I was wondering this morning how I would have reacted to the election of Hillary Clinton as President of the United States. I thought she would have made a dreadful president, but if she’d been elected I would have swallowed hard, gritted my teeth, and got on with life. It wouldn’t have been the end of the world. Not immediately, anyway.
Instead, Donald Trump got elected. The result, you’d think, was as if the Devil himself had been elected President:
Hundreds joined a Friday afternoon “love rally” in Washington Square Park in Manhattan.
Leslie Holmes, 65, a website developer from Wilton, Connecticut, took an hour-long train ride to the demonstration — her first protest since the 1970s, when she hit the streets of San Francisco to oppose the Vietnam War.
She described herself as an armchair liberal but declared, “I’m not going to be armchair anymore.”
“I don’t want to live in a country where my friends aren’t included, and my friends are fearful, and my children are going to grow up in a world that’s frightening, and my granddaughters can look forward to being excluded from jobs and politics and fulfilling their potential, so I’m here for them,” she said.
I’m more or less the same age as Leslie Holmes. I’ve also been a website developer. And if I’d lived in San Francisco in 1970 I’d most likely have been an anti-war protester. Back then I would have shared pretty much all her values. I know what they are. Peace. Love. Long hair. Pot. Music. And hours and hours of incoherent conversation.
The post-war generation has demonised everything. They demonise capitalism. And they also demonise carbon dioxide. And they demonise tobacco. And now they’ve just demonised Donald Trump. When they say he’s racist and sexist and fascist, the confection of all these adjectives adds up to one thing: the demonic.
But if I would have shared Leslie Holmes’ values 50 years ago, where did those values come from? They are the almost universal values of an entire generation, all over the world. How did that happen?
The answer, I suspect, lies in the shared experience of that generation. And the one shared experience they all had was a TV rear-view mirror view of two global wars, trench warfare, mushroom clouds, concentration camps, and gas chambers. It was an utterly hideous vision. It was the vision of a nightmarish, terrifying, demonic world inhabited by demons like Hitler and Stalin, and whole armies of lesser demons.
The post-war generation inhabited a demonic world in which the devil had taken control. They saw demons everywhere. And they still do. It’s burned into them. And they’re always finding new demons. Donald Trump is their latest new demon.
I was always rather surprised that my parents and grandparents didn’t see the world in the same way that my generation did. They had, after all, actually lived through the wars. My grandfather had arrived in the trenches of WW1 on the day the war ended. None of them seemed scarred by the experience of being bombed and blitzed and blown to pieces. Going to war seemed to have been for them not much different from going shopping. It was something that had to be done. And when it was over and done with, they got on with doing whatever needed to be done next. It was their children who were traumatised, not them.
Why was that? Why were they not traumatised, while their children were? Perhaps because, after the war, the events of it became mythologised, glamorised, fictionalised, exaggerated. The war became a war movie, rather like the old American West became glamorised and enhanced into a fictional world populated by Gary Cooper gunfighters, in which the good guys became saints, and the bad guys became demons. My parents and grandparents had lived through the reality, but we, their children, inhabited magnified fictional memories of it. In Britain one of these was the 25-part TV documentary series The Great War. At least one fictional element of this was that it was all shot in black and white, which served to dramatise it. A second fictional element was that the battles followed each other in rapid succession: this week Verdun, next week the Somme. In this manner WW1 became a non-stop barrage of bullets and bombs from start to finish, under the leadership of demonic generals who fed men into it like meat into a mincing machine.
This collective false memory is what underpins the political project of the European Union. There’s a shared wish that such terrible wars should never happen again. And the simplistic proposed solution has been to try to dissolve the warring nations of Europe into one single European state, as if French and Germans only went to war simply because they were distinct separate French and German nations, and not for any other reason. Erase the distinctions, erase the borders, and – voilà – war becomes impossible.
But the result is that we now have this new European superstate on the brink of war with a Russia that lies outside its borders, and calling for a European army to meet the supposed threat. And the open borders within the EU have allowed a huge influx of refugees from beyond its borders. The solution to one problem has caused new (and entirely foreseeable) problems.
We could all do with stopping demonising everything. Donald Trump isn’t a demon. Neither is Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. Nor is pot, or tobacco, or alcohol, or carbon dioxide. Nor are nation states. Nor are the Russians. Nor is Islam.
And nor, dare I say it, were Hitler or Stalin. We could do with movies in which Hitler and Stalin are portrayed as kindly, affable characters facing terrible choices. Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi too.
Demonising people and demonising things doesn’t help. It doesn’t provide any insight or understanding. It’s a knee-jerk reaction.