I’m writing this from the heart of Trump’s America: South Carolina is as red as they come. I’m shuttling round in a little Democrat bubble but the meat eaters are everywhere and it’s frankly scary. As an English-speaking middle-aged straight white guy I blend in, but the many African Americans, Latinos and gays I’ve met are terrified. And I don’t blame them.
Rather than venting my rage, however, I thought it might be more useful to try to work out how we can find a way forward. Because the fact is that with Brexit, Trump, Putin and, no doubt, soon Le Pen, Wildeers and AFD in Germany we are faced with very real dangers.
So what can we do?
Well, one thing is to learn from history, especially the people who went through a version of this darkness before: I mean in the 1930s. In many ways, their fight was bigger, against an even more dangerous enemy. But they did, at least, have a clear ideology—communism—which helped give them structure and a clear alternative. Our problems and our answers are different, but there are some things we can learn.
I was taught by one of that generation, Margot Heinemann, and she used to talk about a popular front, a united front against fascism, both in reference to the 1930s and confronted by the new dangers of the 1980s. These are contested terms (some argue the Popular Front was a cynical ploy by Stalin to control ‘leftist deviation’) and better informed people like Jane Bernal (Margot's daughter) know much more about it than I do.
For us, however, the useful point is that we need to find a way of moving beyond the 'vanity of small differences' and find a way of working together, of thinking together, of being together. The real danger is the splits that divide us: after all, more Americans voted for Hillary Clinton than for Trump and the division between the Social Democrats and the Communists let Hitler come into power. And so today - American, British, French, German, whatever - the progressive forces have to work together. And we have to be really bold and think the unthinkable: George W Bush is our friend because he opposed Trump, Blair is our friend because he opposed Brexit. No two people are going to think the same about everything, but the enemy is all too clear in its intentions and we must stand up against him and his rampages.
And in the little world of culture we have to do the same. We need to recognise that we’re all basically on the same side and stop being so sectarian. There’s so much more that unites us than sets us apart, and the differences between classicists and the avant grade, young and middle-aged, subsidised and commercial, 'quality' and 'tat' are minute when compared with the things that are destroying our societies and destroying all the good things that have been built. Fascism, racism and intolerance is a reality and the common enemy to all of us.
We need to remember the intimate relationship between culture and politics. Walter Benjamin wrote brilliantly in the 1930s about the ‘aestheticization of politics’, which, when you think of it, is a perfect description of Donald Trump. We need to respond with the ‘politicisation of aesthetics’ and make work which responds to this poison and, in whatever way it can, helps us demystify the theatrical trick that Trump, and the rest of them, pull off to gain power and control people.
Brecht confessed that he wanted to write about ‘cities by the sea’ but couldn’t while Hitler was rampaging. We’re in a similar position and we need to ask of everything we do: how does this help, in whatever way, in the struggle against this new evil? How does it help us understand what's happened? How does it help build alliances which work? How does it reach out even to people who support the bastards, and how does it indicate to everyone the possibility of a better way?
In the 1980s Margot wrote,‘we don’t overcome despair by shutting our eyes. If you are of my generation and have never felt it or come near feeling it you are either very lucky or very insensitive.’
Her times were very dark. It's our turn now.