Isn’t our revulsion at Trump’s victory partly abhorrence at those aspects of ourselves which make us most ashamed and uncomfortable? Sometimes recently I’ve heard an echo of Trump’s worldview and temperament in my own thinking: a moment of selfishness, resentment or arrogance. In my own way I can be brutto, sporco or cattivo. Watching the classic Ettore Scola film of that name the other night made me reflect on how, as a relatively privileged Western man, my habits and desires can occasionally echo those of the protagonist: a father of ten who abuses and beats his own family, driven by his desire to protect the million lira he keeps hidden away and spends only on his own venal gratification. Perhaps our whole civilisation is, in ways far more subtle and difficult to detect, based on our fear that Others will take away all that we have. People who support the contemporary political counterparts of Scola’s monstrous character praise their ‘honesty’, as though they were simply ripping away the facade of civilisation and revealing (and reveling in) the brutal struggle for survival and domination that lies beneath. Isn’t there a little bit of Trump in our admiration of Richard Dawkins, who preaches that the world is the way it is not because of some celestial injustice or cosmological imbalance that vulnerable and flawed human beings can strive to redeem, but merely because of certain material logics that those disadvantaged by history must just learn to bow down to without the stupid consolations of the past? In this sense maybe Slavoj Zizek has a point in arguing that a Clinton victory would have let us off the hook, enabling us to persist with our insane rituals of over-consumption in the belief that the world that produces our privilege while also manufacturing others’ (and our) misery is any way natural, desirable or sustainable? We ‘know’ that it cannot, but we know with greater certainty that we can neither contain nor control ourselves. A Hillary Clinton view of the universe is a comforting one, in which we are the good guys, the humanitarians. (Ted Talks, the neoliberal equivalent of Mao’s Little Red Book, teach us that all will be well if we just have faith in technology and the market.) But ours is not just the civilisation of Leonard Cohen; it is also that of Donald Trump, and while it is comforting to watch ‘Schindler’s List’ and ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ and imagine ourselves in the skin of the victims, we know that our own history does not redeem us of blame – we know this because we are still enjoying its spoils. When evil becomes normal it takes exceptional bravery to continue to stand up for what is good, and we are flattering ourselves beyond the limits of reason that we will be able to do so when the crunch comes.
It is beholden upon us (me) to face up to our (my) responsibilities. Do I do this myself at present? No. Does my job contribute to helping address the problems I claim to care about? It could, but it doesn’t at present. Would changing my habits of consumption will be a sufficiently meaningful way of doing my duty to my fellow creatures and the planet? Except for the challenge of becoming vegetarian and endeavouring to fly less, I can’t pretend that it would. Some people close to me are fortunate, talented and/or brave enough to work professionally in jobs that can help to narrow or bridge the chasm of inequality that is – we know this – at the heart of the world’s problems, or at least to help rescue those who are scrambling up its sides or who lie broken at the bottom. Others make staggering sacrifices of time, energy and personal safety. What the Trump victory confirms to me is that I have to become meaningfully politically and socially engaged in specific projects which alleviate suffering and challenging inequality, whether in their local or global manifestations. I can no longer pretend to myself that ranting online is any sort of meaningful replacement for such activity. Complaining about others’ passivity and collusion is dishonest and selfish. Focussing on the failings of others is what Donald Trump does. I (we) have to do and be better than that.