John Bird: The Trump story shows that moral outrage can backfire

If we want to make sure Trump and Brexit don't get the better of us, we should climb down from the moral high ground and work together

I get asked a lot of questions. One is how do you keep your love of The Big Issue alive. I say I try, although with difficulty, not to moralise.

It’s very difficult for me to moralise about anything. To have the moral high ground. I do try it. Yes, I have often defined myself by the failures of others.

Moralising, or always looking for the moral issue in things, seems to me a bit like pulling a woolly hat down over your eyes. It’s useful in the wind, but limits your view and feel of the world.

(I happen to be writing in a very windy field and could do with a woolly hat. But the occasions are not plentiful when a woolly hat is the best thing on earth.)

If you are a moralist you don’t have to do anything. You lay out your store of moralisations, and carp from the sidelines at the failures of others. Of course there are those moralisers who are involved and don’t carp from the sidelines. But I always feel that they are trying to cement their moral posture, point scoring, politicking.

Having been a lying, cheating, greedy, selfish, dishonest, thieving, conniving, moral nightmare it’s difficult then to start throwing moral stones at immoral glass houses

I spent decades doing that. When I lived in revolutionary politics – yes, you actually live in it, it surrounds you – I was always fulminating about the failures of capitalism. But without ever quite understanding how it works. What it was. Where it came from. Where it was going.

And the eye-bulging outrage that surrounded me with my fellow revolutionaries was difficult to equate with pursuing a true revolutionary goal. Surely we were swapping outrage and anger, and grief, and the sufferings thrown up by capital, for analysis and understanding in order to rid the world of capital.

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So if you set out to destroy capitalism, which was our intended target, if you turned it into a moral crusade it would only lead to moral outrage at moral iniquities.

It was obvious to all of us that the destruction of capitalism was necessary; but it needed more than more outrage; more than moralising.

Every Ascot Day our revolutionary paper would have large pictures of silly hats on women’s heads, and over-dressed blokes, with outraged commentary; year in and year out. That is until the paper folded having among other things run out of moral steam. You can’t keep people perfecting the fight for justice, or equality on the octanes produced by moral outrage.

Having been a lying, cheating, greedy, selfish, dishonest, thieving, conniving, moral nightmare it’s difficult then to start throwing moral stones at immoral glass houses. I need more ammunition to destroy poverty, injustice, death and murder of people and the living planet. I need bigger bits of intellectual dynamite and practical solutions to equip my army of activists with.

It was then that I started to worry that Trump could get in. He had stirred up such morally superior opposition that they did not know what was going on. They had lost

Hence the fact that I do not sit easy in parliament; because parliament and most politics sustain itself on disdain for the moral shortcomings of people other than themselves. I have to be careful in such company. I have to hold back climbing on to any moral high ground because it will always be difficult for me to defend. I’d soon be overrun by people who can claim the moral high ground and have the moral pedigree to prove it. They will come with their moral certificates.

Trump is a case to point, if we want to see the damage that over-moralising can do to your intellectual and moral posture. Some months before the US election that brought Trump to power I bought a copy of The New Yorker.

They normally have about 30 cartoons per issue. This issue though was full of the moral outrage of the superior readers, who were asked to participate and laugh and ridicule Trump: every cartoon was an anti-Trump piece.

It was then that I started to worry that Trump could get in. He had stirred up such morally superior opposition that they did not know what was going on. They had lost. And they did.

Trump is more than a moral outrage. We have to move on from registering his faux pas, which are numerous and continuous. We have to look with detachment to understand what he is doing, why he is doing it. Greed, stupidity, both of which are sizable ingredients in his makeup, will not explain the historic and hysterical place America has arrived at. With Trump as an apotheosis of all the wrongs that make up the modern world. As well as some of the pluses.

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In our own fields of political posturing and moralising we are having a field day. May took a big risk and lost her majority. Anyone who takes a risk, a jump, a chance, should be congratulated however it comes out. She wanted a stronger mandate. But she didn’t get it. She had reasons for it. She may have entered the election ahead but she and most had not read the entrails of tomorrow right. Most people don’t do well at it.

Now we have to stop moralising and look for ways of getting more out of Brexit than it looks as if there is in it. We have to rise above our outrage and all unite to make sure that Europe does not kick us so hard that we turn into an outraged island of moralists. Hurt and grieving, and looking for revenge on Johnny Foreigner. Moral outrage needs to be scuppered. Or we will be.