On election night last Tuesday, I was in New York. I watched Trump’s victory speech in a Sky News studio where I’d been offering some occasional undigested thoughts. A little later, when I emerged into Time Square in a dank pre-dawn hour, drunk Trump supporters were chanting “lock her up” and “build the wall”. One group were joking (I think it was a joke) that now it would be legal to “grab pussy”.
Earlier that day, I’d been outside Trump tower, where I’d spoken with an African American Trump supporter who’d told me that he just wanted a president who would “bring the jobs back.”How was he going to do that, I asked? “By sending back the illegals.”
In Manhattan, where Clinton received more than 8 out of 10 votes, the anger of Trump-world appeared like the incursions of invading bands of rebels who had somehow broken through the city gates. Mutual incomprehension. Latent violence. Extraordinary frustration. This didn’t feel like a normal election.
When I got back to the apartment on the Upper West Side where I was staying with friends, I wrote a piece for BBC History in which I offered some instant reaction and possible historical precedents, and a day later, in a facebook post, I offered what I called some “crumbs of comfort” (meagre ones, but I think meaningful).
It didn’t feel like a normal election at street level in New York on election night because it wasn’t one. There have been presidents before who have been sexual predators and inexperienced charlatans but none who have been so cavalier about the Constitution. None who have pledged to ban an entire world religion from entering the United States. None who have been so openly aided by Russian secret intelligence.
I have no idea what will happen next, but the events of 2016 feel to me like the start of something not the end. Or maybe the start of the end of something.
My fellow PhD students and I in the 90s liked to think that we were too wise to fall for the “End of History” conceit. I have always tried to write about history with an intense awareness of the moments when things go awry, and of the gap between what historical actors expect to happen and what does. I’m constitutionally sceptical of grand theories of historical change and grew up smiling knowingly at the devastatingly witty take-down of the Whig view of inexorable progress (at least until America became Top Nation and history came to a full stop) in 1066 And All That.
And yet… my generation grew up in the afterglow of the end of the Cold War. Autocracy seemed as if it was on the retreat. Inexorably so. We have seen in our adult lives the rights of some minorities, especially gay people, massively advanced in both a legal and cultural sense. We chaffed against the centralisation and authoritarianism of the New Labour years, but we assumed that the cosmopolitanism that accompanied it was the new normal. I now think that the historically abnormal levels of relative prosperity and openness I’ve experienced in my life have been more influential in my historical thinking than I’ve previously admitted to myself. There is no reason why liberal values will continue to predominate in the West, insofar as they still do.
I say this not because I believe that the supporters of Trump World who I talked with last week are really the Barbarians at the gates — or at least, not all of them. I think that Trumpism, like Brexit-ism is, in part–if only in part–an unsurprising cry of frustration about declining social solidarity, and increasing economic precariousness. It is the disgrace of the progressive left that it has been so preoccupied with identity politics (important though that has been) and the accompanying solipsism of “virtue signalling” that it has alienated the very people who it once liked to imagine it represented.
But although I can rationalise the rise of Trump World, and can comprehend the alienation of people drawn to it, I am nonetheless struck by the importance of holding on to norms of free speech and protections for minorities that may now be thrown out in the name of addressing grievances, however justified (some of them) may be.
To me, the election of Donald Trump was not so surprising in itself — shocking as it is given the company he keeps and the profoundly illiberal things he’s said. But all authoritarians are enabled by people who ‘give them the benefit of the doubt’ and trust in institutional constraint until it’s too late. This feels like a pivotal moment in US and therefore in world history. It may not be — it may be just a zig or a zag in the progressive road (as President Obama put it in a speech the morning after the election). But I’m more conscious of the terrible contingency of circumstance than ever before.
[A slightly different version of this piece appeared in the January 2017 issue of BBC World Histories Magazine]