An anti-travel ban protester in London (Photo: Oscar Webb)
The rise of Donald Trump has made for some very strange bedfellows. In the UK, both press and political nerds have been thrilled by the emergence of Woke John Bercow, after the Speaker of the House of Commons declared his intention to refuse Trump an invitation to address both Lords and Commons in Westminster Hall. Left-wing Guardian columnist and organiser of Stop Trump protests, Owen Jones – who might be expected to share little in common with Bercow's politics – declared him a hero, "speaking for Britain".
For Bercow this is the summation of a long march away from the right-wing politics of his youth (as a member of the hard-right Monday Club) and toward an embrace of the kind of liberal Toryism which has vanishingly little purchase at the top of the current Conservative Party. There is no question his disgust for Trump is real, and shared by the vast majority of MPs, just as there's no question that Bercow has an eye for the spotlight and a knack for grabbing attention. (A Westminster Hall address was far from certain, anyway.) He was also simply doing his job: representing the sentiment and interest of MPs, and asserting parliamentary sovereignty.
One might feel troubled by an odour of hypocrisy here. For all the fine words about Parliament's commitment to the rights of women and minorities, throw a rock blindfolded in the chamber and you'd have a good chance of hitting some oozing reactionary with views last updated in the 1930s: Nick Soames, who recently barked at a female MP; men's rights fruitcake Philip Davies; even the Prime Minister, who distinguished herself in her last post by sending vans emblazoned with "Go Home" messages onto the streets and hymning the new "hostile environment" for migrants. Nor has Parliament as an institution distinguished itself with virtue in the rulers it welcomes: as the hardy band of Trumpophiles on the Tory benches ask, what is so abominable about the President, given the rabble of bloodthirsty potentates and corrupt princelings we routinely welcome?
"Are all of us who object to Trump on the same side?"
The question is an uncomfortable one, especially for anyone who entertains any illusions about Parliament's innocence. After Brexit, calls to abandon any pretence at propriety and snuggle up to the world's least salubrious leaders will resound, especially if we chase their cash for Britain's transformation into a sunless North Atlantic tax haven. In such a "realist", transactional view of politics, values-driven objections are less important than the sheer exercise of power and what those who have it can do for us. Beyond those cold-blooded few who can see the world exclusively in those calculating terms, we might ask: are all of us who object to Trump therefore on the same side?
The opposition to Trump spans vast ideological and political chasms. There are those, like me, on the farther reaches of the left, who see Trump primarily in terms of the rise of an unholy alliance of the conservative right, a merry band of corporate deregulators and profiteers, with a disgorging seam of crypto-fascists and hard racists reinventing themselves for the internet age as the "alt-right". They prey on the resentment, exclusion and atomisation of the old working class, while promising to salve their wounds and restore a decaying golden age. In this, they are not so distinct from the wave of new right and nativist parties springing up across Europe. They are signs of a transformation in the political world order, which was served notice with the crisis of 2008 and is now beginning to crack up.
But there is also a more liberal objection to Trump, which remains agnostic on the questions of economy and politics which produced him, and focuses more on his procedural outrages and crassness, his disregard for democratic procedure and inclination to dictator-like "decisionism". The most cherished hope of such anti-Trumpists is that they can somehow roll this crass booby out of office, roll back to a time before Trump, before the crisis, before his voters exercised their vote, stick a plaster on the world and go back to how things used to be. Trump is a disaster, but he is not a disaster merely because of his disregard for democratic procedure – as if his bans and walls would be better if only they had been brought through proper channels.
WATCH: Speaking to protesters at the London anti-Trump demonstration.
Between these two positions are the vast majority of people who are attracted to the Stop Trump protests, who carry home-made placards, often with a slightly ironic, slightly desperate joke slogans. Unlike many, I feel a kind of tenderness for these slogans – far better than the SWP's astroturf signage, anyway – as they feel to me like a hesitant and halting use of long-dormant muscles, an uncertain public searching for a voice. Many on those protests will feel something of both positions: that something large and dangerous is happening, that something old and important is slipping away, that old certainties are beginning to crack. To sneer at that realisation – to castigate belated awareness of our political situation – is to cut off any potential development of these protests at their beginning.
The Stop Trump protests aren't where we might want them to be: in their focus on an illegitimate foreign leader they risk turning our attentions solely to the US, when the same sentiments about migrants take hold in Number 10 and the UK border regime further intensifies. And making this connection between Trump's Muslim Ban and the direction of our government is essential. Such connection-making is the bread-and-butter of left-wing writers and activists, but more difficult is answering the fears of people who sense that the political order that has underwritten their world – the norms of liberal democracy – is slipping. This may involve telling some home truths about the democracy espoused by Bercow and co – its ease with rights violations, its habit of transforming temporary powers into permanent exceptions, its history of corruption and imperfection. But that alone is not enough to answer fear. Answering those fears – and this is a project which can reach Trump voters as much as protesters – requires articulating a vision of new institutions capable of transforming the decay of the old order.
At root, the problem with Bercow and those latching on to anti-Trump sentiments is not hypocrisy. Hannah Arendt, the thinker of totalitarianism who has had something of an intellectual revival since the Trump's accession – and who I normally find somewhat questionable – was right when she wrote against the tendency to see the heart as the source of political virtue, and the danger of placing the impulse to root out hypocrisy at the centre of one's politics. The problem is not that they are hypocrites, nor will we win merely by eradicating hypocrisy from ourselves and exhorting others to do the same. The problem is that they are advocates of a sterile politics, long retreated from the people, in love with the trappings of democracy while its corpse moulders beneath them. The only way out is through the chaos, and a reckoning with the political order that brought us here.