For some, history consists of only two events: the present, and the Nazis. Any unwelcome political action is thrust into a crude parallelism with a singular mode of fascism, stripped of complication and context, and offered as a warning.
Donald Trump has been similarly press-ganged into this feared cohort, with the response to his victory amplified to the same pitch of declamation as if he had introduced the Enabling Act.
He has not. But the modish dichotomy of fascist and anti-fascist is far easier to project on the current political situation than previous elections, because the shallowness of sounds-bites and the dirth of policies has made the opposition between Republican and Democrat, Clinton and Trump, merely one of cultural symbolism.
Policy is not only unmentioned, it is irrelevant. What is at stake in an era of shortening attentions spans and entrenching partisanships is what a candidate ‘means’ to the individual – not necessarily what they do, or intend, but what abstraction they represent.
Precious little of the facile public discourse was devoted to, say, Trump’s plan for a childcare rebate, or Clinton’s desire to launch a nationwide autism screening programme. This would pit policy against policy, and that is not quiet as easy to present as an idealogical duel.
Politics is reduced to competing slogans: ‘Stronger Together’ vs ‘Make America Great Again’.
Notional togetherness undoubtedly appealed to the millennial contingent, and promises of some halcyon state certainly made the elders pine. These slogans, like their advocates, were no more than shallow symbolism, a banner for either side of a simplistic opposition. Rather than a pragmatic analysis of potential legislation, the election was distilled down to two combustible elements, two nebulousness essences of voter impulse and emotion.
Trump’s inarticulate, abrasive rambles have managed to resonate with the electorate, and despite the horror they provoked, this is nothing new.
Considerer this from Aristotle’s The Constitution of the Athenians:
‘…the man who, with his attacks, corrupted the Athenians more than anyone else. Although other speakers behaved decently, Cleon was the first to shout during a speech in the Assembly, use abusive language while addressing the people, and hitch up his skirts’
Change the location, replace the name, disregard the skirts – and where do we find ourselves?
The ferocious success of President Elect Donald Trump has profoundly rattled the political establishment in the USA. He, like old Cleon, mobilised the masses against the perceived failures of a stagnant status quo. Clinton and her campaign machine easily fit the role of the Athenian aristocracy that the rabble-rouser railed against .
Trump’s rhetoric reached into aggrieved households across the nation, resonating with the economically disenfranchised. His bilious addresses, so much like his Athenian counterpart, were thick with populist proclamations which were distasteful to his patrician opponents. They even share a high regard for defensive structures.
Trump is to some a saviour from the failures of the elite. Clinton was to some the saviour from the ill intent of an ignorant populous and their ghastly demagogue.
At least in Cleon’s time each vote was for one issue only. Today, it is the paper-thin, largely undefined creed attached to each candidate to which votes are offered.
Exploiting this idealogical aura, as Trump has and Clinton attempted, only works when such basic battle lines are drawn in the first place, when there is a duality to represent.
Consider an ungallant episode in US political history.
In 1856 – nasty politics existed before Trump – Senator Charles Sumner, an abolitionist, was savagely beaten by the cane-wielding Representative Preston Brooks, an advocate of slavery.
The opposition between these men was formed not only from their disagreement about slavery – a matter of policy, perhaps the matter – but when they were respectively lionised for their positions, a dichotomy of culture.
It became an issue of North against South, metropolitan against rural, old against new. By such definitions was a nation divided.
And by such abstract characterisations does the nation willingly divide itself now, cast in whatever roles are most appropriate to each voter’s hatreds and self-regard. Red against blue, togetherness against greatness, man against woman – fascist against anti-fascist.
The fervour of the nationwide protests against Trump would seem to indicate more than a simple disagreement over some practical intricacy of governance, but rage in response to the dissenters’ threatened identity in a cultural duel – they feel by this measurement they have lost a seemingly spiritual battle, perhaps because no substantial political metric was laid out.
What was contested, in light of the lack of firm policy, was for some a kind of unreasoned Manichaean combat, with every ideological notion, the disparate hopes of millions, being permitted to join the fray. There is perhaps this similarity at least with the UK’s vote to leave the European Union.
Nothing is new in this election, other than perhaps the depths of shallowness to which the discourse has fallen, more concerned with the invisible horns and halos of candidates who no longer represent people or policies, but some happily bought-into abstraction.