Eras always end when people who dominate them can no longer believe the stories they tell about themselves. The Soviet Union fell because Mikhail Gorbachev and his contemporaries had grown to see all the fine promises of socialist internationalism and proletarian revolution they had been taught since their childhood as so much junk. They looked around and could not escape the fact that, far from leading to a higher stage of history, Communism was a dirty and murderous ideology. There was nothing left to do but abandon it. Regimes cannot survive by fear or force of habit alone. At some level their rulers and functionaries have to justify them to themselves as much as anyone else. When the justification fails, they fail too.
Just as everyone can feel the attraction of a fairer and more cooperative society, so everyone can feel the appeal of the stories conservatives once told their children. They were the sensible party. The keeping-the-show-on-the-road party. They were essentially life’s moderates and sceptics who never fell for mad, fanatical schemes to straighten out the crooked timber of humanity. “In political activity,” wrote the conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott, “men sail on a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination. The enterprise is to keep afloat on an even keel.” Even people who have never voted for a right-wing party ought to know that there are times when pessimism, modesty and scepticism are the best available policies. If they don’t, they have a deep intellectual flaw.
In the age of Trump, the stories conservatives tell themselves are ringing as false as the stories socialists once told themselves about the Soviet Union. Moderation, scepticism, pessimism: these are not qualities anyone can now associate with the Right. Trump despises the checks and balances of liberal democracy and the institutions through which they operate. He prefers dictatorships to democracies. He treats anyone who crosses him with an authentically dictatorial brutality, which he deploys with a pornographic relish. He lies brazenly and instinctively. He presents himself as superman who, by the triumph of his own will, can cross the boundless ocean and dock his boat in any anchorage he chooses.
If he were just one man, Trump would matter less, even though that one man is the most powerful man in the world. But look at how American Republicans defer to him and fail to fulfil their constitutional duties to check his power and hold him to account. Look at how Britain’s Conservative Prime Minister rushes to abase herself and her country before him, and to shower Trump with honours. Note too the Pavlovian attitude of conservative commentators and newspapers. Their beliefs in free trade, for instance, or in collective security through Nato, or a conservatism that did not embrace racial and religious intolerance, have turned out to be as empty as the slogans of the Brezhnev-era Communists. These are now words that are parroted long after their meaning has vanished, the phrases conservatives repeat as a matter of course without expecting anyone to believe they mean them or are prepared to act on them. With the same reliable instinct that keeps Trump lying, conservative journalists avert their eyes from the disaster in Washington and say the real story, the true target for contempt, is Trump’s liberal critics. Sometimes they are just obeying orders. There is a growing scandal in the US about how Rupert Murdoch’s managers are said to be forcing Wall Street Journal journalists to bite their tongues and self-censor rather than offend Trump. But I have no doubt that in most cases the useful idiocy of the Right comes from the heart, or what’s left of it.
We have not begun to think through the consequences of the collapse of the old conservatism before xenophobia and charlatanry. A start can be made by considering what we can no longer instinctively take to be true.
Once we would have considered conservatives to be the natural enemies of fanatics. Their dislike of totalitarian theories, their belief in the rule of law, and their assumption that totalitarian movements had always been the West’s enemy had practical consequences. You can see what they once opposed in a powerful, almost lyrical, documentary, Watching the Moon at Night, by the Swedish filmmakers Bo Persson and Joanna Helander. They weave together the conspiracy theories of Nazism and the stories of the victims of its ghettos and camps with the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories of modern Iran and radical Sunni Islam and the stories of the victims of their terrorism. It is a warning of the danger of appeasing fascism in its old or new forms.
Watching the Moon at Night has been shown to the European Parliament and at film festivals around the world. It won’t surprise you to learn that it has proved too much for allegedly “liberal” Swedes, who wanted to see Israel demonised. Although the Swedish station Sveriges Television helped fund the documentary, it refused to show it on Swedish television. Once, you might have counted on conservatives to protest and announce their solidarity with the filmmakers and everyone fighting and dying in the struggles against the fascism of our time. I cannot see how they can do that now with a good conscience and straight face.
For me the most telling moment in the documentary came when a Warsaw academic, Joanna Tokarska-Bakir, who investigates pogroms and race hatred, spoke. She looked at the persistence of the myth that the Jews kidnapped children and baked bread with their blood. And, unwittingly, she gave a psychological description of what we now call post-truth politics. “Anti-Semitic statements are not factual,” she said. “Its long history cannot be explained only as a lack of knowledge. It’s when people dream, and you cannot argue against dreams with facts and education. People are possessed by dreaming.”
How can you expect Western conservatives to fight against such fanaticism when they have entered their own dreamtime? They dream that a bragging authoritarian oaf can make America great again. They dream that they can have the benefits of free trade without the costs of protectionism. They dream that they can lay all the faults of their society on foreigners and minorities. They dream a dark, self-satisfied dream, and their friends and fellow partisans lack the courage or the inclination to wake them with a well-deserved and long overdue slap in the face.