Fintan O’Toole on 2017: The year weird became the new normal
Nothing will be quite the same after Trump, Weinstein and Brexit
In the Mel Brooks spoof Young Frankenstein Gene Wilder’s mad scientist asks Marty Feldman, playing his assistant Igor, the name of the dead person whose brain he fetched from the lab to put into Frankenstein’s monster.
“Abby someone,” says Feldman.
“Abby who?” asks Wilder.
“I’m almost sure that was the name.”
“Are you saying that I put an abnormal brain into a 7½-foot long, 52-inch-wide gorilla? Is that what you’re telling me?”
It is not exactly sparkling Wildean repartee, but it came to mind when Wilder died, in August.
Abby Normal might well be person of the year.
If a year as crazy as 2017 can be said to have a theme it is, paradoxically enough, normality. Abby Normal has been stalking across the western world. Much of what we have experienced has been, in one form or another, the contesting of the idea of the ordinary. Things that we took for granted have become deeply problematic, and things we thought we’d never see have become weirdly familiar.
We are living in one of those eras when assumptions cannot be made and everything that seemed settled is being unsettled again. If 2016 was the year of “fake news”, 2017 was the year in which the news often seemed fictional but was all too real.
And also the year in which fictional images and the men who sustained them crumbled to reveal the unpleasant realities behind the facades. Hard news often seemed as if it was invented by Hollywood – and the insides of Hollywood’s dream machine became hard news.
Fascist, racist, anti-European
It is instructive to consider what was merely a moderately large story of 2017: the far right entering the Bundestag for the first time since the collapse of Nazism in the ruins of Berlin. Alternative for Germany, or AfD, won 13 per cent of the vote in the September national elections, becoming in the process the third-largest party in Europe’s pivotal state.
A few years ago this would have been chilling, shocking, epochal – the virus of extreme ethnic nationalism again infecting the very country that ought to have been most thoroughly inoculated against it. Germany’s identity had seemed to be founded on what it could no longer think of being: fascist, racist, anti-European.
But in 2017, although the undermining of that identity produced much commentary and dismay, what it did not produce was shock. It was just part of the new normality.
Donald Trump tipping point
The tipping point in this normalisation of the far right had come when Donald Trump took the oath of office as president of the United States in January. Presidential inaugurals are rituals of unity and harmony. Even if nobody believes them, the protestations of bringing everybody together in an optimistic vision of the US makes a statement about democracy. The bitter contest is over: we all have to accept the result.
But Trump’s inauguration was aggressive, dystopian and, at the time, deeply strange. It was startlingly bleak in its imagery of what Trump called “American carnage”: “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation”.
And it was followed by blatant lying: Sean Spicer’s brazen claims, as White House spokesman, not just that Trump had attracted “the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe” but also that mainstream media had doctored photographic and film evidence to hide this truth.
At the time these strange moments seemed mostly to function as evidence of gauche amateurism. But they were in fact harbingers of the arrival of the methodologies of the far right at the centre of global power.
The idea that everything is hellish and that only the great leader can fix it is standard fascist rhetoric. So is the message that the independent media lies about everything and that the faithful must look to the leader to provide what Trump’s counsellor Kellyanne Conway, defending Spicer’s claims, called “alternative facts”.
Roy Moore was so egregiously repellent a candidate that it is not hard for any far-right demagogue to seem more 'normal' by comparison
It was a short step from there to Trump’s deliberate normalisation of neo-Nazis. In August he condemned “both sides” for violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which an anti-fascist demonstrator was murdered, and claimed that “very fine people” were among the white supremacists.
In November he retweeted faked-up anti-Islam videos concocted by a tiny English neo-Nazi outfit – and hit out at Theresa May, the British prime minister, when she condemned him for doing so.
All of this had a purpose: to bring far-right extremism in from the cold, to make it part of the normal discourse in which “both sides” take part.
Abby Normal’s brain has been implanted within the monster of presidential power, one that lurches around destroying everything from healthcare entitlements to the Paris climate accord.
It is true, of course, that Trump has historically low approval ratings and that he received a stunning rebuke from the voters of Alabama this month when the Democrats won the special United States Senate election. But it is equally true that Trump’s base remains solid at about 38 per cent and that there is no behaviour on his part so vulgar or so demented that it will shake its allegiance.
The defeat of Roy Moore in Alabama may be remarkable – but less remarkable than the fact that 48 per cent of voters (and 63 per cent of white women) still backed a man who was credibly accused of sexual assaults on children and teenagers. Moore was so egregiously repellent a candidate that it is not hard for any far-right demagogue to seem more “normal” by comparison.
The same redefinition of normality has been under way in European politics. Marine Le Pen’s heavy defeat by Emmanuel Macron in the second round of the French presidential elections in May was certainly momentous.
Had Le Pen won, the future of the European Union itself would have been in very serious doubt.
But the fact remains that Le Pen got 10.6 million votes, encompassing more than a third of the electorate. And this makes her and her refurbished neo-fascism normal. Already we have seen the old centre right in France responding by shifting towards the extreme.
Something similar happened in Austria: the defeat of the far-right candidate in the presidential election at the end of 2016 was rightly seen as a sign that the reactionary tide could be held at bay. But it was also a prelude to thefar right’s re-entry into government at the end of 2017 and a shift to the extremes by what used to be the mainstream centre right.
In all of this, liberal democracy is being denormalised. The fact that three European Union member states – Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic – have lurched into the grip of authoritarian nationalism is an ironic refutation of the notion that, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, there was only one possible political model and it was liberally democratic.
But the coupling of liberal democracy with neoliberal globalisation has proved to be a recipe for profound instability. Liberal democracy, to the degree that it flourished, did so because it was underpinned by the welfare state and the promise of ever-increasing equality.
The anarchic forces unleashed by the attempt to replace the state and citizenship with the market and consumerism have profoundly destabilised the postwar notion of western political normalcy.
A once-mighty state
As a consequence even basic notions of state authority can no longer be taken for granted. Ireland has had a front-row seat for the most spectacular implosion of political authority in a mature democracy since 1945: the near-collapse of governance in the UK.
The Brexit referendum, in June 2016, upended Britain’s traditions of political authority, thoughtlessly transferring sovereignty from parliament to “the people” (itself a dodgy concept in a multinational state). Theresa May and her hapless Conservative Party comrades came to embody the consequent crisis of power both during the unnecessary British election in June this year and in the aftermath of its aptly indecisive result.
It was even more apt that the very words on which May based her appeal for the huge majority she expected – “strong and stable” – managed at once to sum up the prestige of governmental power and to serve as May’s political epitaph. A once-mighty state has been unable to provide convincing answers to two of the most basic questions in any negotiations: who’s in charge, and what do you want?
Ireland is not immune to these forces. It could be said that Ireland’s political year was divided between the persistence of the usual and the struggle for the normal: a depressing return of business as usual and a much more impressive and more noble struggle to preserve a different kind of ordinariness.
Leo Varadkar’s accession to the role of Taoiseach put the new normal in a more benign light than in other countries: nobody much cares that he is gay and the son of an Indian immigrant.
But the return yet again of the decade-long saga of the Garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe, and Varadkar’s reluctance to face up to its political consequences, suggested that he remains, in another sense, too much of a normal Irish politician.
Yet there was also for Varadkar and his Government a largely successful struggle to preserve a wider normality that we have come to take for granted: the familiarity of a virtually Border-free Ireland and of the relative peace that has come with it.
The larger paradox of 2017, though, is that even while political normality was being stretched to include previously unacceptable expressions and ideas, behaviour that had been normalised for years suddenly became unacceptable.
In the small world of the Irish media the free rein given by the major media owners to a certain kind of right-wing outrage was withdrawn because its victims answered back effectively.
Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo
But, much more widely and more importantly, a dam of silence about sexual harassment, abuse and rape was burst by a few brave women. The movement they started actually had its roots in a great failure, when allegations against Donald Trump did nothing to keep him from winning the presidency – or, indeed, to stop very large numbers of women from voting for him.
But once it hit Harvey Weinstein so hard that the Hollywood producer’s power was broken, it gathered an astonishing momentum.
It is too early to say what its long-term effects may be, but it does not seem unreasonable to think that it may well be a historic turning point in the relationship between gender and power in the west.
Four things about this movement are striking and promising.
It came as a surprise – and so, therefore, might other powerful reactions against the rise of the far right.
It took on a life of its own – as other reactions will have to do, moving beyond the normal confines of party politics.
It was a response to defeat – Trump had apparently created one kind of new normality, making sexual predation, bullying, abuse, vulgarity and hate speech shamelessly mainstream activities. For quite a while it seemed that this paradigm shift might be permanent. But the #MeToo movement challenged it with a different idea of normality: that people should be able to go about their professional lives with dignity and without fear.
And it showed that truth still matters – it used a weapon that is supposed to have been blunted in this age of lies and fakery: the potency of personal testimony. It was a literal speaking of truth to power, and power did not know how to answer back.
Perhaps this means that normality has not entirely shifted; it is merely up for grabs. It now contains the outrageous. But it also encompasses outrage, a righteous anger at the apparent triumph of a politics of fear, hatred and domination. There may be no going back to the old normalities of the post war democratic consensus. But there is reason to hope that better ones may yet emerge from this great turbulence.