I am sure many others, like me, have found their timelines on facebook and twitter awash with jokes at the expense of Donald Trump. Joke about his character, his hair, his colour, his spelling ability and so on. Some are funny but most are simply attempts at humiliation. The audience for these jokes is obviously other like-minded people and they serve as a way to share unhappiness with the present situation and to rail against this.
It reminded me of when I was a junior doctor and would share black humour with my comrades. We made jokes about dreadful things, and in dreadful taste, in an effort to show to ourselves and each other that we shared and appreciation of the predicament. It fostered camaraderie and developed support at a particularly stressful time in our career. We knew this and found it useful. However, we never mistook it for a strategy to improve things. It was a coping strategy not a mechanism for change. Increasing experience and knowledge, union activism, and political change were the things which improved things (partially), not our black jokes.
I can therefore understand why some people make jokes about Trump. It helps them cope and to identify themselves to other fellow ‘sufferers’ so they may develop a sense of community and lessen any feelings of isolation. But is it wise in the world of politics, and, more importantly, could it be counter-productive ?
Though many wish to go back to the thirties to look for historical similarities which might help us understand Trump this is unnecessary. We barely need to go back 10 years and can look at the story of Silvio Berlusconi, the infamous Prime Minister of Italy, who despite many obvious failings also has the distinction of being the longest serving Prime Minister of Italy as well as the most controversial.
In an article in the New York Times Luigi Zingales considered how this pompous, brash, and at times corrupt man could remain in power for so long. One reason seems to have been the failure of the opposition to him to take him seriously, and the tendency of the opposition to focus on his personality rather than on politics. As with Trump, there was no shortage of attempts to bring down Berlusconi with humour and ridicule. Unfortunately, while this made the opposition feel good about their ability to create stinging puns, and confirmed their prowess in the cartoon, it did nothing to unsettle him and may have strengthened his position.
Mr. Berlusconi was able to govern Italy for as long as he did mostly thanks to the incompetence of his opposition. It was so rabidly obsessed with his personality that any substantive political debate disappeared; it focused only on personal attacks, the effect of which was to increase Mr. Berlusconi’s popularity. His secret was an ability to set off a Pavlovian reaction among his leftist opponents, which engendered instantaneous sympathy in most moderate voters. Mr. Trump is no different.
The Italian experience provides a blueprint for how to defeat Mr. Trump. Only two men in Italy have won an electoral competition against Mr. Berlusconi: Romano Prodi and the current prime minister, Matteo Renzi (albeit only in a 2014 European election). Both of them treated Mr. Berlusconi as an ordinary opponent. They focused on the issues, not on his character.
We need to debate the issues and politics with Donald Trump. We need to show what needs to be done and warn against what should not be done. We should not allow ourselves the distraction of the option of an easy joke or a zippy one-liner. We must ignore what he looks like, must ignore his bluster and style and focus on what he says and does. It is easy to debate the wrongs of protectionism in the economy, the wrongs of religious prejudice, the wrongs of nationalism and the wrongs of cronyism. If we do this we will possibly avoid the danger of just talking amongst ourselves and might, hopefully, win round others to our views so that four years do not become eight.
The Daily Prompt today was “resist” and initially I was going to give this one a miss. However, the worry that many people have about the changes in America under President Trump is causing much discussion on issues of resistance. However, much of this initial resistance seemed very unfocussed and, at times, even anti-democratic. It almost seemed that people wanted to oppose the democratic result itself – a wail against the result – rather then looking at specific political points that need to be addressed and, trust me, there is no shortage of these issues.
Spiked, the online magazine has been a valuable source of good critical political debate and I thought that this article by them gave a good summary of where some of this activity could be directed. There are clear good initial pointers to action. There are also some good general points about the political changes.
In particular, we need to be very careful about the direction of “anti-politics”, as the article reveals, this can be very dangerous :-
Trump … “Your pose as the anti-politician, the man who hates the political class, is getting wearisome. It has crossed the line from criticism of he establishment, which is good, into a trashing of politics itself, of the very business of people getting together and talking and voting in order to make things happen. When will your anti-politics shift into a conviction that you alone should decide how things should be run? That’s the logical conclusion to anti-politics, whether it takes the form of demagoguery (you) or technocracy (Hillary).”
Spiked also makes a direct call to Trump :-
“In short, Trump, do not interfere with individual autonomy, freedom of speech or reproductive choice; do not promote the politics of fear; do not keep fighting the disastrous ‘war on terror’; and do not expand the power of the state over people’s lives. Respect freedom and choice and trade and growth: true, good liberal ideals.”
Given, that I fear, it is likely he will reject this advice, the other pointers to practical ways to resist him will prove invaluable.
Another atrocity, six innocent men gunned down, while at their devotions, 19 others injured and 5 remain in a critical condition. Again we are witness to innocent people, slaughtered as thy try to get on with their lives and again we know that wives have been left widowed and children fatherless for no reason.
This time, it seems highly likely that a young man with right-wing nationalist views (Alexandre Bissonnette) is responsible for this horror. If it is he, we will no doubt discover that he, like Dylan Roof and Omar Mateen and many others before him, was a warped young man unable to tolerate those he disagreed with, unable to tolerate those different to him. It is no surprise that these people choose their targets by features which mark out their group as different to his group; the white supremacist attacking those performing their religious duties while the jihadist identifies those participating in banned activities.
Terrorists from both groups are much more similar than they would like to imagine, both see themselves as warriors defending their group against the others or avenging wrongs done by the other group. While these are extreme members of their groups, this tendency to see politics and life in terms of groups is a major problem. It does not matter if the group is defined by religion or race, nation or class, heritage or any other tribal banding, viewing the world in this manner distorts our society.
Humans are intrinsically social animals. We don’t survive in isolation and instinctively seek out our fellows. Despite what dystopian films and novels may tell us, in good times and bad we band together to cooperate, help and trade. We find ways to be with others that is mutually beneficial. It is important to recognise that xenophobia and fear of others is commonest in people who have little contact with other groups. When we have to opportunity to mix and mingle we find ways to make this benefit both ourselves and the others and fear quickly dissipates. When we are left to our own devices we create an emergent order which is beneficial to all. This only goes wrong when we are grouped and ruled.
This is not simply the old story of “divide and rule” but rather “categorise and control“. When we are encourage to see ourselves as members of groups ( American, Christian, Black, Lesbian, Working Class, Welsh, Jewish, Islamic, Aryan, etc) we are encouraged to see the differences we have with others. We are encouraged to view others as being not only different but wrong and potentially threatening. We are encouraged to feel under threat and in need of protection. And in responce to this perceived threat, there are usually a group of people (politicians, clergy, kings, inspired leaders, etc) who will guard us and look after our interests. These are the people who benefit from this grouping, they now hold the power (and usually a great deal of the wealth) as they control how we may and may not interact to preserve our group. All their power comes from controlling spontaneous activity by individuals and disappears if people are allowed to interact freely.
Once in our groups we are encouraged to view all problems in terms of this. It leads to partisan and transactional politics. Our group is always right, the other always wrong. Our problems come from the malevolence of the other group. While watching the coverage of Quebec I noticed on social media the cheerleaders of each group swinging into action. Those on the alt-right ecstatic when it looked as if a muslim might have been involved (erroneously), the progressives cock-a-hoop at having another timely white nationalist terrorist just in time for the fight with Trump about closing borders. Our politics have descended into this. We are unable to discuss issues without this being along the lines of our group identities. This means we fail to develop and change as quickly as we might otherwise be able.
The Quebec tragedy will end up being defined as a battle between those fearing islamophobia and those fearing islamofascism. Left to their own devices, followers of different faiths would cooperate happily and beneficially. When they are individuals they find a way to coexist in a way that benefits all, it is only when they are pushed into groups that hatred such as this arises. It is leaders who lead us down these dark alleys of discrimination and violence.
Remember the men who lost their lives in Quebec, remember them as real people like you or I, remember them as fathers or sons like you or I, remember them as individuals. Don’t think that their religion makes what happened to them explicable in any manner, nor does it explain their murderer’s actions. Don’t force them into a group and don’t let yourself be forced into a group. When we stay as individual units we remain individually responsible and recognise that we have the same rights as everyone else. Maintaining this is our only hope of preventing future tragedies. The first step in murder and maltreatment is making the victim an exemplar of a group rather than an individual. The second step is removing our own individual responsibility by passing it to a higher authority. Don’t be pushed to take these dangerous steps.
There was an excellent article on Bleeding Heart Libertarians site discussing some attitudes to the recent election of Donald Trump. I would encourage anyone of a libertarian bent to read this as it is both well written and important. It concerns the fact that many libertarians seem to be offering some support to Donald Trumps election, though largely on the basis that his victory was the lesser of two evils, and that on balance he may do more good than harm.
But when one looks at the ‘on balance’ argument it falls down quite quickly as the benefits he may bring are minor and the disadvantages are often very major :-
A small tax cut, or freezing the minimum wage are, in my view, an order of magnitude less morally important than authorizing torture, suggesting Muslim registries, closing the border to refugees, ignoring the Constitution and the rule of law, revving up the US war machine, trying to muzzle the media, building a wall, undoing decades of peace and prosperity-enhancing global trade, threatening to send troops to Chicago, and so forth.
Also there is an apparent moral problem with how these gains and losses are distributed which we can not avoid :-
Notice that almost everything on the “plus” side of the ledger are policies that primarily affect Americans. School choice, ending the ACA, deregulation at the FDA or Labor, and even tax cuts are policies that pretty much exclusively affect Americans. On the other side, torture, trade, immigration, refugees, and war are things that have major effects on citizens in the rest of the world. Dammit, libertarians, they count too. The liberal vision has always been a global, cosmopolitian one, and there are no grounds for saying the interests of Americans trump (as it were) those of the rest of the globe.
Part of this problem may arise from the fact that, for many libertarians, their dislike of the left is greater than the importance they apply to their liberal principles. But joy, or schadenfreude, at Clinton’s loss should not blind us to the nature of the man who won.
Too many libertarians hate the left more than they love liberty. One response I’ve heard to my pushing back on their take on Trump is that “well Obama/Clinton was/would have been worse!” No, actually he wasn’t and I don’t think she would have been. Yes, they might have expanded the regulatory state, but there would be no revival of torture, no wall, no registry, no trade war, no attempt to muzzle the media, etc.. Trump is a tin-pot dictator wannabe (and startingtobe), without an ounce of knowledge or respect for constitutional limits on government, who threatens the foundational institutions of the liberal order. Obama was not.
It is difficult to categorise this novel as it crosses many genres. It a post-apocalyptic, dystopian future, science fiction story wrapped up in a family saga and present day morality tale, it contains a fair bit of humour, and there is a fair bit of economic theory and history thrown in for leavening. Surprisingly it is all the better because of this, it is engrossing. The story follows a number of members of the Mandibles clan as they cope with the changes that follow the economic collapse in America.
The discussion about the problems with fiat money, inflation, central banking and the nature of money itself is well written and manages to explain many things, by using the form of a novel, that many economics textbooks fail to clarify. The impact of these problems is made real by the realistic descriptions of life post-collapse. Time will tell if Shriver is going to prove to be prescient, or rather, in which areas her predictions were accurate.
The characters are well drawn, some likeable, others despicable, but all believable. Shriver’s ability to reveal the darker side of our nature is well known. In this story, as the characters try to survive, many facets of human nature are turned over for assessment. We will sometimes see features we recognise in ourselves and sometimes this will not flatter, but shame, us. It is always better to be self aware and to know our faults and, if it has to be done, it is better to do it to the accompaniment of some dark comic humour.
Leaving the last word to Shriver herself :-
Plots set in the future are about what people fear in the present. They’re not about the future at all. The future is just the ultimate monster in the closet, the great unknown.