Trump’s victory sets a test for conservatives, a test they are failing with embarrassing ineptitude. They are making the oldest mistake in politics. They are carrying on as if nothing has changed.
In the early 21st century, it was easy to attack the supposed liberal left. These alleged liberals were for real censorship. The white working class was their enemy. Radical Islam was the fascism of the time, yet liberals who thought themselves anti-fascists accepted that misogyny, prejudice and hatred of individual rights were fine, as long as the haters had brown rather than white skin.
Apparently moral conservative writers joined the democratic left in tearing into such double standards. Yet in the background hung questions they should never have been allowed to duck. What does it mean to be a conservative? What are conservatives for?
Now we have, if not a new fascism, at least a new nationalist authoritarianism. But conservative politicians and the media’s claque of Tory talking heads are unable to oppose it.
Instead they have doubled down on liberal hypocrisy. Trump incites his fans to attack reporters. He wants to ‘open up’ America’s libel laws to make it easier for rich men to sue news organisations that do not treat them with enough deference. There is even talk among his supporters of a Trump presidency sending state inquisitors into universities to root out academic bias. Maybe I do not read as widely as I should. But I have not seen any of the conservatives who condemn the ‘Stepford students’ take on these threats to free speech. Censorship, it appears, is deplorable when it is enforced by their opponents but unremarkable when enacted by their friends.
The white working class, for whom they expressed such concern, appear to be as dispensable as the freedom to speak and write without punishment. Why aren’t our new tribunes of the proletariat raising their indomitable voices against Trump’s tax plans? They are nothing more than a swindle, which will see Trump’s household and all other households in the top 0.1 per cent receive a cut in their tax bills averaging $1.1 million.
Listen to Rod Liddle and Nick Cohen clashing on the ‘new normal’ in world politics
I am not going to go on about the attacks on women, Latinos and blacks — let’s just say that you cannot deplore the left’s indulgence of Islamist reaction if you don’t also condemn these. Nor will I linger on how those who make so much of their opposition to the ‘establishment’ and the ‘elite’ are falling over themselves to excuse a nepotistic and corrupt president-elect, who lets his son-in-law run his transition team and refuses to put his investments in a blind trust. I will not even give you a lecture on how a right that tells us not to get ‘hysterical’ about Trump’s support for Putin can’t go on to denounce Corbyn’s admiration for Russian gangsterism.
The point surely is that conservatives are trying to have it all ways. On the one hand, they say they support the rule of law, freedom of speech, the independence of the judiciary and the sovereignty of Parliament. On the other, they sniff the air like tomcats and sense the growing power of the radical right. Rather than deal with accusations of treachery from their own side, rather than face the discomfort of breaking from their herd, they have decided to become its fellow travellers.
George Orwell provided the clearest warning against refusing to see the darkness in your midst. He said to the left intellectuals who went along with Stalin: ‘Do remember that dishonesty and cowardice always have to be paid for. Don’t imagine that for years on end you can make yourself the bootlicking propagandist of the Soviet regime and then suddenly return to mental decency. Once a whore, always a whore.’
The same applies to the bootlicking apologists for Trump. You have to choose. Are you radical right or respectable right? For you surely can’t be both.