Imagine if Hilary, when being stalked by Trump during the second presidential debate, had said what her book says she wanted to. Imagine if she’d lost her composure, rounded on him and said: “Back up, you creep.” Imagine how many of her supporters would have thought At last. At last she showed some spunk, at last she showed a real person, not another bland political mask so polished and so hooked on polite deliberation as to come across as void of character or conviction. Imagine how many undecided voters would have gone out to vote for her.
It was not to be. And, yes, she won the popular vote. But set that to one side. My point is that this points to a central flaw in political discourse on the left: the obsession with never offending anyone. Sure, the nine Trump supporters interviewed by The Guardian will probably support him no matter what, as will these folks. But I’m not thinking of people who believe in walls, or white supremacists who think they aren’t white supremacists. I’m thinking of the maybes, those who sat on the fence, and I’m not only thinking of Trump.
Farage is no different. Forget about his policies, his hazy grasp of facts. The reason that he was able, almost single-handedly, to get Brexit through was because he had one or two core beliefs which he expressed in simple terms that resonated with the man on the street. He connected in a way that no other contemporaneous politician did – not Cameron, and certainly no one in the then Labour party. He attacked distant bureaucrats for attacking Britain’s democracy, he appealed to the concerns of a crowded island about the hoardes poised to invade. What he meant, or at least what many people wanted him to mean but believed he was unable to say it in this politically correct climate, was “kick the wogs out and keep them out.” That won the Brexit referendum.
Few on the left – few commentators and no mainstream politician – cut it this clean. There is no black and white, only ever shades of grey. On the right, there is no grey. Trump has spent the last eight months calling Clinton a “bad person” and Democrats “obstructionists.” Those memes stuck. On what occasion, during Obama’s six final years, when the Republicans voted down every single important legislative initiative, irrespective of its merits, did he label them thus? The only occasion that comes to mind is climate change, when he declared “we don’t have time to convene a meeting of the Flat Earth Society.” That was as close as it got. How many of us would have loved him to say “Stop playing politics with people’s lives and do your fucking jobs.” And ultimately, what did his decency get him? Certainly not a hint of cooperation from the GOP.
So shouldn’t Hilary have let rip?
The problem with a black and white judgement is that it’s a blunt weapon. Once we’ve categorized a person or a group of people as “bad,” “a creep,” or whatever, it’s very difficult to retreat from that label. There’s a loss of face, a serious reconsideration. Disagreeing with someone’s policies is one thing – we can agree to disagree or inch closer to agreement – but a creep is a creep and that’s that. (The converse is not true – Trump had no problem backing down from his pre-candidacy praise of Hilary.)
So labeling political opponents in moral terms makes it all the more difficult to move on. And moving on is what polities have to do to remain polities. Neither the US nor Britain are moving on: while Trump has passed far more Executweet Orders than any preceding president in the same period, and while his administration has simply chosen to ignore its constitutional duty and instructed bureaucrats to ignore inconvenient laws, the battleground he’s created is such that no legislative achievement looks possible. The Tin Lady, May, who has to live with Farage’s legacy, does not seem to be taking positive steps to come up with a Brexit that a majority of Britons can live with. Rather, she seems stuck in a self-reifying fantasy that she can have her cake and eat it – with a hard crash-out Brexit as the only realistically possible outcome.
But in Hilary’s case, it was different. While Democrats dislike Trump, Republicans despise him. “Back up, you creep!” would have done her no harm and much good: had Trump lost, he would have been consigned to history’s dustbin, and most Republicans would have applauded her forthrightness. As it was, her failure to blast Trump came across not as composure under fire, but weakness. That cost her dear.