The Four Seasons Total Landscaping parking lot is as low as history might ever have to go

It was, in the end, a clear and irrefutable victory – but now is the moment to reflect on how we came to arrive in these chaotic times 

Tom Peck
Tuesday 10 November 2020 17:33 GMT
Rudy Giuliani questions legitimacy of Joe Biden election win

There is always a moment when the game is up. When the writing appears on the palace wall, when the forest ups and moves, when the wobbling hand of history reaches for the corner of its spectacles and orders everyone out of the bunker but Keitel, Jodl, Krebs and Burgdorf.

Or, you know, the moment when the furious tweets are all suddenly self-redacting. And when the last lies you’ve got are evaporating under the winter sun in the car park of an out-of-town garden centre, sandwiched between a sex shop and a crematorium. When their vaporous shapes have left not a mark on the backs of the crowd that only came to laugh and has already walked away.

These are the days when all hands grab at the arc of history. Already we are told that it didn’t bend far enough, or that it bent backwards, or that it now waits, loaded with deadly elastic potential, ready to snap back and dance again to the YMCA.

But what cannot be debated is that wherever it goes, whatever path it weaves through the fickle vagaries of human hope and ambition, it left its skidmarks there, on the cold asphalt between dildos and death.

The grand narratives are always futile. It’s been pointed out that Barry Goldwater’s loss in 1964 came to mark the beginning, not the end, of the brand of reborn American conservatism he stood for. But the less distant example might be the bare fact that the bright young senator from Illinois who promised the 2008 New Hampshire primaries that “this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal”, would be standing on the steps of the White House eight years later, peacefully transferring power to an out-and-out climate change denier.

In the middle of Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, there were long hours when the best that might be hoped for was that America would repudiate Trumpism only via the split electoral college votes of the Nebraska congressional districts, which would be no repudiation at all.

But that is not what came to pass. It was, in the end, a clear and irrefutable victory, cast into doubt only by America’s Eric Morecambe-esque approach to the democratic process. It counted all its votes, in the end, just not necessarily in the right order.

It is especially hard to say if this is the moment that any kind of lasting change has come, not least as it has already confirmed to everybody what they already knew. Many a liberal is determined to point out that 70 million people – seventy million – still voted for a racist and a misogynist and all the rest of it.

Which they did, but democracy is a blunt instrument, and never blunter than a US presidential election. It is a burger bar with two items on the menu. No changes or substitutions are allowed. You don’t get to order the Trump burger without the authoritarian pickles or the big red racist tomato. At the end, you get a result, but you also get a grand all-you-can-eat buffet of meanings, at which everyone will devour whatever they choose to find.

Some point out that this is a warning shot. That America’s next demagogue will be less oafish, less ridiculous. That the pitch has been rolled for a real menace, unchecked by their own absurdity.

Others are certain that the slender margin of victory is because the old white guy from Scranton, Pennsylvania, who won back all the other old white guys from all the other Scranton, Pennsylvanias, wasn’t radical enough. That, actually, it is AOC and the squad that are keeping out fascism – and they could have done it better on their own.

And then there are the centrists, the moderates, for whom all this is a long overdue return to sanity, a clear and certain reminder that nothing has changed, that the old truths remain the same. That in a democracy there is no route to change other than through the people, who are never as radical as you’d like them to be.

Jim Clyburn, the 80-year-old African American congressman from South Carolina has already said that the “defund the police” slogan, that the Democrats’ opponents slapped across his party via the Black Lives Matter movement, did them immense harm.

There are lessons for the UK, too, of course. When, during the Labour leadership election, Lisa Nandy and others ended up wrapped in impossible knots over the issue of trans rights, Tony Blair popped up, perhaps unhelpfully, to explain that these were questions of political strategy. He hadn’t, for example, repealed Section 28 by putting it front and centre of his election campaign. He’d campaigned on schools and hospitals and won the votes of millions of people who, if you asked them, were probably actually in favour of the ban on the discussion of homosexuality in schools.

They had it repealed on them, by the government they voted for, effectively against their will. That is what radical centrism is. It is still the best and only means of change that progressives have ever come up with.

Nothing, in other words, has changed. Now, just as then, progressives must confine their radicalism to the pickles and the dressings, not the burger itself, however tough that might be to swallow.

Quite possibly, the greatest source of hope came not from anything a single politician had to say, but rather what they were finally not allowed to. If the lesson to be learned in 2020 is that the old lessons must be relearned, that they are as true as they have always been, it’s reasonable to ask how we came to arrive in these chaotic times.

The answer is a boring one, but it is nevertheless correct. Social media changed everything. Without it, it is frankly impossible to believe that, four years ago, Barack Obama would have spent his final day in the White House shaking hands and welcoming in the guy who had spent much of the last four years spreading absurd, outrageous lies about his birth certificate.

If, back then, Twitter had found a way to redirect the consumers of lies toward something slightly more resemblant of the truth, the mess in which we find ourselves might not be quite so profound. Donald Trump’s stream of social media lies should have been corrected long years before the final days of his presidency, but it’s a start. 

Fact is reasserting itself on fiction. It’s possible, distinctly possible, that the scenes in the Four Seasons Total Landscaping parking lot might just be as low as we ever have to go.

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