Some observations from a British Muslim leftie just arrived in the USA
Land of the Freakout
Just under a month ago, I arrived in the USA where I’m planning to start a PhD in September. Needless to say, my plans were made before a certain…electoral event took place.
Since I arrived, I’ve spent far more of my time than is healthy time arguing with Trump supporters (and just about everyone else) on Twitter – particularly since the Muslim ban was put in place. This was not out of any hope of converting them, but to get a feel for what they think, how they argue and the political culture they operate in. This is what I’ve learned:
- I agree with a lot of their grievances
This is not in itself surprising. The polling shows that many of them would have voted for Bernie and much of Trump’s messaging in the lead up to the election was anti-NeoLiberal (even if they might not recognise it as such). Globalisation took their jobs, a string of unnecessary wars has killed or maimed their sons and daughters, made them feel less safe and perhaps worst of all, dented the sense of American exceptionalism that is intrinsic to their identities.
Many of them were angry about the bailouts and foreign policy failures in the Middle East, about unaffordable healthcare and a world that has let them down.
They just seemed incapable of blaming it on anything other than a strawman liberalism constructed for them from a mishmash of Fox News articles and half-remembered Reaganism. A huge part of that, I suspect, is the extent to which Cold War indoctrination made capitalism and patriotism synonymous in America. The myth that every American can make it is a hard one to give up on and for many on the right attacking the ultra-rich oligarchs that have infiltrated their democracy feels at some instinctive level like an attack on their future selves.
- American politics is almost inconceivably tribal
Despite the commonalities, it was striking how angry they were at liberals at a cultural rather than just a political level. Much of their rhetorical approach was to attempt to activate my own tribalism. They were nonplussed when I refused to defend many of the actions of Clinton and Obama on the basis that I’m British and it wasn’t ‘my side’ that enacted them. They appeared to have trained themselves to take on the fixed positions and expected to rile me into a fixed response. When I didn’t rise to it, some got enraged and blocked me, others actually showed a measure of humanity towards me. Several came with words to the effect that ‘I’m sorry if you’re affected, but the world is a mess and we need to keep our citizens safe.’
The Muslim ban isn’t the way to do that, of course, the way to do that is to stop supporting countries like Saudi and Qatar that promote the Wahabi ideology that underpins terrorism undertaken in the name of Islam and to stop toppling regimes and starting wars across the region, but it was a big climbdown from ‘I consider you a traitor to this country.’
Conversely, when I suggested to some liberals that treating every single person that voted for Trump as a persona non-grata might entrench difference rather than overcome it, I was told I was insane. I was surprised at how quickly the side that I agree with excommunicated me. Now I haven’t been in the country long and I can understand how arguing with unhinged, counterfactual nastiness could wear you down but it was disappointing to see the side that claims to be humane and reasoned acting so similarly to its opponents.
- The ‘liberal’ wing of the Islamophobia industry has a hell of a lot to answer for
People like Bill Maher, Sam Harris, Majed Nawaz and Asra Nomani have spent years projecting a vision of Islam as a threat to liberal values. This has driven some members of some groups – particularly feminists and the LGBT community – to take up anti-Muslim stances that place them in much closer proximity to the Trumpists than they would ever admit.
The understanding of Islam that these supposed liberals project is the same as the one that ISIS would have you believe is the whole of Islam. Whilst they utterly repudiate Trump, they have given a great deal of cover to the narratives that fuelled his rise. I do not think I would be hearing from misogynists about how Islam tramples women’s rights, from gay-bashers about how Islam throws homosexuals off cliffs or from anti-Semites about the plight of Jews under Islam were it not for the anti-Muslim animus of those within the liberal movement who have spent years promoting and honing these arguments.
A lot of the blame for that must go to the assumption, common to many American liberals before the rise of Trump, that they had won the big battles and so could move on to correcting the deviances of minorities. This approach has allowed a lot of thoroughly illiberal people to ease their consciences at the same time as endorsing a suite of ideas that have enabled a demagogue to rise.
- Any resistance will need to carry principled Republicans with it
Before I left the UK, I had a conversation with a female Muslim colleague who is married to an American convert from a Republican family. “Trump didn’t surprise me” she said “because American liberals failed to carry conservatives with them, they just moved to the coast.” My own experience bears this out. I’ve met a fair few Republicans who either voted for Trump because they were voting for their party or who sat this one out. I know that I’m supposed to rage, to tell them they are stupid and abhorrent and that they’ve screwed us all – and sometimes when my anger gets the better of me, I want to do just that. But telling people they are awful is a poor tool for persuasion and and pretending there is not such thing as a principled Republican is just childish. How many of the 1,000 diplomats that signed a letter against the Muslim ban, for example, are likely to be card carrying Democrats.
The Donald may not have won the popular vote, he may have relied on working the electoral college, but the system that elected him is the system that must be worked with. If it is to be taken back from his tiny hands intact, we will need Republicans to come along with us. And that means not arguing against him just from our own beliefs, using arguments that could have been applied to any Republican president, but from the beliefs of those on the right.
That is difficult to stomach – I don’t relish being told that my religion makes me inherently disloyal and threatening – but we are asking a great deal of conservatives. We are asking them to choose their higher ideals above their tribe and the only way we can succeed is to embody our own highest ideals, to allow them a way to be anti-Trump without requiring them to cross the wide gulf between Republican and Democrat.
We can argue afterwards about what kind of democracy we want to see, for now it is more important to protect the democracy itself. The progressive politics I believe in leads by example, it takes the high road – not at the expense of principle and certainly not as a form of appeasement – but because at its core is a recognition that all human beings are equal in dignity and deserves to be treated as such, even the ones whose beliefs we find unpalatable.
We will slip, we will rage and we will, from time to time let ourselves down, but we must aim to embody that ideal. If the American left cannot find in itself the courage, forbearance and spiritual discipline to do so, then it will lose, and it will deserve to.