Want evidence that things are getting better? Two words. Donald Trump.
It’s true. The fact that Trump got elected is a sign of real progress in the world. Jihad, too, is evidence that we are moving forward. And the surge in online racism and sexism is definitely good news.
I know that sounds sarcastic, but it isn’t, and here’s why.
Most bigotry goes unexpressed because it doesn’t need to be expressed. If their lives are comfortable and their world view goes unchallenged, people can sit on their prejudice for a lifetime: we’ve all heard of the dying nonagenarian, a beloved great-grandmother and pillar of the community, whose tongue has been loosened by dementia or drugs, suddenly, shockingly, revealing a seething anti-Semitism or racism or homophobia.
Why didn’t it come out sooner? It didn’t need to. She lived in peace and relative happiness, far away from those she feared. Because they were only in her mind rather than in her street, she could keep them locked up there; her sinister mental hobbies tucked away out of sight.
Sometimes, when bigots hold all the power in society, they can even convince themselves that their disdain is a form of care. Colonial overlords often expressed paternal affection for the people they ruled. “I love women!” is the rallying cry of misogynists everywhere, who genuinely believe that controlling a woman’s body is a sign of how much they respect her.
But when their world changes, and the faraway people they feared or disdained become their neighbours and then their bosses, the smiles fall away. When their comfortable and reassuring assumptions are challenged, without apology, they begin to feel attacked. Besieged. Persecuted. And that is when they lash out, and when private disdain becomes public bigotry.
These outbursts have been seized upon by various media and used as evidence to back up the prevailing narrative that the world is getting worse and more full of prejudice and loathing. Hateful things written online and terrible things filmed on cellphones, the narrative insists, are the opening skirmishes of an invasion by a huge, terrifying army of darkness.
The thing is, it’s not true. The examples of bigotry and rage we are shown every day are upsetting, but nothing about them suggests that they are the bold manoeuvres of a fascist Blitzkrieg. Instead, they look much more like acts of desperation: booby-traps and ambushes laid by a ragged army in shambolic retreat.
Unplug yourself from the official narrative about the looming monster army and you see it: hateful reactions are fearful reactions, and when bigots are frightened, it usually means that the world is moving, albeit slowly, in the right direction.
Racists are hissing and spitting because black people are becoming CEOs and deans and presidents. Misogynists are throwing a fit because women are redefining womanhood for themselves and claiming their birthright as co-owners of the planet. Jihadis are resorting to medieval brutality because modernity is pushing inexorably into their crumbling kingdoms. And Donald Trump got elected because frightened, insular Americans didn’t have anyone else to vote for.
Many liberal pundits are having none of it. To them, Trump’s election was the final step in a vast and shocking subterfuge: an enormous sleeper cell of closet Nazis was biding its time in Washington, evading the watchful eyes of the press, waiting until a vermilion Fuhrer arrived and gave the secret signal. Trump, the popular subtext insists, has finally unleashed a wave of hatred that had barely been kept in check by the Obama administration.
Which is weird, because Trump’s entire campaign was founded on the belief that like-minded people (those who admire “alternative facts”, putting Muslims on registers and pussy-grabbing) have no representation in the US political system. They had no powerful champions already established in Washington DC; no Lincoln or Roosevelt of the far right, no powerful and beloved orators bending hearts towards hardness and minds towards fear. They didn’t even have a Ronald Reagan, offering them a home inside conventional conservatism. All they had was a pouting beauty pageant host with spray-on policies and a Twitter account. I’ve been reading plenty about the decline of the US (and global) left, but if Trump is the best leader the right has to offer, then it is surely a spent force.
Of course, frightened, angry people with nuclear weapons are not a good thing: this could all still go pear-shaped. But for now it might be helpful to remember that Trump is a reaction to change. Online hate is a cry of despair. Atrocities against women and unbelievers are a frantic attempt to cling to a dying world.
In the end, perhaps all are fighting a gentle but firm truth: that every day, more people are coming to accept and believe in the personhood of others. Respect, not rage, is still winning.
Published in The Times