On the first Wednesday after the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November 1980 I was sitting in Bob McKenzie's Political Sociology lecture listening to him assure us that though the election of Ronald Reagan seemed like the end of the world it probably wasn't going to be as bad as we feared. The gist of his argument was that although Reagan was a fool, he at least was a lazy fool who had just about enough sense to appoint competent people to his cabinet and to hire advisors who actually knew something about the world.
As things turned out he got it broadly right. The course of events was not particularly edifying but things could have turned out a lot worse. I'd like to believe something along those lines today. But I'm not confident I can. For sure the sun will rise tomorrow, but come January we may be looking at a much uglier world.
So what's to be done? Well firstly not to go off on a self-righteous bender. I heard an emotional Simon Schama on the radio yesterday saying that Trump is a fascist. This is nonsense. His "ideas" aren't coherent enough to be sensibly described in that way. He's certainly a ruthless bigot, but that isn't quite the same thing. I don't think that Trump has an ideology of any kind other than whatever serves to promote his infantile ego. But that is besides the point. Narcissism among politicians is just a matter of degree. Trump is actually heir to a much more native tradition, that of Huey Long, champion of the small guy against the establishment. They share the same mixture of crude populist rhetoric and authoritarian instinct. The main difference is that Long actually did achieve something for his constituency while all that Trump will do, if he has his way, is make them poorer, more disillusioned, more angry.
What I'm pondering is the response of the liberal-left in America to Trump and in Britain to Brexit. And all the while I hear the same phrase: "we have to respond to the legitimate concerns of...". But what if these concerns are not, in fact, legitimate? What if they are incoherent or unintelligible? What if behind the rage is just a toxic soup of muddle, misinformation, fantasy, incompatible wishes and yes, racism, fear, envy, xenophobia and nostalgia for a past that never happened? How are you going to address the "legitimate concerns" of someone who wants to close the border to all wage undercutting foreigners, put the names of foreigners who are already here on a list and restrict their access to health care, education and other public services, who at the same time wants that nice Polish lady to care for his demented mother (without it costing too much), a cheap car, cheap electronic goods and protection from foreign competition? Yes day to day politics is about compromise, but as Weber pointed out politics is also about ultimate values and sometimes you come to a point where to compromise means either pretending that 2+2=5 or even worse just giving up even pretending to pursue the things that made the game worth playing in the first place.
"Legitimate concerns" are not just things that are given. They are created. It's too simplistic to blame their creation just on the tabloid media. But certainly the constant drip of poison, albeit into the mouths of people who already have a taste for it, doesn't help. What the liberal-left lacks is a strategy to aggressively shape the terms of the debate rather than simply go along with what they are too eager to accept as given. They've forgotten that politics isn't just about what people in Westminster believe and know. Sometimes you have to dare to tell people that they can't have all the good things they want and that anyone that promises them is a charlatan and a fraud. Sometimes you have to tell them that their gut instincts are wrong and unworthy of them. Sometimes you have to tell them that what they say they want will actually make them and every one else poorer and less happy than they otherwise would be. And you have to persuade them without patronizing them.
It's a big ask. But all the alternatives look worse.