Demagogues like Donald Trump thrive on simplicity. One of the keys to his ascendancy has been the lumping together of his many enemies into a single entity, a group to blame for all the economic anxiety and cultural dispossession felt by a vocal subset of his constituency. And so, various strains of right-wing anger have for some time now been congealing around a single vague word: liberal.
As a political philosophy, liberalism is an untidy confection. But I’m pretty sure I am one, at least in part because I subscribe to liberalism’s first principle—that everyone has a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And, like all self-identifying liberals in the age of Trump, recent events have plunged me into a sea of doubt. Which is why I think it’s important to say this: As well as being a liberal, I am also a xenophobe.
That statement requires some immediate qualification. I am not your garden-variety racist. I do not cultivate hatreds based on skin color or nationality. I do not have an Aryan Viking or a colored egg as my Twitter avatar. A child of the 1980s, and an urbanite, pluralism is part of my cultural inheritance. But the truth is that, for someone who has spent the last decade as a travel writer and literary cheerleader for foreign people and places, I often have a hard time transcending stark cultural differences.
Some examples from my rap-sheet include a month in China, during which my girlfriend’s red hair invited the kind of swivel-eyed scrutiny you might expect if she’d had two heads, was enough to turn me against the entire country. The disdain for punctuality common to Latin America and Africa drives me to distraction. In abject fulfillment of the British stereotype, the world’s widespread inability to queue drives me to silent, haughty outrage. Whilst I am adept at reciting the world’s capital cities, I’m also an authority on being judgmental.
Such observations don’t generally make the final copy of daily opinion columns, but there’s nothing especially novel or incendiary about them. (I suspect few members of the liberal chattering classes can watch the Broadway classic Avenue Q without a wry, self-conscious chuckle at the musical’s most famous number, “Everybody’s a little bit racist.”) However, at a time when liberalism as a concept is under attack—when half of America is blaming it for all the world’s problems, and the other half are catastrophizing about the implications of its demise—this mea culpa may help formulate a better understanding of what liberalism is, and why it is in crisis today.
Crucially, the idea that a liberal can also be a bigot presupposes that a person’s politics do not depend on the purity of their soul. Or, to put it more simply, being liberal does not necessarily make you a better person. It just means you believe base humanity is flawed and needs to be contained within a framework of social mores and ethical absolutes.
Liberalism, wrote the controversial philosopher Slavoj Zizek, “is sustained by a profound pessimism about human nature.” Where the nostalgic conservative sees a past of white picket fences and peaceful cultural homogeneity, the liberal sees centuries of genocide, sectarian war, colonization and enslavement. A right-winger might call it hysteria. A liberal would call it a rational reading of human fallibility. Viewed through this pessimist’s lens, political correctness is a safeguard, a levee against the dark rivers of our intolerant tribalism.
Against this backdrop, a person opposed to liberal ideals comes across as either willfully foolish or worse. Liberals don’t brand such people as racist because we think they are. We brand them as racist because we know they are. Because deep down, we know we are too.
And that’s the problem. The central weakness of modern liberalism is that the self-criticism required in order to disown this instinctive bias has become a form of blindness—of our own moral imperfection, and of our tendency to offer a prescription for society to which we ourselves struggle to adhere. Three months on from Trump’s election victory, and with the anti-liberal backlash continuing to shape politics across western democracies, the vulnerabilities in this picture grow starker by the day.
In “On Liberty,” John Stuart Mill, among the founding fathers of modern liberalism, wrote that “Whatever crushes individuality is despotism.” But it seems unlikely that he could ever have imagined how future generations would see, in the ideology he championed, a haunting echo of that same oppression. What emerged as a philosophy of opposition to structural prejudice started to grow sclerotic the moment it assumed the mantle of orthodoxy. The result—an inflexible dogma rooted in secularism and identity politics—has ended up provoking the vengeance of those who feel marginalized by it.
Often, the accusations of hypocrisy marshaled in opposition to liberal points of view are more absurd than effective—witness, to name one recent example, the thousands of Trump apologists disparaging women’s marchers on the premise that those same people hadn’t been holding weekly sit-ins to protest the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia. Yet the overarching criticism is valid, for how many liberals can say with sincerity that they are immune to instinctive bias? Can any of us truly claim that we feel as much sympathy for thousands of innocent Syrians immolated by Assad’s barrel-bombs as we do for European terror victims? While many liberals complain about the implications of anthropogenic climate change, how many of us refuse to fly?
Indeed, the words “do as I say, not as I do” could be the catchphrase for the entire liberal order—from the everyday leftie who decries gentrification while secretly celebrating the increased value of their house to figureheads we eulogize. As people around the world lamented the end of Barack Obama’s administration, many pointed out that the man elected US president on a tide of hope and optimism, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize within months of taking office, vacated the White House as the first American president in history to have been at war for every day of his tenure. It doesn’t require a huge leap of empathy to understand how someone anathematized to his politics might have seen, in the deluge of liberal tears that accompanied his departure, evidence of an intractable contradiction.
None of this is to say that social liberalism needs to be disavowed. The Trump era, if anything, looks set to demonstrate its importance anew. And while populists would have us believe that 2016 heralded the start of liberalism’s downfall, we must keep faith that most people, if pushed, would choose a more self-aware liberal future to Steve Bannon’s nihilistic vision of religious war.
But as today’s progressives confront a newly energized right-wing populism, we must recognize the shortcomings in liberalism that have led us to this juncture. We should be able to acknowledge that, in seeking absolution for our worst instincts, we may have overcompensated by acquiescing to a status quo that has overseen rampant inequality and catastrophic foreign wars. And we should admit that the reactionary ideas fueling the right-wing surge—nativism, nationalism, and American exceptionalism among them—are understandable, albeit execrable, responses to our transparent balancing act. Trump is sticking a middle finger up to a liberal consensus teetering on feet of clay.
“Everyone carries a shadow,” wrote the psychoanalyst Carl Jung, “and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.” It seems likely, were he alive today, that Jung might suspect liberals of possessing the biggest shadows of all. Perhaps we need to embrace our shadows before we can properly push them away.