The world has faced incredible challenges over the last four years, especially in the last year dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic.
The ascension to, and consolidation of, power by right-wing populist authoritarian governments has been one of the most pressing issues – with Donald Trump and Boris Johnson the figureheads in the English-speaking world.
Pressure on (and criticism of) the legal system, transfer of power to the executive branch whilst sidelining parliaments, anti-immigrant rhetoric, moves to reduce equality and paint those campaigning for it as unpatriotic, violent racial divisions and the (re-)growth of white supremacy, conspiracy theories, cronyism & corruption, threats from extreme members of the governing political party, flouting of international law and treaties, and lurches away from international collaboration have all been happening at least partly under the radar, assisted by large parts of the media – but clearly visible to anyone who cared to look.
It’s remarkable that it’s only in the last fortnight that a truly widespread realisation has dawned, following the riots at the Capitol in Washington. Even then, we still see many people assuring us “that couldn’t happen in the UK” – despite the fact that it very obviously could, and we’re tracking about 2-3 years behind (but very definitely) on the exact same curve as Trump’s America.
That’s largely because the deeply disturbing authoritarian undercurrent has – on both sides of the Atlantic – been masked by the painting of our respective leaders as jovial, quirky, but ultimately harmless buffoons – whether that’s Donald Trump’s bizarre press conferences and tweets, Boris Johnson getting stuck on a zip line, accidentally barrelling through a Japanese child during an impromptu game of touch rugby, or Jacob Rees-Mogg making nonsensical statements about fish being happier because they’re now British (whilst quietly transferring his millions of untaxed personal wealth out of the UK).
Covid has certainly caused the scales to start to fall from the eyes of many, but for the light to truly be shone on the reality of it, armed protestors had to storm the very seat of American government, whipped up into a frenzy by a sitting President.
But – as many of my close friends who’ve experienced the death of their child or other deep personal trauma can attest to – storms pass, and when a storm subsides, it is then we can turn our attention to repairing the damage and learning what normality looks like in the aftermath. It is how we react that defines us, not the storm.
Today, symbolically at least, the storm has subsided and the sun has risen again across America. There is much damage to clean up, and there will be more storms to come, but today, the United States embodies that most essential of human emotions:
And when we’ve experienced a deep trauma or a terrible storm, hope is vital for rebuilding. Bereaved parents know this as well as anyone – we’ve weathered the toughest of storms before, and learned the hard way how to rebuild and come out the other side, broken but unbowed, holding onto – sometimes barely clinging onto – hope. President Biden is one of this tribe, he will know this fight only too well.
Alongside that hope, a note of caution is, sadly, necessary. America remains bitterly divided, torn asunder by the Trump Administration. There should also be no complacency here in the UK. Three weeks ago, you’d have struggled to find anyone in the US who, realistically, believed that the scenes we watched unfold in Washington DC could ever have taken place. Some called it, but few believed it. There’s no such naive optimism or arrogant overconfidence there now. Joe Biden is the oldest incoming President in US history, which brings with it both a risk and a threat. The Covid pandemic, both here and in the USA, continues to rip through our lands.
American democracy has bent, bowed, and creaked at the seams, but it has held. Just. We’ve watched here as senior British government figures have rushed to distance themselves from Trump, having spent years cosying up to him. But the authoritarian tendencies continue – proroguing of Parliament, lying to the Queen, routine actions to avoid Parliamentary scrutiny, a PM and a Home Secretary who’ve been happy to disregard the rule of law and call for violence directed at those perceived as obstacles to their aims.
The populist manifestations of them are as problematic – no-one has yet seen the Houses of Parliament stormed by a baying mob, but we’ve seen an elected representative, Jo Cox MP, murdered on the street by a far-right extremist, and an increasingly toxic polarisation of politics. A violent crowd on the streets of Westminster isn’t that many steps further along this path.
These are the warning signs that we need to heed – not whether or not the Prime Minister seems systematically incapable of brushing his hair, answering a straight question, or delivering a speech without (a) wearing a weird smirk on his face or (b) talking as though he’s some bloke down the pub going off on an incomprehensible tangent about something or other.
So let us not lose sight of the potential threat that – finally – everyone’s been able to see manifest itself across the pond.
Let’s not pretend – with the weird nationalistic fervour shown by the Education Secretary when he said as we rolled out the Covid vaccine first that this had happened because we’re British and that meant we’re better than everyone else – that this couldn’t happen here. It could. When a storm subsides, a key part of rebuilding is taking the necessary acts to mitigate against future storms.
But most of all, let’s embrace the hope that today represents, not just for America, but for the whole world. Charlie Mackesey captures it perfectly, as he always does, as do the lyrics of Semisonic’s ‘Closing Time’ – “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end”.
The day after a storm, the sun rises again. Today, the sun’s rising again over Washington DC, and over the Land of the Free. Tomorrow, the repairs begin.