Only this is what the Devil looks like. The Devil looks just fine. He can talk okay, is arguably charismatic, but his magnetism is not supernatural. He comes across as a decent sort of chap. He makes a few extreme statements - so sometimes he goes a little too far - but at least the man is honest, horns unpolished, refreshing in his candor. And he's funny. Charming rather than seductive. His blunders only prove that he is human.
He is nothing special, this Devil. I don't mean merely that he doesn't look that special, but if we’re honest (and we rarely are about this), evil is quite commonplace. The Devil has many guises; tyrannical regimes come in many bitter flavours. Yet there are three things all tyrants have in common:
- They happen to have massive, massive power.
- They use fear-mongering and scapegoating to maintain their power.
- They are in love with their own reflection, with an anxious need to protect and manipulate their image, as they imagine it to be, in the eyes of the world.
The massive power is what makes all the difference. It's an external factor; something that other people, circumstances, history or brute force makes happen. Look around for a leader who merely meets the second and third criteria and you have three out of our last five Prime Ministers. We only point and say, "Look, it's the Devil!" when they've been completely let off their reigns. When hundreds or thousands of their own people are imprisoned or violently killed.
So this is what the Devil looks like; like so many other politicians with a suit and a sound bite. And that’s part of our trouble when discussing his rise. People called Thatcher a fascist. People have described Blair as a murderer and Cameron as a man with no conscience. We’re not talking about people you’d leave your pet goldfish with – not if you didn't want it be sold off, drowned or abandoned with nothing to eat.
Only none of them made a bid for power on a platform of socially-retrograde authoritarian nationalism (or, you know, Fascism), suggesting we be afraid of our neighbours, with fellow candidates advocating the execution of minorities and political opponents. Other sinister political figures of my lifetime had a far nicer image to preserve. That's part of the reigns I mentioned.
A lot of people can smell the sulphur just now.
There’s a now much-quoted blog post by poet Michael Rosen which includes the passage:
"Fascism arrives as your friend.On Twitter, Steve Graby objected: “Worth remembering fascism comes as your friend IF you are white, straight/cis and non-disabled. Otherwise it's pretty blatantly your enemy from the start.”
It will restore your honour,
make you feel proud,
protect your house,
give you a job,
clean up the neighbourhood,
remind you of how great you once were,
clear out the venal and the corrupt,
remove anything you feel is unlike you..."
That would surely be the case if everyone knew what the Devil stands for. But it is not a civil duty to keep track of all the political goings on, to read the full manifesto rather than the single-page pamphlet. It is not morally irresponsible to zone out while the politicians bicker on the breakfast news. And many ordinary fallible people do. Most people who vote for the Devil care about one or two issues and see that guy as the guy who’s going to fix them. A lot of people vote for the Devil just because they don’t like their other options. Evil is commonplace, but naivety is pandemic. It's part of our charm.
This is what the Devil looks like. The horns and the fork-tail? All that's in the small print. There’s good and bad news about all this:
The bad news is that ordinary and fallible people can be taken in by the Devil. They don't have to be very bad or stupid, just misguided. Worse news is that you are as ordinary and fallible as the next person. He would have to wear very different clothes to fool you, of course. And maybe you do read the small print, and maybe you’d never place your vote on anyone less than a saint (abstention again, is it?), but at some point, in some context, you may well shake the Devil’s hand.
The good news is that people who support the Devil, vote for the Devil, are not evil or beyond reason. There’s as little reason to despair of your neighbours as to fear them. Better news is that a population of ordinary, fallible people in a country not yet overwhelmed with despair due to famine, mass poverty, internal divisions and war are more than capable of keeping the Devil in his place.
Despair is always the danger. Right now, politicians are so despairing of their own people that they grit their teeth and flare their nostrils, trying not to gag on the sulphur and give away the fact they can smell it. Meanwhile, some of them are, themselves, a little bit evil and the presence of the Devil beside them can only improve their own precious image. But politicians aren't very important.
Last week, I was rolling round my village, looking at potential places to live. And the thought crossed my mind,
"What if people put party political posters in their front windows? What if we find somewhere perfect but we know, without meeting them, that the neighbours are a bunch of bastards who hate people like us, our friends and families?"And I knew I was wrong at the time (and I saw just one poster, in the house of someone who always parks their sports car on the pavement so that my wheelchair is in danger of scraping the paintwork as I pass). Then this weekend, I hear that I should prefer not to live next door to Romanians and I felt even more guilty. It would be reasonable to assume that people with those posters in their windows are ordinary, fallible, just not paying so much attention, maybe with a little less to lose.
This is what the Devil looks like. His potential power lies in our despair at each other.