I was in the US two weeks ago, staying with my mother on my way to give a paper about Sgt. Arnold Loosemore at the North American Conference for British Studies, held this year in Washington, D.C. Loosemore, a V.C. who lost his leg in the war and died of TB in 1924, is a fascinating character, whose life and death contain more information to be analysed than I can possible cover in a 20-minute conference paper or, indeed, the 8,000-word book chapter I am currently turning that paper into. So I planned to write a post about the treatment Loosemore received from the British government and his local community in the aftermath of the war, and about the ambiguity of the word ‘pension’ in interwar society.
Except that I was in the US two weeks ago and two weeks ago, on the night of my 39th birthday, the US, and with it the world, changed.
I, like millions of others, have been trying to come to terms with what a Trump presidency will mean for me, for those I love, for the communities I was raised and live in, for those I work alongside, for my fellow countrymen and women, for my fellow citizens of the world. But doing so is incredibly hard, not least because I, like many others, have been here before. On 24th June I posted on here, without comment, W.H. Auden’s September 1st, 1939. On the morning of 9th November, I posted a link to the same poem via Twitter, this time pulling out the lines ‘The habit-forming pain/ Mismanagement and grief:/ We must suffer them all again’, although to be quite honest, many, many other lines from the ‘The windiest militant trash/ Important persons shout/ is not so crude as our wish’ to ‘The lie of Authority/ Whose buildings grope the sky’ seemed just as apposite. In fact, in the week that followed I read and passed on to friends and loved ones quite a lot of Auden, including his mocking description of ogres and his far from funny poem, Epitaph on a Tyrant.
This last may seem like the most inappropriate. Trump appears a buffoon, a spoiled child, not the subtle manipulator of human folly described by Auden. And yet the terror of the last two lines is palpably in the air in both the US and Britain. Trump himself is offensive, but what is far more frightening are those to whom he gives succor and entitlement. And this has only become more true as the weeks have gone. Initially the thought of a cabinet made up of Rudy Gulliani, Newt Gingrich and John Bolton was horrifying enough – a return to the hatred and prejudice of a past age, a rule by gerontocracy that brought with it whiffs of Weimar. What we have seen since – the appointment of Steve Bannon, the celebrations of the far-right, the smug bravado of Nigel Farage as he ignores all modern standards of international diplomacy in his effort to peddle influence – has been worse.
Do I, as a historian, think this is the return of fascism to political dominance? No, although it would be interesting, if it were possible to gain any scholarly detachment, to compare contemporary America to Weimar Germany, not least the men of the so-called ‘alt-right’ to those analysed by Klaus Theweleit in his two-volume gender history of the rise of fascism in Germany, Male Fantasies. But scholarly detachment about this is something I am finding next to impossible. Who I am, as a scholar, an ‘expert’ even, a woman, a liberal (with heart proudly bleeding on my sleeve), and everything I have been taught to value – compassion, education, kindness, community, generosity, solidarity , the value of women as more than their bodies, the human value of all people, whatever their colour, creed, sexuality or gender – feels under attack. All the small gains my grandparents fought for in war and my parents worked for in peace may not have been enough but they now look to be undone and I don’t know what I can do to help heal the rents being torn in the societies I felt so secure in. For two weeks I have been paralysed by exhaustion and a sense of hopelessness in face of this social unraveling, a tiny frail individual caught in the current of history that is bearing us all backwards. These are not emotions that lend themselves to calm, clear-eyed analysis of the contemporary events in light of the past.
But, in the end, I come back again, inevitably, to Auden. ‘All I have is voice/ To undo the folded lie’. Tomorrow I will write about Sgt. Arnold Loosemore, V.C.