Sunday, 13 November 2016

Does Trump’s win mean that progress is history?

David Mitchell in The Guardian

A fortnight ago, when the clocks went back, a joke was doing the rounds in various forms. They all went something like: “Don’t forget to turn the clocks back this weekend. Unless you voted for Brexit, in which case you’ve already turned them back 30 years.”

These obviously weren’t pro-Brexit jokes. The notion of turning the clock back is not supposed to connote a return to the good old days or a restoration of youth: it signifies regression, progress reversed, a deliberate worsening. So an obvious implication is that their writers think, and think that most people think, that in general things get better over time.

Well, milk doesn’t. And look at the natural world: things age and die and rot. Or grow and infest and destroy. And sometimes they germinate and bloom. They don’t necessarily get worse, I’m not saying that; but they don’t always improve, either.

Technology confuses this, because that seems to be on a pretty steady upward graph, though it has its blips: in Europe, central heating had a chilly hiatus between the fourth and the 19th centuries. And this whole technological up-graph, from the discovery of fire onwards, may get retrospectively flipped into a huge down-blip in overall human fortunes if it transpires we were gradually making the planet uninhabitable. It’s possible that everything any of us has done since we first started scrabbling around for flint has been a mistake.

You may sense from the last sentence that I’m in a bad mood. When I recently expressed disquiet on Twitter at Donald Trump’s election victory, one respondent said: “You should have been afraid months ago, by now [you should be] slipping into misanthropic apathy.” It seemed like an excellent suggestion.

I’d been hoping Hillary Clinton would win, as you probably were, unless my evaluation of the Observer readership has descended to pollster levels of accuracy. Though, for me, it was mainly a hope that Donald Trump would lose. I didn’t have strong feelings about his opponent. She seemed OK, but then people would darkly say things beginning “Of course you realise…”, the end of which I never properly heard, focused as I was on avoiding the social embarrassment of looking like I didn’t realise whatever it was.

It’s like when I’m introduced to people – I never catch their name because I’m so anxious not to screw up the handshake. “Just look like you realise, for God’s sake!” my brain always hissed over the details. “Everyone else here seems to have realised. You’re an educated person who realises all the complicated stuff that needs to be realised. You can Google it later.”

I never Googled it later, which turns out to have been an efficient non-use of time. Nevertheless, I assembled a vague sense that Hillary wasn’t all that, but at least she hadn’t said that Mexicans are rapists. If there were terrible things about her, she had the grace to keep them secret rather than proclaim them from a podium. Which, under the circumstances, seemed to me a good enough reason to make her the most powerful person on earth. Then I went back to watching Trump.

Trump is so watchable – that’s surely something his supporters and detractors can agree on. It’s not the hair, it’s not the extremist rhetoric, it’s the sheer magnetism of his self-satisfaction. The density of his self-joy is so great it drags your eyes towards it like galactic debris to a black hole. When he puts on a statesmanlike face, you just know his inner monologue is delightedly singing “My amazing face looks so statesmanlike right now!” This is what Ed Miliband never grasped: it’s not about being convincing, it’s about relishing the role.

If politics were just a reality TV show (rather than mainly a reality TV show), Trump would never get voted out. So perhaps it’s surprising that he polled fewer votes than Clinton – though not quite as surprising as the fact that he will become president despite this.
  Illustration by David Foldvari.

Trump’s win hit me in several ways. First, it denied me his defeat scene. I wanted to see that. His character seemed designed expressly for that sort of comeuppance, as surely as the diner redneck in Superman II. I was desperate to see him spun round on his bar stool, all scared. It really feels like a missed opportunity, for him as much as everyone else.

Second, it robbed me of a comforting certainty: he can’t win – he’s too awful. That’s the sentiment I’ve been vacuously exchanging with people for months: “Surely he can’t win,” one of us says. “I know,” says the other. I’ll miss that even though I now regret every time it happened. “It would be a disaster,” was the consensus among me and other out-of-touch liberals, even more so than over Brexit.

And third: I’ve started to look on the bright side and it makes me despise myself. Because, frankly, “It would be a disaster” is much easier to live with than “It willbe a disaster” or “This is a disaster”. So I fail to follow through on my certainty. A mixture of apathy and fear-avoidance extorts a sickly optimism from my brain.

Maybe he didn’t mean what he said; maybe the Republican party will restrain him; politicians never get much done anyway; maybe it’ll all be fine. This either makes me an overdramatising hypocrite a few days ago, or a reality-denying fool now. So I feel lazy, stupid and humiliated by the disturbance to my complacency, as if someone had burst in while I was eating a cream cake in the bath.

I am bewildered by everyone’s conviction that anyone who disagrees with them has been misinformed. Another response to my worried tweet mentioned an article I’d linked to about Trump in the New Yorker: “That’s like reading about Obama on the KKK newsletter,” they told me. Is it? I really don’t think it is. But they seemed so much surer that I’m wrong than I am that I’m right. I’m enough of a historian to understand the insecurity of the lines of communication between what I read has happened and what actually has, but not enough to know what to do. Should I go to that place in Kew?

Civilisations, like investments, can go down as well as up – that’s never been clearer. Trump has routed the Whig interpretation of history along with the metropolitan liberal elite. Things don’t always get better over time. But I’m grateful to have lived through an era when it was still widely assumed that they did.

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