The New York Times had this to say:
“[Mr Trump] in office spoke more moderately in tone and words tonight than he had as the roving spellbinder of the last two years. The familiar strain of braggadocio was missing …”
That was on February 2, 1933, and they were talking about Mr Hitler, not Mr Trump. But you get my point.
Godwin’s Law is coming under serious strain these days. However, I’m not interested in comparing Donald Trump to any previous despots or demagogues; to do so is not just lazy, it’s dangerous.
Have you noticed how quickly the media keeps adjusting its dial to each fresh unimaginable reality? Trump wasn’t going to get the Republican nomination. Brexit wouldn’t happen. Trump would never be elected. Each time the impossible outcome occurs, the media rallies instantly, turning from the detailed reasoning it had been giving us for why this couldn’t happen to equally intricate analysis of why it actually did.
In Crikey alone, I’ve read in recent days confident and closely argued opinions that Trump is variously the result of racism, economic alienation or the return of class warfare. At the same time, some of the media is expressing cautious optimism that the reality of Trump might be much milder than the threat. Consider the opening line of The Guardian’s top story on Sunday: “Donald Trump appears to be backing away from several campaign promises, raising hopes that he could be more pragmatic in the White House than expected …”
You’ve probably experienced conversations like I have in recent days, the consensus view among intelligent people being that what The Guardian said is probably right: Trump’s extreme rhetoric was a show, he’ll tone it down in office, or at least the institutions of government, the sensible operatives he’ll surround himself with, will keep him in check.
All this is perfectly human, and it amplifies the danger we are already in. Like metaphorical frogs, we’re on the slow boil.
If you step back from the myopic pursuit of trying to make sense of each unanticipated shock to our system, what becomes clear is that the media’s inability to see any of these tidal waves coming is not a failure of analysis. It’s a failure of imagination.
Perception is mostly governed by experience. As black swan probability theory shows, we are mostly blindsided by unprecedented occurrences because we use the past to predict the future; and the past is actually pretty crap at doing that. The media falls into this trap constantly. It explains the present by reference to the past and assumes the future will follow suit. It routinely ignores its failure to make accurate predictions, not because it doesn’t like being wrong but because it has an obsessive need to make everything make sense.
Everything doesn’t make sense. Hitler didn’t make any sense (try reading Mein Kampf if you doubt that). Trump is literally incomprehensible. The fact is that nobody has a goddamn clue what he’s going to do.
It was impossible to predict what would happen after Hitler was appointed chancellor in 1933. He certainly didn’t know. He achieved power on a wave of raw, nativist emotion. There was no element of rationality in his popular support or in his own scheme. Guessing his next moves would have been, and was, impossible.
Insert Trump above, and no other edits are required. Again, this is not to argue that Trump is Hitler. Nobody should assume that, any more than they should assume he is Stalin or Gandhi. He might turn out like Reagan, as some editorials are already suggesting, or he could be Kim Jong Un with working nukes.
My point is that the rationalisation of Trump, whether that’s explaining his victory in historically inevitable terms or reassuring us that even textbook narcissists have a good side, is not just a waste of time. It’s positively dangerous.
Leaders like Trump cause recessions and start wars. That, if you want something from history to latch onto, is a historical fact. Trump, Brexit and other related trends throughout the world are pointing squarely at a reversal of history. Borders, against the movement of people, goods and money, are going up everywhere. Protectionism is back; trade wars and global recession are now a real likelihood. That path is a good one to take if the end point we seek is war.
I’m as shocked as anyone to think that humanity is turning back on itself. I never imagined this could be. I have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen next. Nor, truth be known, does anyone else.
As a writer, for the first time I’m now pausing slightly before choosing what to write. If I were writing in the US, I’d be genuinely worried. Don’t forget, Turkey is still a democracy, and 148 of its journalists are currently in prison. Ah, but that’s Turkey — in America or Australia, it’s unimaginable.
My point exactly. The unimaginable just happened. A cartoon villain will be president. Our media, and all of us, need urgently to stop rationalising and start imagining. History doesn’t tell us what’s going to happen; it should remind us that anything can.