Donald Trump is symptomatic of a change in global politics. He is part of a US-based movement and is also indicative of a comprehensive change in the way the US functions.
He's also pathologically unsuited to any position of authority, lacks self-awareness and empathy and has a paranoid and childish mindset.
This is how Trump happens.
Donald Trump was, and is, a self-publicist. Famously he took this literally, inventing a fake publicist who claimed to work for him and offered press interviews and other access. This publicist was, in fact, Trump himself.
Early in his career he found he was seen as inferior by the New York elite he aspired to join. His family, wealthy and successful, was headed by his father Fred, a man whose life is almost a caricature of a mob boss trying to go clean. Fred Trump was fairly uncouth, largely uninterested in humanity except in terms of the wealth it could offer and he was a bully. He was undeniably very successful, his blend of boardroom domination and roll-up-the-sleeves working class aesthetic making him friends across New York society. The only problem was that these friends were happy to do business with him, happy to make money with him, but didn't want to be seen with him.
Whatever pain this caused Fred, we know that Donald grew up with something of a chip on his shoulder. He wanted to be successful, like his father, he wanted to be respected, like his father. He also wanted to be welcomed into the high-class circles his father had never joined. The chip had another twist, though. He also wanted those dismissive and powerful New Yorkers to be humbled. He wanted to make them pay.
Donald Trump decided he would be a businessman. As a job that requires no particular skills, but needs the ability to either bring your own money to the table or convince others to do so, the rich Trump could find a path here without too much difficulty. Where he provided money to a business venture and let someone else run it he was generally making a profit. Where he ran the business himself he generally made losses, often catastrophic ones. As his profile grew and his family bailed out his many failures with ever increasing funds he began to shift his focus to glamour projects. He moved from being a landowner to having his name emblazoned on buildings. He bought a casino, started a university, and started a series of businesses that would trade on the Trump name, something he was establishing as a brand. He sold steak, vodka, luxury items, holidays. His business portfolio grew massively and he played off his new-found fame, dating Playboy models, adult movie stars and redefining himself as a player in New York's social scene.
On his second attempt, in 2016, Donald Trump ran for the Presidency. He won, via the electoral college, though he received fewer actual votes than his opponent, Hillary Clinton. In 2017 Donald Trump became the 44th man to be President of the United States.
It's worth looking at who Donald Trump was before the 2016 campaign. Not decades earlier but immediately before. It might give an insight into how his campaign proved successful.
In the US, Trump had been a famous name for a very long time. His lavish and generally effective self-promotion had led to him being one of the best-known businessmen in New York. He wasn't by any means the most successful, having bankrupted several businesses, lost billions of other people's dollars and frequently ended up being sued for reckless or illegal business practices. His Atlantic City casino had floundered in an industry where it was seen that owning a casino was essentially a risk-free licence to print money. Most of his short-term business ventures had collapsed, though not all because of losses, many simply proved unsustainable. He had volunteered his services as an actor, playing himself in a number of toe-curlingly embarrassing roles in films ranging from the barely watchable to the dire.
As we now know Trump is a pathological liar, someone of such towering misogyny that he doesn't merely sexually harass women he actually brags about sexually harassing women, and he's a bigoted nationalist, though far from the first US President to have at least one of those characteristics.
He had, however, raised a dynasty of children, all of whom were much brighter than him and were now mainly responsible for running the convoluted and arcane complexities of the Trump empire. He, as was his perceived strength, concentrated on marketing the ventures, not running them. Where he turned his hand to establishing a new project himself, such as with Trump University, it heralded failure.
Trump University, in fact, is a useful example. Essentially a series of real-estate courses of the type offered in countless adult education facilities around the world it grandly identified itself as a university. Trump advertised it heavily, pushing the idea that he would personally select the very best tutors and provide a framework that would allow anyone to emulate his success. It being a Trump product it was fantastically expensive and practically worthless. In fact it wasn't a university, the tutors were never selected by Trump and he, of course, only knew one way to be successful; be born rich. The whole concept collapsed amid inevitable lawsuits and compensation claims, which would have been enough to sink many a political candidate, but not Trump.
His great marketing coup, and it was very impressive, was the soulless misery-porn reality series 'The Apprentice'. Of course it was shocking to see Trump espousing such vile values and yet see a queue of potential minions line up to adopt his amoral and despicable approach, but it was undeniably watchable television. Week after week people who entered the process with some form of plan for their lives and some form of self-possession were stripped of their dignity, mocked in front of millions, forced to dance for the monstrous Vizier who held the key to fame and fortune. Ultimately almost all of them would be dismissed with callousness and flippancy, bolstering the ego of Trump. Those may have been the lucky ones. Trump was always jealous of the attention of the media, so the 'winners' were shunted into bland obscurity, forced to sign agreements that only Trump himself could speak to their progress. Some, it later turned out, were sexually harassed and assaulted by Trump, all were bullied, insulted, belittled and quietly disposed of. It was as stark a representation of Trump the man as could be imagined, live action Monopoly designed to strip humane impetus from the participant and the viewer.
What Trump seemingly understood, and the wider world failed to recognise, was that much of the feedback Trump was receiving from the viewers was unexpectedly positive. Overwhelmingly the experts in media described The Apprentice as like being allowed into the lair of a Bond villain. This was a chance to watch someone so rich that no effective restraint could be placed on his behaviour, so lacking in empathy that he treated everyone including the viewers with utter contempt. Over and over people commented on how this was an opportunity to see how despicable unfettered capitalism was. The problem was the audience, or much of it, didn't get that memo.
People aren't born corrupt. They're born selfish, of course, but they have to learn how to be corrupt. Selfishness is fairly obvious, but for it to become corruption you not only have to take from others you also have to manipulate the situation so you can get away with it. Corruption is also very appealing. Deep down, it turns out, people often don't want to be rich so they can act freely. They want, more specifically, to be rich so they can act like a sociopath. They want to tell their boss to go to hell, they want to evict the noisy neighbour they're feuding with. They want to cheat on their wife with that girl they fancy off YouTube and be able to brag about it. They want to be respected but also feared.
Many people, if they can avoid consequences for it, want to be lousy human beings.
Many people, therefore, watched Donald Trump and saw not a terrible warning but a shining example.
And, overall, the professional media, the professional press, all of the people who should have warned of the consequences of that were asleep at the switch.
Over the last few decades it's been fairly easy to see a steady, if intermittent, progress in society. Bad things happen, obviously, but on average things are better now than they were twenty years ago. As time passes the free world becomes slowly less racist, slowly less misogynist, slowly more accepting of diversity. We know this because we read the media and we see a steady trend towards a more multi-cultural, open, welcoming world. It wasn't entirely our fault that we were completely wrong about that, but we do have the majority of the blame.
The alt-right is fond of suggesting that the media is reporting fake news. Many of us have an automatic knee-jerk reaction to that. Obviously suggesting the media is lying is categorically false, but actually, in reality, as it's perceived by the reader and the viewer, there's more than a little truth in the suggestion that the media is wildly inaccurate in its reporting. At this point I suggest everyone take a moment to pause and vent their rage at me until it's out of your system. The case I'm about to try to make is complex and it's probably better viewed if you first accept that I believe absolutely in the following statement:
When Donald Trump uses the term 'fake news' he means news that doesn't agree with his beliefs, not news that is factually wrong. It is, therefore, an absolute lie on his part and he is trying to defraud a free society and reduce the danger that press scrutiny presents to his bigoted and racist, lying and manipulative agenda.
OK. Now you know I'm not adopting Trump's understanding of fake news then let's explain why he's not entirely wrong.
OK, slow down, let the rage pass again. We're going to do this together and at the end, I promise, you may not agree with me but you won't think I'm a Nazi. Honest.
A newspaper, and by extension any news outlet, actually contains three things. The first is the news. This is the sequence of events, what happened, what a person said, what they did. The second is analysis, contextualising the news by pointing out that what a person said last week is different from what they said this week. The third is opinion. A point of view or assessment on the news and the current affairs written to provide a narrative.
The first is largely uncontroversial. Something either happened or it didn't.
The second is more controversial, especially if you're Donald Trump. If you point out that what he said last week is the opposite of what he says this week he will accuse you of being fake. In other words, Trump doesn't trust that your motives are pure. He believes you are attacking him by holding him to an unreasonable standard. How can he be expected to remember which lie he told last week?
The third, however, is where we hit the grey area of news presentation. All opinion pieces contain some form of bias, or editing. If I write a piece about Trump I have an unmanageable amount of information to use. So, I have to choose which pieces I include and which I leave out. This piece is an example of an opinion piece.
I also find a narrative, by emphasising certain trends at the expense of others. I am offering an opinion, so I don't have to defend my choices. It is my opinion and it doesn't have to agree with yours.
That's fine as far as it goes, but here's the drawback. A reader when presented with an opinion might declare that they don't share it. That is something more fundamental than whether or not they agree with the piece in question, it goes to the deeper question of whether the newspaper is actually representing their views.
If a newspaper is consistently failing to represent their views then it can be dismissed as fake, because it is not voicing a range of opinion. Failing to include all significant opinions is literally hiding elements of society from the readership. It is instilling a bias that is likely not declared and poorly understood. So why does this bias exist?
Because a newspaper will try to avoid printing opinions that are nothing more than racist rhetoric. Newspapers dismiss the opinions of bigots, partly to avoid giving them the oxygen of publicity, partly because they fear their readers will desert them if they become a vehicle for hatred. So, my view of the progress of society, the way we were becoming less racist, less 'ist' in general, was informed by news outlets that were systematically concealing the voices of hatred. In essence this means that we were moving the borders of acceptable, publishable opinion by simply giving no time to opinions that were seen as antiquated.
In the United States the rumblings began with the arrival of the TEA Party. This was a fictional grass-roots political movement opposed to big government, high taxation and regulation. I say fictional because, though it pretended to be organised in a manner similar to a Tupperware party it was in fact created, directed and managed by a small number of staggeringly wealthy businessmen who wanted to mobilise people to support their lobbying objectives. In doing so they were prepared to accept people who had felt disenfranchised and ignored in modern politics. Fundamentalist bigots, racists, nationalists, neo-Nazis and the Christian conservative far right. Later this loose coalition would become known as the 'Alt-Right' and it gathered around alternative news sources like Breitbart and the extremist radio shows.
The US practices an effectively two-party system so their plan involved infiltrating the Republican Party and pushing for extremist candidates in elections. Over and over again this well-funded and secretly-led organisation managed to unseat Republican politicians in political races by moving to their right and appealing to the bigoted in society.
It was a well-travelled road.
Richard Nixon openly encouraged racists and bigots to support him in his Presidential ambitions. In this 'Southern Strategy' he aimed to destroy the stranglehold the Democratic Party had had on the politically conservative south. The fact was that modern technology, most potently the television, was rapidly stripping away the power of traditional voter identity in a local sense. A voter in Alabama was now likely to see much more and hear much more from a Presidential candidate than from his or her local representative. Instead of a President being endorsed by the Governor and Congressmen of Alabama it was now reversed. In order to win your seat in Alabama it made sense to court the endorsement of the national candidate.
After Nixon's Presidency ended in moral failure, criminality and flight from the White House to avoid imminent impeachment it seemed inevitable that a Democrat would win the next election, and one did, but the southern conservatives had been rallied and would begin to exert their power. The successful candidate, James Carter, was seen in the north as a steady, conscientious Democrat, but in the south it was his impeccable religious credentials that were the right campaigning strategy.
Once elected his Democratic principles won out over his religious ones. He refused to legislate based on his own religion, believing that his faith and the government should be kept separate. In doing so he lost the involvement of southern voters, who elected him largely because they thought he would run a distinctively Christian administration.
The ground was therefore primed and in the 1980 election a Republican candidate won a very comfortable victory. Ronald Reagan hadn't just followed Nixon's strategy, he weaponised it. He campaigned at anti-abortion rallies, launched his campaign in a town most famous for its Klansmen and cheerfully declared that he would be the racist they wanted, he just couldn't say so. His method was to appeal to a specific vision of America, the 1950s. He quietly espoused the traditional family values of the time and the subtext was full of Jim Crow laws and a time when segregation was government policy. He had stops on his campaign near lynching trees and at schools that had been forced to racially integrate. His message was clear. His audience understood perfectly. Philosophically he was a Klansman, but the modern nation wouldn't elect him in a white sheet.
Behind the scenes he needed financial backing and he won it by promising an unprecedented level of regulatory freedom for the wealthy. Reagan would allow your business to get away with anything, slash your taxes and stop the federal courts from defending your workers. He would hamstring unions, strip away employment protections and allow Wall Street to operate without the oversight that had been introduced following the 1929 crash.
He was also, and this is important, an outsider. A movie star. He had charisma, charm, could present a speech very well and communicate at a level that made his rhetoric widely accessible. He didn't really need to understand what he was saying, in fact he often didn't, but he could present it beautifully.
He remains one of America's most beloved Presidents and almost nobody questions his actual effect on the nation.
From that election onward it became axiomatic. You had to have at least one of these political forces in your corner. Either the fundamentalist right or the business elite. If you could get both then you were almost guaranteed a win. Bill Clinton had no time for fundamentalists, but coming from Arkansas and being very business friendly he ticked enough boxes to overcome a decent but startlingly non-reactionary George Bush. George W Bush stole the Democrat thunder by following Reagan's playbook as far as he could, but again falling short of endorsing bigotry. Obama was an absolute bucking of the trend. He was barely acceptable to the business community and he was clearly never going to be supported by white southerners, but his novelty managed to galvanise a huge number of people to vote. A new upswell of mass political intervention. Suddenly it looked like you had to have a popular voice behind you that you could point to as supporters, not the shadowy and covert support of people afraid to reveal their allegiances. That was how the Obama campaign worked and it was how the opposition Republicans tried to combat him.
And this is how the TEA Party is born. Led by the business titans, though they tried hard to hide that fact, and filled with the disenfranchised, the people who would regard CNN as fake news. They didn't believe that because CNN was factually wrong. They believed it because they knew, and most of us didn't, that there was a huge community of people whose opinions were not represented in the so-called 'mainstream media'. This was a countermovement but not, at least not yet, always counterfactual.
The first Presidential campaign in which the TEA Party made itself felt was the failed McCain / Palin bid for national office. John McCain was an almost perfect Presidential candidate. He was a war-hero with a lifetime of devoted public service, a distinguished lawmaker and solidly capitalist and right-wing. He was also a man of proven and demonstrable character, a man whose opponents regarded as decent and whose allies considered inspirational. He was intelligent, educated, spoke powerfully and with humility. The Republican Party probably hadn't had a candidate as compelling since Eisenhower.
It's perhaps unfair to suggest that Sarah Palin's inclusion on the ticket was the reason for failure. It may just be that no candidate could have broken the wave of almost cultish devotion to Barack Obama that emerged. Seriously, his campaign slogan was the bland and vague 'yes we can', yet his devotees chanted it as if it was rhetoric worthy of Shakespeare. Nonetheless Sarah Palin, while she may not be an indicator of the power of the growing alt-right, is certainly an indicator of the disconnect between the alt-right and the traditional mainstream of conservative politics. Desperate for the extremist votes, McCain's campaign encouraged him to pull Palin on board without even doing the first thing in due diligence over her beliefs, performance and support. She had yet to serve a single term in office in any significant public role, she was politically illiterate and had almost no ability to understand issues or answer questions. In front of a friendly audience she could perform a speech but as soon as she had to use her own mind it became obvious she didn't appreciably have one.
But she raised money. Backed by the Koch brothers and other wealthy TEA Party grandees she was also able to appeal to the extreme members of the movement and galvanise them into funding a campaign even though it was headed by a man almost the opposite of a reactionary. McCain was a traditional republican but with Palin on the ticket he could raise money like an extremist.
The campaign failed and the media cheerfully mocked Sarah Palin's demonstrable incompetence. And failed, again, to recognise that in doing so they were proving themselves disconnected from the growing alt-right. For the members of that mind-set, not strictly an organisation, they were therefore fake because they weren't representing the views of this huge number of people. And I, oblivious, kept thinking the world was getting less racist, less extremist, because my media was filled with stories of growth and change. I smiled at but ignored the propaganda outlets and hatemongers as being a throwback to an earlier time and arrogantly assumed they were using these, lesser, outlets because there was no traction in society for them to demand a bigger presence.
There were plenty of signs. In the UK the Daily Mail went from being a solidly right-wing newspaper to being a fascist propaganda machine. Social media filled up with people whose views seemed like they belonged before the fall of fascism. Rabidly antisocial radio shows became better known and the people who presented them became household names. Conspiracy theories started to be seen in major publications. In the US Fox won a law suit arguing that it was an entertainment show and so had no responsibility to present information fairly or accurately. The ridiculous Palin became one of the most sought-after public speakers in the States and her ability to raise money was undiminished. And, to my amusement, a reality TV host who was comically unsympathetic and sociopathic began using a series of overtly racist attacks on the eligibility of the President to even be President.
And I laughed at them.
Well, I'm not laughing now.
Not with a bang, or even a whimper. My world ended amid gales of laughter at the stupidity of extremist politics. I was wrong. I just didn't know how wrong yet.
Before Trump won his election the first seismic event was the Brexit vote. Driven almost exclusively by the interests of the infinitely wealthy and evil, coupled with racism, nationalism and a pathological distrust of the media, which clearly did not represent at all the environment many of the voters saw around them and could therefore be dismissed as fake.
Brexit didn't represent a swing to the right, or to the alt-right. Brexit was what happens when there has been a swing to the alt-right and nobody has noticed because they are blindly and arrogantly holding the belief that everything's steadily getting better. It wasn't just that the remain campaign was a disaster, we all ignored and underestimated the way our media had cheerfully swung to an increasingly modern synthesis of society. It had become aspirational and optimistic, no longer reflecting society but reflecting the society that could be seen from where a liberal or centrist person stood, confident in the narrative of history, confident in the spread of self-evident truths. How many times have you wondered if fascism could return in this more enlightened time? How many times have you wondered whether the rise of fascism in the thirties was a phenomenon unique to the countries that ended up as the Axis? Did you think that there was something more open, more anti-authoritarian that allowed Britain and France to remain on the side of decency? Did you think we all, intuitively, stood on the barricades at Cable Street, rather than joining the marchers?
I did. Now I realise some new realities. Britain and France remaining free of fascist government was pure luck. The fascist tendencies that drove Hitler to power were just as prevalent everywhere else, from Moseley's movement in the UK to Lindberg's in the US. And here's the other thing. Those beliefs weren't defeated in 1945. The Axis powers were beaten but the underlying philosophy was still just as strong. And it was just as strong in the 60s and the 70s and the 80s and right up to the present day. We just stopped watching them because it was more comfortable to consign them to history.
And now we get to pay the price. Now Theresa May, like Paul Hindenburg before her, is trying to steer the country to be just nationalist enough to quiet the extremists without allowing them to take over and plunge us into hell. Like Hindenburg she will fail. Either we will reject the ideas behind Brexit entirely (whether or not the actual event happens), reject Trump entirely, or we will slowly slip into an alt-axis. President Trump has already begun building concentration camps for families on the Mexican border. He is lining up his targets, Muslims, Hispanics, Homosexuals, Liberals. Change Muslims for Jews and Hispanics for Slavs and you have the framework of Mein Kampf. Let me say that again, just in case it slipped by. The President of the United States is building concentration camps to hold people who have not committed a crime but are identified by him as 'enemies' because of their religion, culture or the colour of their skin. The thing Franklin Roosevelt felt forced to do when his nation was dragged into a global war and later apologised for and declared as the most terrible decision of his life; that thing is being done by the incumbent President in order to score political points and appease his nationalist base.
In Britain we have political adverts that are literally copied from pieces put out by Goebbels. Our journalists, so careful now to avoid generalisations of people by sex or race, still freely refer to fleeing refugees using 'othering' words like 'them', with a capital 'T'.
But still there are journalists. Lost in a sea of hate-mongers, pornographers, wholly-owned subsidiaries of corporate interests, and constantly under attack from politicians, social media, media barons and lobbying groups. Threatened and ignored, bullied and belittled, there are still journalists.
At a rally opposing Trump's policies a man was holding up a sign. He wasn't smiling. On it was written, "First they came for the journalists. We don't know what happened next."
When I was at school I was taught a little bit about Napoleon. These days I can't remember the exact details of what I was taught then and what I may have gleaned erratically before or since. Still, most people in the Western world, I suspect, are at least peripherally familiar with the Battle of Waterloo.
Fought between the French army of Napoleon Bonaparte and an allied force that principally was made of British and Prussian troops with significant supporting forces from other European powers it was that battle that finally saw the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Now, without going into any more detail than that, try to remember what you can and see if you end up with a clear idea of who won and who lost and whether the victors were the good guys or the bad guys. OK? Got an answer in your head?
Now, for me, Napoleon, who lost the battle as well as his power, was definitely the bad guy, though there are those who might interpret things another way, as is their right. Of course, you have to know enough about the war to feel confidently able to make that assertion. Having done it at school, having seen a few movies, having seen a few anniversaries or re-enactments you probably feel this is an area of history where you might be able to offer a reasonably nuanced opinion even while you accept you're no expert on the subject. Your opinion might not carry the same weight as a serious historian but you have enough information to at least hold an opinion and, to some extent, justify it.
OK. Now we're going to discuss something different. I'm now going to ask you about the War of the Seventh Coalition. Once again, ask yourself if you can offer an informed opinion on this piece of history. Do you know who was on the side of right? Do you know who won the war? Do you feel a little less confident, if I ask you for your take on it, than you did offering an opinion on the Battle of Waterloo?
Now let me tell you one key fact about the War of the Seventh Coalition. It was the war that ended at the Battle of Waterloo. That was, in fact, the war that defeated Napoleon. It was a trick question, sorry.
But there's method to my madness. Assuming, like most people, you didn't know what the War of the Seventh Coalition was, do you now feel a little less optimistic about being able to offer an informed opinion about the Battle of Waterloo, as you've just realised you didn't even know which war it was a part of, surely a fairly fundamental piece of knowledge?
Should I listen to your opinion of the Battle of Britain even if you didn't know it took place during the Second World War?
This, sadly, is the world of the blissful. Today I am constantly informed about what Islam is, what the British Constitution is, by the internet. Actually, by people, but by people who read something on the internet. It's a hard habit to break. When we were children knowledge was hidden in books, kept in silent temples by an ancient and mysterious priesthood of librarians, all carefully trained in the catacombs of libraria and then sent on to towns and schools across the world. No, not really. Some of those books were full of lies. Some of them were just wildly wrong, but there was, to some degree, a hurdle to overcome if you wanted your book to end up on the shelves. You had to get someone to publish it, but to be fair they might do so because it would sell, not because it was accurate, then you had to get someone to buy it for the library and put it on the shelf with its little paper Dewey label and an index card in a drawer. The system was far from perfect, obviously, and it lacked the immediacy of today's world; for the younger reader who can't remember a time before the Web, it wasn't uncommon for the book you read to have been published a century earlier.
In exchange for these inefficiencies there was a curated sense to the library's wisdom. It was, at least to some extent, examined and accepted.
The big problem with that was that the words could be rather outdated. Obviously a science textbook would often be a little out of date even before it was published, but a history text also could be assembled as a synthesis of information from dozens of earlier volumes, some of which no longer reflected the most modern ideas about the period. The books were, though, written with this understanding in mind. It was fully understood that your teacher might have to tell you to ignore chapter six because it turns out that's a little too far behind the curve.
These days we seem to make the unwarranted assumption that an internet source, whether put together through exhaustive research by a great university or assembled in a few hours by a ranting illiterate in his or her bedroom, is somehow possessed of some authority. Part of the reason for this is the natural inclination to trust a source that agrees with your preconceptions, part of it is down to the egalitarian nature of the internet, where there's no great barrier to publishing your thoughts alongside those who have far more knowledge.
But the darkest part of it, the most dangerous part, is the dynamic and adaptive nature of the internet. Your internet and my internet aren't the same thing. Exactly what words we type into a search engine change the sites and their relevance sorted by the algorithm. On interactive spaces like social media sites it's exponentially worse. Now, the site quietly puts before our credulous eyes things that are approved by people who have previously shared our approval of an earlier page. Within a terrifyingly short number of clicks, likes, and re-tweets our account fills up with a monolithic stream of 'information' chosen because it is judged to most closely agree with our biases. Better researched, written or balanced pieces are secretly hidden from us and, as we now see nothing that disagrees with our preconceptions, our biases are reinforced and we are steadily filled with fear of things we are learning less and less about, anger at things about which we are increasingly ill-informed.
It leads to the most astonishing moments during interviews, where a lifelong Muslim and current Islamic Scholar fields questions from someone who's yet to set foot in a Mosque and yet who claims he understands Islam.
It also breeds conspiracy. There are two famous media people today called Alex Jones. One is a British TV presenter of, frankly, light entertainment interviews. The other is the operator of a radio show, blog and venomous hate repository in the United States. I have to mention this because some British readers might get a little confused when I start talking about Jones' relentless conspiracy theorising and assume I've gone a bit odd.
The American Jones has a large following among the alt-right. He has advanced any number of conspiracy theories and they all fall apart at the first casual glance by anyone who has access to a search engine. The problem is that his show, his blog and his social media presence are just a few strands of a conspiracist collective online and, should you fall into his orbit, your social media will fill up with the rantings of people who are just as ignorant, just as racist, just as malicious and just as vile but, and this is crucial, who all agree with him. Suddenly it looks as if you have stumbled upon some great truth and that you were far from the first to do so. Now the media, or 'mainstream media' as you've probably begun to call it, seems to be lying to you and you can't understand why so many of your friends think you're an ignorant bigot when all you're trying to do is educate them.
A short while later you're complaining that the BBC, which allows Andrew Neil (a man as far-right as you can realistically be on television without falling off the edge and landing on that stack of DVDs on the carpet) to malign and threaten anyone who proposes a slightly less capitalist society, is in fact a left-wing mouthpiece for the elites. Those elites, weirdly, don't seem to include the right-wing billionaires who secretly and illegally funded the 'leave' camp in the Brexit debate or who created and funded the TEA Party. No, it's the other elites, the actors, journalists and academics. It's those elites who don't have your interests at heart, not the group that has a 6,000-year uninterrupted record of exploiting the poor and the vulnerable to line their pockets.
Your stream fills up with hate, ignorance and plain stupidity. One day you're calling a radio show to try to explain to a distinguished climatologist that climate change isn't real because, er, reasons, even though you have never studied climate and failed physics at school. The following day you've taken a rifle to a restaurant in Washington DC in order to force the owner at gunpoint to show you the basement where the Democratic Party nominee for President has been allegedly abusing children. Your commitment to this belief is now so firm that even the discovery that the restaurant doesn't have a basement seems to have no bearing on your confidence.
You've started referring to CNN as 'fake' and you ardently defend Fox News, the channel that refuses to describe itself as a news channel, as the only source of truth on television. When challenged on the lies told by Theresa May and Donald Trump you chuckle and declare that they're just playing a very clever game and nobody who isn't in on the truth could possibly understand.
Those of us who can see the Emperor is naked have an absolute responsibility to stand up and point that out. Some of the people who say how much they like his clothes are lying for their own benefit, some are going along with the crowd but it seems increasingly clear there are some people who actually believe they can see the clothes.
These are not the conditions that can cause fascism to come into being. These are the conditions that are evidence that fascism is already here. Like Arthur Dent we find ourselves just moments from the end of the world, and we're still in our pyjamas.
So, back to those innocent questions of my youth. What did you do in the war? If I'd been a German in the 1930s would I have spoken up or stayed quiet or even joined the party? If I'd been British at the time, I would almost certainly have ended up in uniform but would that have been just because my country asked it of me or would I have really understood the philosophical underpinnings of the fight? Would I have had to take off my black shirt in order to replace it with khaki? When those gut-wrenching images from Belsen first appeared of the survivors with translucent skin stretched like clingfilm over fleshless skeletons and the bulldozers pushing piles of victims into mass graves while the drivers wore masks to ward off stench and disease... Would I have felt validated? Sickened? Stunned? Would it have been that sight that finally turned me away from antisemitism or fascism? Or would I have always known what evil it wrought? When the film cut to that young soldier, who had fought from the Channel to Germany, losing friends, killing enemies, his humanity slipping from his fingers with every step; now standing, the tears in his eyes mutely attesting that in this most deadly of all wars there were things he could not believe he witnessed and they weren't committed with bullets or bombs but with the stroke of a pen. Would that teach me, finally, what it meant to build government of the people, by the evil, for the evil?
The war is starting now and it may not be too late to avert millions of casualties, in fact it may be a very different type of war this time. It's a war that can't be won with violence, it must be won with education and compassion, weapons that the alt-right are incapable of wielding since their approach relies on ignorance and anger. Ultimately we will win or we will lose but I firmly believe that if we lose, everybody loses, if we win, everybody wins.
Perhaps, even this early, I can answer the first of those naive questions. In fact, I begin to wonder, if I'd asked the older generation the question would some of them have answered this way too?
What did I do in the war?
Not enough. Not nearly enough.