The long shadow of Trumpism

Trump 2016

On the eve of the 2020 US presidential election, the most significant in my lifetime, there seems to be a glaring absence in the narrative.

This is, we’re constantly told, a pivotal battle for the soul of America – a fork in the road with two possible paths, one towards continued democracy, the other towards accelerating authoritarianism.

The characters in this morality play are clearly drawn. Joe Biden gives a consistently solid if unspectacular performance as the personification of decency – a man whose own personal losses have burnished his empathy and concern for others.

On the other side is Donald Trump, a man whose narcissism is so absurd, his misogyny so vile, his racism so sickening, his utter absence of empathy so monstrous, that he appears from most angles to have more in common with cartoon villains than with real, living and breathing humans.

History books will tell extraordinary stories about the Mad President for centuries to come, and future Americans will struggle to believe that the country succumbed to Trump’s tawdry demagoguery, his vulgar autocratic outbursts.

The personality of a Trumpist

But for all the stories we are being told, I find it curious that we don’t really get a picture of what that succumbing actually looks like. Who, really, has fallen for Trump?

What the story of this election seems to elide is the personality of the people who are drawn to him – the Trump supporters of every stripe, from the devoted Trump cultist to the more casual Trump voter. The narrative seems to be shirking this important aspect of the story.

Of course, we’ve had years of vaguely condescending journalistic expeditions into Trump’s supposed heartland, interviewing those mythologised white working class voters, unpacking their “economic anxiety” and growing disillusionment with the elusive American Dream. The entire genre basically serves to justify their grievance as a reaction to their withering economic prospects in a globalised economy.

But very few of these portraits acknowledge the GOP-like elephant in the room – Trump followers are to be found across every socio-economic group in every county, town and city across the country.

A toxic combination

No, what defines Trump supporters is not their “economic anxiety”, but something altogether baser, more crude and more universal – Trump supporters, let’s be blunt, overwhelmingly possess some combination of ignorance, bigotry or cruelty.

It’s understandable that the US media isn’t in a hurry to describe millions of Trump supporters in such uncompromising terms, and it’s pretty uncomfortable for me to write those words. But at this point, this far into the Trump era, it’s important to face the full reality of America’s predicament.

Of course, Trump himself exudes all those qualities – he is a bilious, raging mix of ignorance, bigotry and cruelty, and he’s not remotely ashamed by any of it.

The ignorance is evident in the easy dismissal of facts and science. The bigotry is evident in the systematic mistreatment of minorities and immigrants. The cruelty is evident in the vitriolic, often violent discourse and intentionally callous policies.

Endorsing ignorance

To vote for Donald Trump, then, to support Trump against the avuncular Biden, is to endorse these toxic characteristics.

But I believe it goes further than mere endorsement – the evident pride Trump takes in his ignorance, bigotry and cruelty at some level gives his devoted followers a permission structure in which they can revel in their own ignorance, bigotry and cruelty.

Impulses that Trump supporters have long been made to feel guilty for are suddenly something to be celebrated – “owning the libs” is a way of punching back against those cultural and societal forces that have made them feel shame. Trump’s shamelessness feels contagious, and empowering.

Grievance and ressentiment

The psychological concept of “ressentiment”, popularised by Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, is an important one to understand in this context – as Wikipedia summarises it, “ressentiment is a sense of hostility directed toward an object that one identifies as the cause of one’s frustration”. Sounds familiar.

There’s been a lot of fascinating work done on the rise of polarisation in the US, and it’s undoubtedly a complex political reality with many overlapping causes, but it does seem that half the US electorate is animated by ressentiment directed at the other half. My sense is that a large number of them have spent decades feeling subconsciously inferior to the liberals and progressives — perfect conditions for Trump to ignite a raging inferno of ressentiment.

Thus we witness a widespread disdain towards expertise and education (a challenge to ignorance), a reflexive opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement (a challenge to bigotry), an irate fixation on “political correctness” (a mode of discourse that challenges casual cruelty), and so on.

The “coastal elites”, in particular in the form of the Democrats, represent the source of their shame, and Trump represents their liberation from it. No wonder they love him so much.

Universal qualities

This combination of toxic characteristics cuts across his range of supporters. They are not all ignorant, one could argue, but they don’t see ignorance as disqualifying. They are not all bigoted, perhaps, but they evidently don’t feel bigotry is unacceptable in their leaders. They are not all cruel in their own behaviour, necessarily, but they all accept cruelty as a political tool.

Ultimately, these personality traits are of a type with the authoritarian mindset – the tendency to be submissive to in-group authority figures and hostile to out-group non-adherents. Broadly, civilisation and democracy work to dampen the influence of ignorance, bigotry and cruelty, whereas authoritarianism springs from those qualities, and depends on them to spread.

It hardly needs saying that ignorant, bigoted and cruel people are not unique to Trump supporters in the USA – such people exist in great numbers everywhere, unfortunately.

Ignorance, bigotry and cruelty are not intrinsic to conservatism – but the global drift of the right in that direction, from Bolsonaro to Johnson, from Erdogan to Orban, is too consistent to be dismissed as an unfortunate coincidence. They are also evident in elements on the left, of course, but they are certainly not defining traits of the mainstream political or cultural left.

The ignorance within

Indeed, we must acknowledge that these traits exist in all of us, to some extent. Hopefully, for most of us, most of the time, the angels of our better nature suppress those instincts.

But large numbers of people either can’t or don’t want to make that effort – they want to revel in their ignorance, bigotry and cruelty, and they resent social pressure to do otherwise.

How many such people can a healthy society accommodate? What toxic concentration in a population is too toxic for that society to endure? What happens when knowledge, tolerance and kindness is overwhelmed?

I’m afraid we’re about to find out – maybe not on election day, but over the coming months and years, I fear we will discover what percentage of ignorance, bigotry and cruelty in a country is too high a concentration for the centre to hold.

A tale of three referendums

20190630Pride2019WideTo what degree can referendums not just measure the national character, but shape it?

That was the question I was asking myself as I attended Dublin’s Pride Parade yesterday, because one thing was wonderfully obvious – Ireland is a very changed country from the one I grew up in. The streets of the capital were emblazoned with rainbows, and people everywhere were revelling in the sheer joy that Pride represents.

It was a display of collective exuberance that is profoundly moving once you stop to think about it all for a moment. In terms of the scale and reach across the city, it felt second only to St Patrick’s Day, which is quite remarkable. One is a national holiday ostensibly marking the man who brought Christianity to the island, while the other has become a jubilant celebration of who we actually are now we have chosen to define ourselves outside that religiosity – above all, a resounding expression of how open-minded and inclusive and multicultural we have become.

How we went from the Ireland of just a few decades ago – institutionally and culturally homophobic, basically – to the Pride-embracing Ireland of today is obviously bound up with a whole host of social and economic changes we have undergone.

But the central importance of the 2015 marriage equality referendum in that progress cannot be underestimated. It’s not as if Ireland was some LGBT+ Eden before that referendum changed the course of modern Irish society. We were becoming rapidly more tolerant, for sure, but even a few years ago, seeing two men hold hands on the street was still relatively rare. How did the change happen so fast?

Referendums in action

Both the 2015 marriage referendum and the 2018 referendum on reproductive rights put hugely important questions to the Irish people to vote on.

But referendums like that also ask larger questions about who we are as people, and the results go beyond determining whether people can marry who they want or whether women have autonomy over their reproductive rights. (Putting the rights of a minority to a public vote is probably not the wisest course of action, in the ideal course of things, but that’s another matter.)

The results of those two referendums gave us a clear and incontrovertible picture of our national character, and the clarity of that portrait was so resounding that it has dramatically altered our sense of self. We know beyond doubt that for all our myriad imperfections, ultimately we are open-minded, empathetic, inclusive and tolerant. Dublin Pride 2019 was a beautiful manifestation of that.

More importantly, those referendums also served to catalyse change and reshape our sense of self. A referendum and the discourse it requires is an opportunity for national self-examination, sure, but in the process it becomes an opportunity for national change.

Brexit reflections

Of course, it’s impossible to wonder about how a referendum could inspire such change without thinking of our poor neighbours and the Brexit calamity. After all, the UK’s experiment with direct democracy via a referendum on membership of the EU also served not just to measure public opinion, but to reshape the entire polity.

Unfortunately, rather than acting as a catalyst for open-mindedness and inclusivity, Brexit has delivered the exact opposite, fomenting a very ugly post-referendum discourse that is marked by close-mindedness, intolerance, bigotry and exclusion. For all the UK’s myriad imperfections, those were not remotely the qualities that used to define British public life before 2016.

It’s always important to remember that the UK’s position in the EU was not actually that central a question in the British national discourse before David Cameron made his ill-fated decision to put it to the people. It was a central part of the Conservative party’s internal discourse, of course, but not really a live topic for most of the rest of the country.

Now, however, the country has been riven by Brexit, with EU membership elevated to become the nation’s dividing issue, a matter of fierce tribal identity, with two polarised camps moving further and further away from each other.

Perhaps another question on a different topic altogether would have had a positive catalysing effect on British society, though I suspect what we are currently witnessing is the result of a fundamental inability of British society to conduct an honest and critical self-examination, which is a crucial part of the referendum process.

Brexit has revealed a rather astonishing level of mass national irresponsibility. Cake-ism, as it has become known, has become the British national disease – wanting all the benefits with none of the responsibility. The benefits of EU membership come with responsibilities; the benefits of holding a referendum on issues of national importance also come with responsiblities. The UK’s institutions seemingly decided it didn’t like the look of any of those responsibilities – the news media shirked its responsibility to conduct a rigorous, informative national debate, while both sides of the political class shirked their responsibility to deal honestly with the issue, preferring to indulge in dangerous scaremongering in order to win. The grave responsibilities relating to peace in Northern Ireland were so marginalised as to be practically invisible.

Moments of realignment

Our recent referendums forced us to reckon with who we really are and who we wanted to be – and in the process, we seized the opportunity to become a dramatically better version of ourselves.

Brexit, unfortunately, has had quite the opposite effect – British society proved incapable of such a reckoning, and in the process risks becoming a dramatically diminished version of itself.

Societal change does not happen at an even, predictable pace, but instead accelerates at those moments when events conspire to cause a realignment.

It is sobering to compare how these referendums led to two starkly different realignments. In the UK’s case, it has led to a fissure, and I worry how deep and damaging that fissure will prove to be.

Here in Ireland, the realignment was palpable on the streets yesterday. Dublin’s Pride Parade began as a vital protest for LGBT+ rights, and evolved into a celebration of those rights gradually being realised. Rather beautifully, Dublin Pride now also functions in some small way as a celebration of our own national moment of self-reflection and self-renewal.


Mourning our daughter, as Ireland votes

We have been so moved by the outpouring of support and kindness in response to this piece my partner Aoife and I had published in the New York Times yesterday. It describes our experience of facing the cruelty of the 8th Amendment and laws against abortion after receiving a heartbreaking diagnosis. 

We are so touched by the thought of so many people reading our daughter Cara’s story, so proud to think she might inspire and help others. 

Our story is intensely personal, of course, and everyone’s experience will be unique. But it’s so telling how many people are getting in touch to tell us their own stories of loss and grief, and how many felt they weren’t able to discuss it before now. That is the power of taboo – we feel the discomfort of others in the face of our grief, and know at some level that it is not accepted. Now, seeing our words, other parents who have suffered a similar loss feel a permission to share their stories with us. It’s an immense honour to hear their stories. 

Please read the full article here

Heartbroken by our daughter’s diagnosis, we contacted a hospital in England and began making arrangements. We felt an acute anger that we had to plan a surreptitious trip, that we had to leave behind our caring doctors and midwives. The sense of enforced furtiveness was degrading, a result of the shame that surrounds the journey. When we were at our most vulnerable, having to make these plans was an added torture.

As the day of our departure approached, one of us, Aoife, suffered an intense panic. The prospect of the procedure was daunting enough; the prospect of checking onto a plane, booking accommodations, all of it, was just too much to bear. We didn’t make the journey. We couldn’t.

Instead, we gave Cara her name — in the Irish language, it means “friend” — and decided to embrace the time we had with her. For nearly two months, between getting the diagnosis and her death, we got to see our daughter grow in weekly ultrasound scans, we got to hear her heartbeat, we got to see her move. We made memories. We became a family.

We decided not to go to England, and it was the right choice for us. We are grateful for the time we had with Cara, and we are proud to be her parents. But it isn’t the right choice for everyone in that situation — other parents, acting out of a sincere love and concern for their child, might make a very different decision.

Our heartbreaking experience taught us that such a decision should never be shrouded in shame and stigma. This referendum is a chance for everyone in Ireland to leave such shame and stigma behind. We have, instead, the opportunity to replace them with trust and real empathy.


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