What really lies behind Trump, Brexit and “national populism”?
During the post Iraq War days (when Iraq was effectively if not in name under occupation), the pro-war blogger Norman Geras ran an article on what it called the Single Transferable Article About Iraq or STAI. The easy way to spot a STAI, according to him, was silence on one date, that of the first democratic elections in Iraq in history or since God knows when (30th Jan 2005). They were always written by anti-war leftists who, they believed, could not bring themselves to accept that the outcome of the invasion was good (as we now know, it really was not, despite some glimmers of hope such as that occasion). In the post-2016 era, a common feature in the media and blogosphere is what I have come to call the STAB: the Single Transferable Article about Brexit. STABs are typically all about why the Brexit vote was perfectly legitimate, represents a lasting shift in public opinion and that the liberal Remainer elite consoles itself with myths (such as that voters were deceived by Russian-sponsored propaganda) and stereotypes (such as that most retainers were racists or old white bigots). What defines the STAB is silence on the role of the mass media in fomenting the attitudes and beliefs that led to the 2016 result. The latest example was in last Sunday’s Sunday Times, an extract from a book by Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin, which sought to debunk a number of the comforting myths and stereotypes that Remainers use to discredit the 2016 referendum result and that liberal intellectuals use to explain the popularity of Donald Trump and various ‘national populist’ movements across Europe. (Article is paywalled; you need to register to read it.)
Incidentally, the book is being promoted in a series of talks by the authors over the next couple of months, and interestingly for a book aimed at debunking the myths of a “comfortable elite”, five of their eight appearances are in London (the others are in Bristol, Birmingham and Canterbury), so they are not straying far beyond that elite’s comfort zone themselves.
My first action when reviewing these sorts of articles is to do a simple text search for words such as ‘news’, ‘media’, ‘papers’ and ‘tabloid’. Usually the hit count is tiny and in this case it’s zero for all of them, except for ‘media’ which in this case occurs once, as part of the word ‘median’. To give them due credit, they mention that the fears about the threat to people’s way of life “may not be grounded in objective reality” but do not explain this any further. I do not believe any study of why people voted for Brexit in particular is valid without examining the role of the mass media, which has been dominated by right-wing corporate players since the 1980s, some of the largest of which have been running a campaign of propaganda and misinformation against the EU and the EEC before it since the 1980s and the European Convention on Human Rights since the late 1990s when it was incorporated into British law. This is a major reason why the tide of revelations about Russian involvement in and funding for the Leave campaign have not had the results that the Remain side believe they should.
The chief reason they hate strong international institutions is that they are a threat to the power of British politicians, whom they can normally expect to react quickly to media-generated outrages with panic legislation (which they can tear apart at a later date, e.g. the Dangerous Dogs Act) or a crackdown (e.g. the 2006 “foreign criminals scandal”). Politicians hate them for the same reason: until very recently, power meant power. Unlike American politicians, they were not used to the idea that the laws they passed could be scrutinised by judges or that they could be told “you can’t do that”; they made the rules, others obeyed them.
In addition to the mainstream media, social media plays a major role today in circulating myths which feed hostility to immigrants, refugees and other newcomers. This has been particularly recorded in developing countries where Facebook is the biggest source of ‘news’; people have been lynched and houses and businesses burned because a rumour circulated that members of a particular community were responsible for a rape, or similar. In the case of Germany, social media, blogs and pseudo-news sites circulated rumours of a mass sexual assault by Arabs at a public event in Cologne two years ago, but closer examination revealed that the ‘Arab’ element to the story was spurious. This past summer, the New York Times revealed that hostility to and violence against refugees in Germany was spread through Facebook and that communities where Facebook use was high also had higher rates of racial violence. There is no mention of Facebook (or Twitter) in this article, either, yet it should be considered when evaluating the reasons for the rise of Alternative für Deutschland. (Social media rumours played a large part in mustering the support among ethnic minorities for Brexit; among them the claim that the European Parliament would ban halal slaughter and that reducing eastern European immigration would mean more of their people would be allowed to move from South Asia again. One of these is baseless; the other is wishful thinking.)
Eatwell and Goodwin are, in my opinion, in error when treating Brexit, Trump and the rise of so-called national populism in Europe as the same trend or phenomenon. Brexit is a single issue; the other two are political parties or its leader in the case of Trump. In the UK and USA, it has been the mainstream Right that has benefited, if only temporarily, and in the USA been radicalised; in Europe, not only the centre-left but mainstream Right parties such as the Christian Democrats in Germany are facing challenge as well — Angela Merkel, it should be remembered, is a Christian Democrat who was compared to Margaret Thatcher when she was on the rise. In the USA, white supremacism has always been closer to mainstream politics than in the UK (openly race-based political appeals are banned in much of Europe) as parts of the country were legally white-supremacist within living memory — not in the sense that there was racism and discrimination, but that there was legally mandatory discrimination in which Black people could not vote, could not use the same facilities or go to the same schools, etc. as Whites. A major part of the political Right’s campaigns has been to challenge the legal rulings that held racial discrimination and voter suppression to be unconstitutional, hence the struggle to get ‘conservative’ judges like Brett Kavanaugh nominated to the Supreme Court.
In both the cases of Brexit and Trump, there is no single reason why these two things happened. They note that support for Brexit is strong in many parts of provincial England, some of it affluent and some of it depressed from the decline of heavy industry and not all of it white-dominated. There is also no getting away from the fact that outside some major cities where the Remain vote was strongest, the rural areas that supported Remain were in the south. In the North, the old mining and steel-working areas voted to leave, with the exception of the big cities (Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Newcastle) which have substantial student populations. Dissatisfaction at how Britain engages with Europe must play a big role: we have tended to engage with Europe to the benefit of business, not ordinary people — witness how we refused passport-free travel and still allowed the price of a passport to increase considerably during the 2000s. It was the then pro-EEC Tory party that presided over the destruction of industry in the 1980s and early 90s and the pro-EU Labour party which treated the ex-industrial north as a group with “nowhere else to go” in the late 90s and 2000s. So, the whole thing cannot be put down to a movement preoccupied with national identity (though the issue of immigration from eastern Europe was a major factor). Economic dissatisfaction fed into it as well.
In the case of Trump, it has to be remembered that he got 3 million fewer votes than Clinton and won because the electoral college arrangement is weighted in favour of small, rural (and predominantly White) states; the Republican Party is also notorious for voter suppression at every level, targeted at citizens judged likely to vote against them. He won in the key northern states by attacking the trading agreements many Americans blame for the loss of manufacturing jobs in states like Pennsylvania. He ran on a protectionist, “America first” platform and whether he takes them again in 2020 (if he runs, which he intends to) depends on whether he can deliver on these appeals. However, he also benefited from mounting anger at the fact of a Black president and from that president’s sympathy for campaigns against the murder of Black civilians by police and for accountability for said police; Americans were either willing to overlook his clearly expressed racism and the incidents of violence at his rallies, as well as his associations with certain neo-Nazis, or they approved.
As for Europe, Goodwin informs us that “it was actually in the 1980s that the most significant national populists in postwar Europe showed up”, such as Jean-Marie Le Pen in France and Jörg Haider in Austria. Well, anti-fascists like myself don’t like euphemisms like ‘populism’ to describe those people; we prefer terms like ‘fascist’, ‘Neo-Nazi’ or just ‘Nazi’. They had clear roots in mid-20th century fascism, often denied the Holocaust and otherwise openly espoused anti-Semitism as well as hatred of immigrants and their native-born children; the parties were typically the subject of cordon sanitaire arrangements whereby parties would coalesce with each other to make sure they did not achieve power, and when that rule was broken in Austria, the country was the subject of sanctions by the EU. Today, the AfD uses such slogans in its literature as “protect our wives and daughters”, referring to the stereotypes and rumours of Arab male refugees as sexual predators. The idea of a racial other as a threat to your women is a classic racist trope, and we should call it by its name rather than use euphemisms. Again, the view is fed by rumours, not facts. (I word-searched this article for the word ‘racist’ and it appeared once, and not in reference to parties which use this sort of rhetoric.)
And the success of the new far right is being exaggerated here; it has certainly increased its share of the vote from 4.7% and no seats in 2013 to 12.6% and 94 seats in 2017, but that is still not enough to secure power, and the Free Democratic Party also increased its vote substantially from 4.8% of the vote and no seats in 2013 to 10.7% and 80 seats in 2017. In the recent elections in Sweden, the far-right Sweden Democrats increased its share of the vote to 12.86%, which is certainly worrying but given that other parties will not touch it (and have other options as proportional representation gives the Green and Left parties greater representation than they would have in the UK), it also means they are far from power (and in any case, they are localised to two cities in the south, Malmö and to a lesser extent Jonköping and Gothenburg). In the case of Germany, their strongest showings (where they actually won constituency seats, i.e. came first in a first-past-the-post poll) was in the east where democracy has only been firmly established since 1990; before that, it had been a dictatorship under first Hitler and then the Communists since 1933. That part of the country has always been where far-right parties have done better and where racial violence has been worst, and the constituencies they won were in eastern Saxony, known during Communist times as the “Valley of the Clueless”, which was for geographical reasons beyond the reach of western radio broadcasts. In the most recent state elections in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union (the Bavarian equivalent of the Christian Democrats), lost ground to both left and right, with the Greens the second biggest party with 18% of the vote to the CSU’s 37%; this is the first time since 1957 that the party has lost control of the Bavarian state legislature.
In addition, the article errs in lumping in swing voters who voted for those he classes as ‘populists’ with those who would have voted for them anyway — they lump in “what’s changed” with “what hasn’t”. They remind us that “more than 62m people voted for Trump” but this includes those in the outer and lower Midwest and the Rocky Mountain states who have voted for them since the 19th century as well as the South which has done since GW Bush’s time. They voted Republican even when its candidate was John McCain (whose bid for the presidency in 2000 was partly derailed by racist push-polling in the South and who was widely vilified by the right-wing media during Bush’s term) and then the Mormon former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. They will, in short, vote for very unlikely presidential candidates if they can be made out to be conservatives, and even though the Republican party passes over conservative Southerners such as Mike Huckabee. This is important because we need to know who to persuade if we want to change these things through the ballot box; we need to know who the swing voters are and who are set in their ways. Trump clearly understood this last time; a straightforwardly conservative appeal, besides sounding unconvincing coming from him, would not have won over the Rust Belt.
Lastly, they refer to the stereotypes entertained by the “comfortable elites” for the groups of people who voted for these three things — “irrational bigots, jobless losers, Rust Belt rejects, voters who were hit hard by the great recession and angry old white men who will soon die and be replaced by tolerant millennials” — and then gives statistics that show that younger voters, voters in prosperous areas and ethnic minorities voted for them as well. However, being young or prosperous does not stop someone from being racist or from being vulnerable to being influenced by propaganda, especially if it is delivered on a regular basis for many years and presented as news. The issue is not really that relevant, because the people who have control of the situation now are a few hundred politicians, many of whom support Brexit for quite different reasons to the supporters in the populace: desire for power, vested financial interests, ideological commitments such as to large-scale privatisation, etc. It is no coincidence that they resist demands to give the people another ballot, either a further referendum or a general election, and will do so until they reach absolute deadlock, because a repeat of the narrow 2016 referendum result is not a guarantee. The MPs talking about “going down fighting”, as Morley and Outwood MP Andrea Jenkyns proclaimed this morning, are usually not those who will have to suffer the consequences of a disorderly Brexit personally.
Finally, the matter of “what the people want” is not the be-all-and-end-all with either Brexit or Trump, or racist nationalism in Europe for that matter. When such ideology last achieved power in a European country, it was brought down by force. Regardless of whether they are a minority or not, Black Americans cannot be expected to tolerate indefinitely a racist police which harasses them on a regular basis and kills on the basis of prejudice and suspicion and a political system which is set up to deny them a fair vote. Whether people really know what they want think they know, or they are voting as a protest or whatever, if leaving the European Union will result in an economic collapse leading to mass job losses and no food on the shelves, it has to be resisted and politicians who shout about “going down fighting” are betraying their voters, not serving them.
In a “long read” opinion piece for the Guardian last week, James Miller quoted American founding father John Adams as saying “there never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide”. Today, conservative opinion writers proclaim that western democracies are committing suicide by opening themselves up to ‘incompatibles’ (usually meaning Muslims) or that the Left does the same by concentrating too much on minorities and forgetting the interests of their White base. However, the real fatal flaw of modern liberal democracy, especially in the English-speaking world, is the enormous amount of leeway it gives the commercial media to present propaganda as news and for the political classes to lie outright, without fear of sanction, as long as the lies were not against an individual. In the case of Brexit, while the turning point was undoubtedly the admission of hundreds of thousands of workers from eastern Europe in 2004, a decades-long campaign of propaganda from the commercial press and a few barefaced lies from Leave campaigners in 2016, unpunishable because lying for political ends is legal, sowed the seeds for what could be a self-inflicted national disaster. Future generations will condemn our society for allowing the media barons this much power, and may well conclude that free speech and profit do not mix.
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