The Egyptian revolution of February 2011 was one of the most joyful political moments of my life and for many others too. It seemed to show the path forward in countless ways, from the liberator role played by social media to the importance of an educated secular global elite to advancing democracy and breaking up tradition; and today the Egyptian revolution is pure mud, and the Egyptian people are in some great measure responsible. Some large portion of that society or its educated classes signed off on the dictatorship of Sisi in order to have stability and tradition. Maybe they are motivated by security, maybe they wish to preserve an unequal distribution of resources.
But theirs must be understood as a conservative counterrevolutionary and democratic impulse. Those people overlooked massacres and human rights abuses for the sake of preserving an old order, no problem.
The Trump election must be seen in the same light; and it challenges any progressive’s idea of history.
Maybe history is not something that works out toward greater fairness and freedom and a recognition of abuses. Maybe history in our era, by which I mean the story of civilization as far as we can see it, is in fact a neverending compilation of human abuses in which the privileged bulk of the society seeks to consolidate its advantages and concede as little as possible to new claimants.
Let’s say the left is correct in its alarm over the Trump election: it is fascistic and racist, the spasms of the non-urban white segment of society at the eventuality of the U.S. becoming a brown majority nation. The left says that Trump is illegitimate and also reversible. Like the Brexit opponents: they believe that Trump will be undone.
Maybe they are wrong about that. Maybe it won’t be reversed. Maybe we are actually living in an era of counter-revolution, in which liberties and ideals that the vanguard of society jerks forward to assert and establish are thrown in the dust; and security and privilege are prized instead.
I say an era because it seems to be true all around: Brexit threatens to undo the idealism of a unified and human-rights-loving Europe. Putinism undid the openings of Gorbachev. Whatever the freedom fighters promised for Syria—and I was for them as excitedly as the crowds in Tahrir Square—we see a Syria today where large chunks of the society are obviously conservative: they would rather have a dictator still ruling them than religious radicals. And Trump is sure to agree.
The left says that Trumpism isn’t just about jobs and discontent; but it is aimed at the many liberties that the society has struggled to adopt as norms in the last ten years. Gay marriage, transgender rights, the anti-racist progress of the Black Lives Matter movement and the anti-incarceration movement. And maybe the left is right. Maybe this election is about a broad and majoritarian segment of our society saying, Enough, we like being on top, and we are not giving up power so easily. This is our society and we want to maintain traditions, and we are saying F. y. to all those changes.
I am on the left because I think those freedoms are things worth struggling for, but maybe history is not progressive. Maybe cultural advances and economic fairness are not the end point. Maybe history is actually deeply conservative, as the story is working out in our lifetimes: And maybe these reactions are going to last a long time in an era of shortages, climate crises and mass migrations.
Conservatism is a deep motivation in human affairs. I think we should not forget the lessons of the 2004 election. John Kerry took on an incompetent numskull who had plunged us into a terrible war and Kerry lost because suburban women wanted strength in their leader. They would sacrifice a lot of young people and Iraqis’ lives for the stability of American suburbs; they didn’t care. Today a great number of property holders in Cairo are thankful that Egypt is a police state, because Syria is not. Some of the Palestinian response to Jewish immigrants in the 30s was not that dissimilar to nativist European responses today (and yes I’m aware about Zionism and colonialism).
The election of Barack Obama was in some ways a revolution, as joyous for many in our country as Tahrir Square. He changed many cultural values in our society, and was working at the biggest at the end of his administration: climate change. Now we have elected a climate change denier who to get people better-paying jobs in the Red States will let industry do whatever it wants and punish immigrants. And few of his voters care if that wrecks the planet. People know and they don’t care.
Progressives believe, or hope, that in the end mankind will be motivated by the better angels of its nature; but the world today is telling us that is not the case. These elections are reminiscent of birds that anticipate a storm. If there are going to be violent and destructive resource battles in a globalized warming overpopulated world, it is hard to see how a liberal human rights agenda prospers. Human beings are too selfish. I watched Obama’s press conference yesterday, and my hero seemed depressed, drawn, discouraged. He only smiled when he was leaving.
The natural ending of these thoughts it that I myself am becoming a conservative. That is not the case, or not yet anyway. I am too engaged on social issues of tremendous unfairness ever to abandon them: the liberation of Palestinians from the Israel lobby and Zionism; and my wife’s work on incarceration. Both these issues are steeped in racist history; so I cannot turn my back on the left, on its analysis or program.
But I conclude that I’m not a humanist. I love liberal ideals but I think given the chance any human beings of whatever color or religion would behave as white Americans did in this election.