I don’t like Donald Trump. I think his executive order barring travel from certain countries is rash and illiberal. And yet I cannot get behind the hyperbolic, Holocaust-citing protests against him. I cannot line up with the idea that he’s a uniquely bad president, possibly the worst ever; that he’s an ‘aberration’, ‘abnormal’, someone we must never ‘normalise’. I can’t do that for the simple reason that treating Trump as abnormal implicitly normalises that which preceded him. It whitewashes history. It forgives, or dilutes, the crimes of past politicians.
The idea that Trump is different — scarily, historically different — is everywhere. ‘Don’t treat Trump as a normal president’, says a headline in the Guardian. Apparently Theresa May hasn’t ‘sufficiently absorbed that Trump is an aberration’. The New Yorker frets over the dangers of ‘welcom[ing] Trumpism into the fold of mainstream American ideas’. Celebs warn against normalising Trump because in truth he’s ‘something terrifying’. Protesters insist he’s an abnormal president, comparable only to one person in history. ‘We are history teachers and we know how this ends,’ said a placard at the Downing St demo last night, complete with images of Trump as Hitler. Pity the kids being taught by these people.
Let’s leave to one side how implicitly anti-democratic is this haughty refusal to confer legitimacy on Trump. How it demeans, not only Trump (which is fine — demean away), but also the 62 million people who voted for him. After all, what is their desire to have Trump run their republic in comparison with the insistence of the more switched-on that he isn’t fit for that job? More importantly is what this de-normalisation drive does for other politicians. It absolves them. It flatters them. It tells them that what they have done — the destabilisation of nations, the destruction of lives — was normal, at least in comparison to this. The left’s arrogant, aristocratic withholding of legitimacy from Trump by extension legitimises his predecessors, including those who did far worse things than Trump has even countenanced.
This is why some pretty unpleasant politicians have been able to rehabilitate themselves via the anti-Trump hysteria. Consider Madeleine Albright. She won heaps of Twitter praise last week when she said she might register as a Muslim in protest against Trump’s travel order. This is the same Madeleine Albright who in 1996, as Bill Clinton’s ambassador to the UN, was asked if the surplus deaths of Iraqi children following America’s imposition of sanctions was a price worth paying for weakening Saddam’s rule. Her reply? ‘I think this is a very hard choice, but the price — we think the price is worth it.’
Just think about this. Let it sink into your head. A woman who apologised for, and who was in an administration that was responsible for, great suffering among Muslims can now get brownie points for saying she will register as a Muslim. In what sort of moral universe is it considered worse to restrict the freedom of movement of the citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries than it is to participate in the near-destruction of a Muslim country? In the warped moral universe of anti-Trump hysteria. In the historically illiterate world that has been fashioned by the protesters against him, who tell us he is abnormal and therefore the rest of them are normal; that Trump is evil and therefore others, Albright, were good, or at least better.
Then there’s Hillary Clinton, who was retweeted tens of thousands of times for saying of Trump’s order: ‘This is not who we are.’ But it is who she is. This is the woman who spearheaded the bombing of Libya, helping to plunge that nation into mayhem and creating hundreds of thousands of refugees in the process. Ed Miliband spoke at the Downing St demo. He was a fulsome supporter of the bombing of Libya. The people who helped to make swathes of humanity into refugees are virtue-signalling about Trump’s tough line on refugees. The people who caused, or okayed, instability in Muslim nations are pontificating about Trump’s tough words on Muslim nations. It is morally perverse. By any objective moral measurement, Clinton and Miliband did something worse to the people of Libya than Trump has, and yet this is ignored, or overlooked, drowned in the joyous moral kick that comes from hating Trump.
This is the true danger of historical illiteracy. To describe Trump as abnormal, as a break with proper American politics, makes normal the horrors of the past, of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, of Vietnam, of McCarthyism, of Iraq, Afghanistan and all the rest. It tells us, implicitly, that all of that was normal, better even.
This is my problem with the protests: they promote emotional fury at the expense of historical thinking, and in the process they play down the sins of the past. This is really bad for younger, fresher protesters in particular. They’re encouraged to think that until now, from the war to today, between Hitler and Trump, things had been pretty much okay, or at least ‘normal’. The protests aren’t radical at all. In fact they’re a boon for the warmongers and liars in the corridors of power who spy in the ‘Trump is Hitler’ cry an opportunity to rebuild their own moral standing. The out-of-control hatred for Trump doubles up, unwittingly perhaps, as an uncritical, conformist apology for pre-Trump, for the rot that came before him. It redeems barbarism.