Friday, 26 February 2016

Brexit is the British Trump

After years of vilifying the EU, the English elite have created a Frankenstein's monster they cannot control.

It now looks increasingly likely that Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee for the US Presidency, and the world is looking on in bemused horror. What kind of hysteria has propelled this man toward becoming the American right's standard-bearer?

It has been widely observed over the past months that this is a monster of the Republican Party's own making. For years the party has driven turnout by peddling a narrative of fear, and stoking the worst instincts of its base. Truth became relative, and 'truthiness' was the name of the game. If it felt true, then go with it.

Emotive politics told people that their country was being run by a Socialist terrorist who wanted to take everyone's guns and force them to get gay-married. Fear brings people to the polls, and this is how the Republicans came to control 2/3 of the state legislatures in the US after 2010, as well as the national Congress.

But the Republicans' chickens are coming home to roost. The fact-free populism on which they have based their appeal has created a Frankenstein's monster in the form of a billionaire reality TV star. The fear-mongering was useful as long as they could control it and use it for their own ends. But, as has become evident, the Republican establishment has lost control of the fear machine. It is now controlling them. 

The people that the Republicans have worked up into such a frenzy are ready to blow up the whole system. Because if things are really as bad as they have been told over the past eight years, what do they have to lose?

English populism

The US primaries have garnered a huge amount of attention around the world, as I have observed with dismay. Nowhere has this been more true than in the United Kingdom, where American political news is treated as somehow domestic. 

But as Brits deride what is happening in America, they should look at their own backyard. Because the populist monster that Republicans have created in Trump looks a lot to me like the Brexit referendum.

For years, the English political and media establishment has scored cheap points by vilifying the EU, casting it as the bogeyman across the channel. Newspapers could delight their readers with outrageous euromyths (usually outright lies) and not face any consequences. This easily digestible fiction fed into an already-existing national narrative of Brussels being simultaneously incompetent and machiavellian (a dualism in the English mind I never could understand). The political and media elite encouraged a fact-free political discourse about the EU that has mirrored what is going on in the US (for instance, on the subject of Obamacare).

Both Labour and Conservative politicians used Brussels as a convenient scapegoat for any unpopular policy, even when the UK government actually voted for it in the Council. 

The information British voters receive about the EU has for years been in some strange fact-free vortex. For years I was the journalist on my team who had the misfortune of having to cover the David Cameron press conference at the end of each European Council summit in Brussels. For years I have sat in amazement as the British prime minister talked about issues that weren't even vaguely related to the summit that had just concluded (colouring books anyone?). It was as if he had attended a different summit than all the other leaders.

The Westminster press corps that follows the prime minister to Brussels (the only journalists in the room who he ever calls on, incidentally) just ate it all up. For me, those British briefings were always a surreal experience (and I would have preferred to be next door at the French or German briefings where they actually discussed the substance of the summit).

But the English political and media elite has not been interested in the truth when it comes to the EU. They're interested in the narrative. By vilifying the 'foreign unaccountable overlords' the English political leadership could present themselves as part of the people, emphasising their own 'Englishness' in the face of foreign danger. They knew that what they were saying wasn't the truth, but what did it matter? It was all so easy. And like with the Republicans in America, nobody was thinking of the long-term consequences of this strategy.

Now, the chickens have come home to roost. The years of Brussels-bashing built into a crescendo that made holding a referendum a political necessity for the Conservative party. And in the face of the impending referendum in June, suddenly the English political and media elite have made an about-face - because they understand that secession would plunge the UK into turmoil.

Media companies are instructing their papers to urge a yes vote. The Conservative leadership is urging a yes vote on the basis of a laughably empty 'renegotiation deal' agreed last week (a purely face-saving political stunt). Labour, which has been either mute or negative on the EU issue over the past decade, is also urging a yes. So are the Greens and Lib Dems. The only party in the UK urging a no vote is the one-issue UK Independence Party, with their one MP in the British Parliament.

It all reminds me very much of what the Republican establishment in the US is going through now. Mitt Romney, the Bushes, Nikki Haley, they're all suddenly urging restraint in the face of the monstrous comments of Donald Trump. Watching Haley's state-of-the-union response last month, it was as if this was a completely different Republican Party. Gone was the divisive language and the outlandish attacks. Suddenly the Republicans were urging people to keep their cool.

Fox News, the Republicans' media mouthpiece, is also shocked, just shocked, by Trump's comments. Such divisive rhetoric! Such offensive characterisations! 

But it's too late now. The monster has been unleashed. Where were these Republicans in 2004 when George W Bush built his reelection effort on the back of anti-gay referendums in 13 states? Where were they in 2010 when Republicans took the Congress by painting US healthcare reform as a Socialist assault on American values? 

Across the pond, it's all well and good that the English media and political establishment are appealing to reason now and urging a yes vote. But where were they over the past decade? Nobody except the marginalised Liberal Democrats were standing up for the EU and explaining to people why the UK needs to be part of the union. Instead, the establishment was feeding people a naive fairytale of British self-sufficiency, tugging at post-imperial heartstrings and appealing to nationalist sentiment. 

Of course, some establishment Conservative politicians have joined the out camp - such as Boris Johnson. And some establishment Republicans, such as Chris Christie, have joined the Trump camp. But this is based on a craven political calculation, a recognition that the Frankenstein's monster is likely to prevail, and that you want to be with him rather than against him when his victory comes.

Years of misinformation has meant that the call to 'make Britain great again' is falling on receptive ears in the public. They have been told by the political and media elite over the past decade that the EU is a burdensome bureaucracy that does no good, and that the UK can go it alone and still be a world power in the 21st century. False promises of the Trump variety.

Populism is a dangerous tool. It can get you what you want in the short term, as long as you can control it. But when you lose control of it, there can be catastrophic consequences. It now appears that the Republican voters may select Trump as their nominee despite the warnings of the Republican establishment. And it appears that the British voters may select to secede from the EU despite the warnings of the British establishment. Both outcomes will have dire consequences for the countries concerned, and for the world at large.

The genie's out of the bottle, and both sets of elites have only themselves to blame.

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