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The end of the abuser-in-chief

Donald Trump and the political movement he built were nothing more than petty despots. The noise in the streets is the kind people make when tyrants fall. 

 

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There are moments when you can see the screen jump as history switches to a new reel. I have never wanted to be in a newsroom more than the moment when Donald Trump shambled up to a podium on 5 November, and refused to accept the reality that was dawning like the morning after a war. He was going to lose. He was going to lose convincingly, and in public. 

A few last exhausted lies lurched out of the wreckage of his face as his world collapsed in on itself. Over the following 15 excruciating minutes, the shambling conman-in-chief theatrically abused the remaining rules of democracy, decency and basic grammar. That was nothing new. What was new was what happened next. 

One by one, cameras pulled away. NBC, MSNBC and ABC switched back to the studio and cut the mic. I would have loved to have been there. I’d love to have watched the first weary news anchor realise they didn’t have to give the howling Gordon Gekko of the attention economy any more airtime. But I did get to be there in central LA, roughly seven and a half minutes after CNN called the 2020 presidential election for Joe Biden. That’s how long it took for the car horns to start screeching. 

Seconds later, the cheering began. Soon the streets were packed as strangers started pouring out of their houses, trying very hard not to hug each other and remain socially distanced. All the tiny dogs in the neighbourhood howled. People drove up and down the main drag blaring ecstatic pop and waving “Fuck Trump" banners, with their tops off and their guard down. 

I hadn’t expected it to feel like this. Hypervigilance is a hell of a drug, but the comedown brings a certain clarity. Suddenly, nobody has to pretend that this gibbering national embarrassment is anything but an angry old man shouting at clouds. Trump’s not done yet, but nobody has to pretend he’s presidential out of fear of what he might do next. 

[see also: Why we shouldn’t be surprised that Donald Trump is trying to steal the US election]

Something is unclenching. Truth seems to matter again. We can finally admit, now, that Trump and the political movement he built were nothing more than petty despots, and the noise in the streets is the kind of noise people make when tyrants fall. Activism isn't only about anger. Joy is also an act of resistance. 

This particular euphoria is familiar to anyone who has ever left an abusive relationship. When you realise that, finally, you are allowed to know what you know, when you take a look back at the horror you just survived, the first instinct is to laugh like crazy. It's an incredible feeling. Someone turned off the firehose of frail male resentment spewing out of the White House and suddenly Trump is not the God emperor anymore. We can all see the man cowering behind the curtain and he is old, weak and irrelevant.

We do not have to pay attention to that man behind the curtain anymore. We can ignore him. And that matters, just as the symbolism of the defeat matters. Because the far-right never had an argument beyond “we won”. They never had a plan for what to do after they won. Their only shtick was “you lost, go cry”. 

Meanwhile, the silent majority has spent the past four years knuckling it through our collective trauma, trying to hold things together, watching racists normalise their violence while telling us that we were the violent ones when we dared offer a shred of resistance. My usually reserved neighbours were whooping and hollering under their masks, laughing with wide eyes, their hands flung up in disbelief like people who had recently survived a firefight.

And like the end of a firefight, nobody is convinced they’ve won. Winning is not the point. Right now, it’s enough to have survived. The relief is overwhelming. I am surprised by how infectious it is. I’m surprised how possible the future feels. I’m surprised at how many of my neighbours own tambourines. I’m surprised by a lot of things.

***

Despots are like erections: spineless things that tend to deflate when nobody takes them seriously. And now we don't have to. For this reason, it is important that we continue to treat those who follow despots with exactly the amount of respect they deserve. Sure, we can be kind and compassionate. But kindness is not the same as instant forgiveness before there's even been an apology. 

Nobody owes respect to anyone who has indulged their most cowardly tendencies and demeaned both themselves and their community. Yes, millions of people have thrown in their lot with lying exuberant fascists because they're too fragile to cope with a reality where women and people of colour and queer people might matter as much as them. The modern far-right, of which Trump is absolutely a part, has weaponised its own moral weakness and waged war on reality, and there have been real casualties, and there now have to be real consequences. They built an entire movement on the basis of their refusal to handle their emotions like adults. 

Trump made it very clear that he was not going to accept defeat, but when he finally addressed journalists and attempted a coup, spines belatedly straightened in newsrooms across the nation. For four years, US institutions have contorted themselves to avoid the admission that they didn't have a president they respected. The compulsion to show that respect was understandable because to fail to do so would have been to admit the full horror of what was happening. We don't have to show respect, not that it would matter because Trump supporters don’t want our respect – only our obedience. They have made racism a social sport and cruelty a policy platform. They treat politics as a game where the winner gets to hurt the loser as much as they like, so they cannot understand that we didn’t fight this hard to hurt them. It’s not about them. It never was. 

[see also: Why Joe Biden’s US election victory matters even with a Republican senate]

Newscasters have realised, along with the rest of us, that they have permission to describe reality as it is, not as it is defined by heavily-armed bullies. We have been gaslit into believing that ethics are irrelevant and morality is meaningless. This is untrue. I am sick of having to entertain the notion that naming racism is morally equivalent to actual racism, sick of being made responsible for the feelings of those who refuse, on principle, to show empathy for anyone else. That’s a type of cultist thinking that goes far beyond Trump, the conviction that ethics can be flattened into the logic of the market, where winning is all that matters. 

That line of reasoning is pure nonsense. If you think it’s acceptable for your neighbour to be shot dead in the street and he thinks it isn’t, that is not a difference of opinion that can or should be resolved through civilised debate. Anyone who has ever been made to sit down with the school bully and shake hands and pretend to be friends knows why. Some people see empathy as a liberal delusion, and they are happy to exploit it.  

Trump’s most ardent supporters spent five years ineptly insisting that facts did not matter while insisting that their every emotional lurch be treated as a universal truth. They watched and cheered as crying children were dragged away from their parents at the Mexican border and somehow still expected their own feelings to be everyone’s political priority.

But then, why would they think any differently? White supremacists and neo-conservatives grew up in the same culture as the rest of us, being taught by example and implication that white men’s feelings are more important than anyone else’s safety. Don’t provoke them. Don’t talk back. Keep your head down and try to pretend things are normal. 

When there is no immediate prospect of escape, it can feel very dangerous to acknowledge the monster in the room. That, I am convinced, is part of the reason why so many liberals’ first instinct was to try to understand and empathise with white supremacists. It’s a trauma response. It’s how people act when they’re trapped. They try to find some way to make it all their own fault so they can feel less helpless. If we can only understand these frantic crypto-fascists, if we can only reach out our hands, if we’re kind and tolerant, they’ll somehow have a change of heart. Well, we tried that. Been there, done that, bought the bullshit. 

The truth is that Trump voters are not stupid, and they are not misunderstood. Trump and his people told us who they are: human beings with the capacity to make choices, and those choices have consequences. They are moral actors with actual agency, and we owe it to the historical record to treat them as such. People chose Trump and everything he stands for, and there are many reasons for that, but liberals can now come out of their blanket-fort of self-denial and drop their frantic attempts to identify every possible explanation for “MAGA” apart from the obvious. 

***

Liberals have a special talent for the type of magical thinking that convinces people that, if you behave with civility, civility will spontaneously occur. After a while, you get used to tensing up for the next attack. You begin to anticipate the immediate future as an interminable gauntlet of bigotry, brutality and bad news. 

But something changed this week, and you don’t have to be a fan of placeholder Joe for that to matter. For years, most Americans have spent every news cycle steeling themselves for another pointless act of random cruelty from a man and a movement for whom random cruelty was always the point. A man and a movement who weaponise their own incompetence at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives in the US alone. There are some abusers who take a particular pleasure in smashing up most of the possessions of those they have power over, just because they can. 

Trump’s presidency was a hall pass for racism and misogyny. Many of his voters were, and remain, incensed at the merest suggestion that someone might call them racist, but show no interest in becoming less racist. For a certain fanatical mindset, the entire concept of consequences for their actions is a mortal threat to be answered with violence, and for that sort of fanatic, Trump was and remains a totem. He’s the guy who got away with everything, the Teflon leader who made it through multiple lawsuits and accusations of rape and assault, who paid off porn stars and stacked the Supreme Court with conservative judges, survived impeachment and grabbed the whole superpower by the pussy because when you’re president, they let you do it, don’t they? 

That was the point, that raging narcissists should get to do whatever they want. For ethically vacant strongman governments around the world, the incompetence was the point. The fact that Trump is obviously unfit to run the country, or indeed run anything, apart from away from responsibility, was the point. Trump stood for a culture of impunity. And that’s why forgiveness cannot be assumed.

[see also: US election 2020: Donald Trump has already lost Rupert Murdoch’s support]

By noon on 7 November, the sky in LA started going all in on the effects, like a panicked spouse trying to pretend it remembered an anniversary. It started to rain for the first time since spring. There was an actual double rainbow. On Twitter, Trump bellowed his denial of the election result with the raw rage of a toddler at bedtime. This is no longer anything but embarrassing, but whoever is minding the president has given up trying to take the phone away and is, now, waiting for the grown-ups to get back. 

The air, quite literally, tastes cleaner. America’s capacity for thumping melodrama extends to the weather, and I have lived here for long enough not to kid myself the weather will be sane forever – I’m just glad it’s not trying to kill me anymore through wildfires. 

Right now, joy is allowed. Yes, there’s a lot of work to do, and yes, we are still living on a burning planet in the middle of a plague in a collapsing economy wholly captured by the inhuman interests of capital, but it’s OK to take five minutes to drink and dance and let your guard down. It’s more than OK – it’s essential. Allowing yourself to be happy is an act of defiance in a political climate that exhilarates in petty cruelty and cannot comprehend pleasure that is separate from violence. That was my excuse for sacking off work for the afternoon to stroll down Santa Monica Avenue in LA with a long coat, a wide grin, a few friends and a speaker blaring Chumbawamba (a band that never let their intellectual commitment to anarchism prevent them pumping out delicious pop hits). 

***

The world is still full of joyless cowards who are prepared to unleash violence against anyone who does not take them seriously, which of course makes them inherently ridiculous. I cannot maintain a straight face for their self-pity in the face of moral defeat. Nor am I prepared for one moment to be told who I may and may not mock, not by people whose idea of comedy is a cartoon frog in blackface.  

And of course it’s not over. Nobody thinks it is. It takes years to recover from trauma and abuse on a collective level, as it does on an individual one. The work will be the project of lifetimes and we will all have to be gentle with ourselves and each other where it counts. Personally, I am looking forward to spending the next four years holding Biden to account. But that’s the point. This is a president who can be held to account, although right now I’d settle for a president who you can at least take your eye off for five minutes while you put out the parts of the future that are still in flames. 

It’s about permission. Permission to name reality for what it is. That is a frightening prospect for that fragile cohort of white patriarchy that would rather declare war than hear itself described accurately. It cannot understand that the reason so many of us are celebrating is not because we won, but because something good happened, because we’re not in quite as much mortal peril as we used to be. Admittedly, it’s easy to say what I’m about to say when your side won, but winning isn’t everything.  

The reason the left is often bad at the election game is that many of us care about things other than winning, and that’s a feature of an empathic and democratic political paradigm, rather than a bug. Some cultural conservatives, meanwhile, can apparently neither imagine a model of human relationships which is not about dominance, nor conceive of a politics that does not have them and their emotions at the centre. 

That is sad, but it is nobody’s responsibility but their own. I’m not happy because Trump lost. I’m happy because soon I won’t have to think about him anymore. After hours of impromptu street partying, with my ears ringing from all the car horns, after we finally made it home, I scrolled through the videos of MAGA-hat wearing neckbeards, freaking out over Biden’s victory, to see if I felt anything. I only felt bored and sad, so I stopped, and went back to the flood of delirious texts from friends who suddenly feel like the future might now be full of possibility. 

The next morning I fired up Twitter, only to find a flood of faceless strangers with flag avatars screaming that people like me were poised to round them up into re-education camps. That is the silliest thing I’ve heard in an extremely silly year. I don’t know how to make it clearer that I don’t care enough about Trump voters to want to re-educate them. I have spent enough time trying to explain the concept of compassion to people who would rather destroy the world than share it. I have given enough of my life to trying to understand their ideas, and I have discovered that there are no new ideas on the far-right, only new recruits, old delusions, and a lot of small-minded people who worship power and crave attention and have discovered that hurting other people is the best way to get it. 

For years, they managed to fix things so that we all had to pay them attention, constantly, and now we get to devote our attention to more important things, like looking after each other. There has already been a lot of parsimonious talk of how much healing the US needs to do. I would respectfully suggest that the healing starts with those who have suffered the most, not those who shout the loudest. 

It will take time, and it will be hard. But right now, it feels like there might be time. The US is never going back to normal, and that’s OK. What passed for normality in the US for two centuries always came at too high a cost. The old and white and rich and mean and scared still cling to the delusion that anyone else’s happiness is an existential threat. It isn’t, but for as long as that confusion lasts, joy is an act of resistance.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article appears in the 13 November 2020 issue of the New Statesman, America after Trump