I won’t be taking up a placard against Donald Trump.
The last time I marched was against the war in Iraq in 2003. At the end, I apologised to a police officer for the litter we’d left behind.
And while I understand why they’re taking to the streets to vent their frustration, I can’t help but detect a hint of deflection.
November 8, 2016 was a traumatic day for American progressives and those farther afield. Ever since, they have been wandering around in a daze, like Miranda suddenly robbed of her innocence. Oh brave new world/ That has such deplorables in’t! They are now regarding their fellow citizens through new, narrower eyes. How could they have voted for Trump? Didn’t people in Ohio know Hillary was endorsed by four Kardashians? Four!
Hillary Clinton was the civilised candidate. It was so obvious that few of us entertained the possibility of President Trump. Life in the rural rustbelt seldom detains our thoughts. We expected them to vote the way we would — the correct way.
It’s hard to believe 55-year-old car welders weren’t rallied to the cause of transgender bathrooms. Indeed, the 2016 Democrat platform contained almost five times as many references to LGBT rights as to coal and steel communities combined. As a cheerful claimant to one-quarter of that acronym, standing up to bigotry matters to me but so does restoring jobs and dignity to depressed neighbourhoods. Those of us who live in big cities order our priorities accordingly but open-mindedness must extend to those whose values are different. Politics is about building coalitions, not saving souls.
The reaction to Trump — it lacks the rigour of a response — has followed the grammar of identity politics. I am appalled. You are not appalled enough. We are virtuous. They are racists. This is all well and good but achieves nothing beyond giving the speaker a warm glow of virtue.
New York Times columnist Paul Krugman calls Trump “a witting or unwitting foreign agent”. The latest cover of the New Yorker depicts the flame of Liberty extinguished. Fact-checking website Snopes.com, which refuted so many of candidate Trump’s falsehoods, is now working flat out to debunk conspiracy theories about the new president. So, no, Trump has not removed white supremacists from the terror watch list. Nor has he changed the name of Black History Month. And those “concentration camps” he’s building? They’re immigration detention centres, 111 of which were already in operation the day he took office.
Liberalism has suffered a mental breakdown. It’s as if it can now only think in the clickbait headlines of social media: “Fascism has come to America. You won’t believe what happened next.”
Progress is impossible in a fog of hysteria. Donald Trump marks such a sharp break from presidential tradition that overstatement is not necessary or useful. We know he is the first occupant of the White House with no governmental or military experience. We know he is a nationalist, a narcissist, and a casual merchant in fear and blame. He berates America’s allies and embraces her enemies; he calls into question the institutions of the Pax Americana. Not since Woodrow Wilson has a president professed such open contempt for constitutional government. Americans, trustees of the world’s greatest democracy, have forgone a president and elected a national swagger instead.
But meeting the outrageous with the outlandish will only embolden Trump and cause American voters to decide: “They’re all crazy. Best stick with the crazy you know.” The challenge of Trump is not to declare your ethical superiority — it’s to limit the damage he can do and try to make him a one-term president. And in that campaign, we are blessed with a precious inheritance.
Fragile stands the power of an American tyrant. The framers knew Trump was coming some day down the line and crafted a constitution that would hold him in check. In doing so, they drew upon and contributed greatly to political liberalism.
Liberalism has had a bit of a time of it lately. It has come to be associated, not always unjustly, with weakness on the one hand and censoriousness on the other. Liberals are demagogued by the right as soft-on-terrorism and in thrall to political correctness and cajoled by radicals into being just that. Too often, they have run scared from both and seemed to stand for not much of anything.
Examples are bountiful but nowhere as dismaying as in the case of free speech. Liberals have somehow managed to cede the moral high ground on freedom of expression to racial gadflies and climate change deniers, making martyrs of obscure kooks in the process. We saw this again last week when Milo Yiannopoulos tried to speak at a university in California.
Yiannopoulos is a preening pestilence on public discourse, a defeasance of intellectual rigour, a simpering encomium to vacuity and vulgarity — an appalling star for a squalid age. But the alt-right provocateur loves a run-in with college crybabies and at UC Berkeley they gave him exactly what he wanted. The riots that forced the cancellation of his speech were contemptible and symptomatic of an authoritarian left that shuts down views it dislikes. Higher education, once the motor engine of inquisitiveness, is now the ultimate safe space.
This gave Milo’s Clearasil-drenched fanboys licence to assail their favourite targets: “Social justice warriors” and “political correctness”. Much of what is decried as political correctness is just good manners. If calling someone by their preferred gender pronoun is a burden, remember your granny’s admonition: If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.
But we can’t legislate to make people be nice any more than we can outlaw stupidity or greed or anger. And when the intersectionality kids come along and demand their latest exciting victimology be afforded an exemption from our commitment to free expression, we should send them packing. Liberals ought to resist prejudice at every opportunity but vigilance against authoritarianism, even and especially the kind that comes bearing familiar slogans, is no less a duty.
If the 20th century was defined by the struggle between the individual and the state, the 21st century will pit the individual against the nation, the precepts of liberalism against the emotional pull of identity politics. Liberals should respect the nation but favour the individual and assert that more speech, not less, is the answer to hatred and intolerance.
Liberalism must overcome its crisis of confidence and remember what it stands for. Liberalism is not being soft or touchy-feely. It’s not making excuses for men who incinerate Manhattan commodities traders and gun down Parisian concert-goers. A liberal may celebrate immigration without sneering at those left feeling uneasy about the changes around them.
Authentic, hard-headed liberalism is not weak. It is the only thing Trump truly fears — and the only thing that can face him down.
This is my first column for the Scottish Daily Mail. It will be a pleasure to join you round the breakfast table of a morning or over a soggy sandwich scoffed down in your ten-minute lunch hour.
The paper you hold in your hands is more than wood pulp and printers’ ink; it was and remains an audacious effort to represent the one group that has no union or lobby fighting its corner: The battling classes, those who work hard, save where they can, play by the rules, and ask only that others do the same.
This is who Robert Menzies had in mind when he described “the forgotten people”: “They are for the most part unorganised and unselfconscious. They are envied by those whose benefits are largely obtained by taxing them. They are not rich enough to have individual power. They are taken for granted by each political party in turn… And yet… they are the backbone of the nation.”
This column is as much yours as mine. It will reflect your hopes and concerns. And when you reckon I’ve called it wrong, write in and tell me. I promise to keep an open mind.
It’s no age to die. Gordon Aikman, the Motor Neurone Disease campaigner, has passed away aged 31. If potential was prognosis and love of life longevity, he would have outlasted us all. Gordon was diagnosed in 2014 but refused to go gently, mounting a fightback that inspired millions and raised £500,000 for MND Scotland. Three of Gordon’s goals remain outstanding: Double MND research cash, speed up benefit payments, and outlaw care charges. If politicians want to pay tribute to this beautiful, remarkable man they should finish the job he started.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org.