It won’t have escaped anyone’s notice that, since the UK Brexit vote in June this year, the media have been awash in prophecies of doom. The wildest non sequiturs have been put forward in normally quite sober media channels from this event, and now also from the election of Donald Trump as 45th President of the USA. It is being said that this will embolden far right movements everywhere, that it is a step on the road to a general breakdown of society, that the EU will collapse and so forth. Other than a sentiment of doom it is hard to see on what basis these predictions are put forward and they mostly defy logical reason. The doomsayers apparently feel no obligation to argue their point.
Objectively, such a domino effect is implausible. In times of uncertainty, people tend to take refuge in what they know – not in more madness. There is no unifying ideology likely to drive knock-off versions of either scenario. The British government stresses free trade, whilst Trump has advocated radical protectionism. We have seen the extreme right decline in several European countries over recent years, even as it continues to benefit from protest votes and confidence in traditional parties also declines (the opposite is often argued, but check the facts). Extreme right sentiment may have figured in both results, but it was hardly center stage. The Brexit vote delivered a massive boost to pro-EU sentiment in the remaining EU countries. So there is no reasonable basis for a prediction of more of the same – but it is one hell of a meme.
In 1958, C.J. Jung published his book Flying Saucers: a Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky. In it, he interpreted the UFO phenomenon, then at its height in the West, as a projection of concerns related to the Cold War and the fear of nuclear confrontation with the USSR. The second half of this year has seen another curious meme gain widespread traction: that of the “killer clown“. This phenomenon literally cries out for a similar Jungian interpretation. What is Trump – or at least, what is he widely portrayed in the liberal media as being – other than a “killer clown”? And, apparently, they are on the loose everywhere, threatening to overrun civilization. Or at least our ego defenses.
In the midst of the Cold War hysteria, though, another kind of revolution was taking root in America. The Beat Generation led into the hippies and, in 1967, the iconic Summer of Love: the zenith of the then counterculture which was to have myriad repercussions in art, politics, science and culture. Simultaneously, the Civil Rights movement was to have a fundamental impact on the rights and opportunities open to black people. Apocalyptic sentiment was rampant in political discourse, but with hindsight we see it to have been instrumentalized and overblown. In fact, I would suggest, it served the role of buttressing the final days of a political system and set of values which had outlived its usefulness. The establishment, in other words, was indeed threatened; society was not.
In the shadow of Trump, I have no doubt that the next countercultural revolution is brewing. Trump is almost a needed counterpoint to it. He seems to embody, or to be endowed with, an almost deliberate incongruity – just like the evil clown archetype. He certainly has pronounced authoritarian tendencies, being in all observable respects an incarnation of unreformed patriarchal attitudes – and yet he has risen to power on the basis of anti-authoritarian sentiment; not even his own party respects his authority. In my view, this is unsurprising. US culture, and Western culture generally, is no longer capable of the degree of acceptance of formal authority which provided the cultural matrix for fascism or any other form of messianism. We are sufficiently far into the historical decline of patriarchy that this all seems an absurd blast from the past; and we see this in the reactions of many commentators who struggle to recognize the country they thought they lived in, which they had taken for granted.
For me, though, nothing has changed other than certain cultural forces having come out of the trenches where they lay hidden to casual view, and into the light of day where they can be more easily engaged and defeated. All that was taken for granted can be taken for granted still. Powerful men in the private and public sector have always used their power to obtain sexual favors from women. Under the “liberal consensus”, just as under the “conservative consensus”, this continued to be the case, but it was no longer acknowledged; it retreated into the shadows. There was a public discourse and a private reality. This dichotomy, based as it was on adopting patriarchal and authoritarian strategies and deploying them on a symptomatic basis against certain manifestations of patriarchy, has become no longer tenable. Both the liberal consensus and private standards of behavior are going to have to change. The days of the “conservative consensus” are numbered anyway. This represents a profound cultural upheaval in its own right.
When historians look back on Donald Trump’s election, my guess is that they will see it as marking the end of the rights approach which has defined liberalism for the last 70 years. Not because everything has been completed and is fine, that is of course certainly not the case – but because the strategy of legislating into existence the society we want to live in has run its course and revealed its limitations. The threat of legal sanction has driven behavior underground, but it has emerged in other damaging ways. Now, I think, we need to pursue an agenda of outreach and compassion, one marked by tolerance and diversity, one in which we seek to understand, not simply to condemn, and in which we are open to rethinking our own values and priorities also. We have tried to banish our own shadow by projecting it onto the other; now we will have to befriend it and cut each other a lot more slack.
Liberalism, by mandating tolerance through the threat of legal sanctions, has chosen the arms and methods of its adversary. This may well have been the right or only strategy it could pursue in the 1960s. But now deeper healing is needed, and the advocates of giving priority to this strategy are no longer our allies, they have become obstacles to moving forward. I think we have now witnessed the peak of political correctness and its use against persons guilty only of being a screen for our own collective shadow. Fifty years after the Summer of Love, the countercultural revolution of 2017 is coming, and it will be a return to the roots: not a movement of protest and outrage (this there will and should be as well: but this is not countercultural any more). Rather a movement of love, forgiveness and healing.