concluded with these grim lines: “We are left alone with our day, and the time is short, and/ History to the defeated/ May say Alas but cannot help or pardon.” George Orwell made an uncharacteristically incoherent attack. Auden had said earlier in the poem that soldiers fighting in the Spanish Civil War must engage in “necessary murder” and this proved he was a dilettante “warmonger”. Although necessary murders are what soldiers commit, Auden came to agree and disowned his poem for suggesting the ends justify the means.
For all that, Auden’s words hold true. There are times when your opponents must be defeated, whatever the cost. Defeating them today involves nothing so violent as necessary murders. Thinking about class, not instead of but along with gender and race, would be a step forward. Realising that every time you ban an opponent you prove you cannot win an argument would be another. I do not doubt history will look back on 2016 and say “alas”. But it will not pardon defeated liberals who never learned that to win they had to change.