Trump is gone, after four long years. Hallelujah. The virus still thrives, more than a year on from its debut. Alack and alas. But what, if anything have we learned from these testing times? I shall venture to offer a few opinions, if I may. Shall I start with this. I watched Trump giving his inaugural speech in 2016. Had the authoritarian despots of history been gathered at the Capitol to listen in, they would have been startled at the similarity of his message to theirs. Accusations of plagiarism may have followed.
Four years later, some of those same despots will have recognised his post-election rallying cries. His scarcely concealed threats. His blatant contempt for reality. His call for insurrection. And there, thankfully, the similarities stop. At this point, well armed troops are supposed to storm the barricades on behalf of the successful tyrant. An assortment of deplorable rednecks is simply not good enough.
The USA of 2020 is not Germany of the 30s, or a host of Eastern European countries in the decades after WW2. Trump is gone. His American legacy will hopefully be cemented with his conviction in the Senate for insurrection. In the U.K., his legacy is limited to the Baby Trump blimp being put on display in the Museum of London.
Whilst Trump’s fascist tendencies and unsuitability for high office were obvious from the word go, it was easy to see why white supremacists, neo-nazis and other groups aligned to bigotry rallied to his flag. But he needed to attract a broader church. He ran a textbook populist campaign, trotting out the same old tropes, attached to convenient new ‘enemies’. It worked. I’d hear the same message from his supporters. “I know he lies, he’s a misogynist, he’s a bigot, but…”
His supporters always knew there was a but. But they just never quite grasped what the but actually was. The but was that Trump had reached out to the prejudices that existed within them, promising retribution on their behalf, appealing to their darker side, using hatred to build a coalition of deplorables that could sweep him into the White House.
I’m quite sure that many of them still don’t understand or accept that Trump turned them – at best – into apologists for fascism. Yet their big talking points, their language, their failure to acknowledge reality was always evident. On more than one occasion, I watched bloggers discuss the issues of the day and provide a script that would not look out of place in the minutes of a David Duke meeting. The same phrases. The same bigotry.
The collision between politics and pandemic follows a similar path. You need only watch the news reels from the 80s as HIV/AIDS terrorised the US to see how little has changed. It’s simply that the Chinese are now on the receiving end of abuse, rather than gays. Fauci is still demonised. And now, as then, sceptics make all sorts of wild claims that defy common sense and will read poorly in the years to come.
So what have we learned? Here is my conclusion. We don’t really learn from history at all, do we? We simply act on human impulses according to what suits us at the time. Which makes for a repetitive and painful lesson.