Shock victory for Trump confirms that we have lurched into a new era of politics – and it isn’t pretty
I retired to bed in the early hours of the morning having watched the first parts of CNN’s excellent US Election coverage, where early indications and analysis seemed to point to a fairly comfortable Hillary Clinton victory. At this point I was happy enough to predict that although I had seen two inexplicable election results in the last 18 months – they of course being the return to Parliament with an overall majority of David Cameron’s Conservatives, and the decision that Britain should leave the EU – I wouldn’t be seeing a third. So yeah, I was wrong. For the third time out of three, as it turns out. But then I, nor indeed anyone else, can be expected to reliably predict events that fly in the face of all logic and reason. Donald Trump (!) is the next President of the United States. There’s no amount of sinking in that can be done there.
The common theme in both the EU referendum and Trump’s victory appears to be that the vote has been won by predominantly blue collar sections of the electorate who feel that they have been ‘left behind’ by modern politics. This is a perfectly valid sentiment; all of us will currently live within reasonable distance of a community which has been stripped down to desolation over the last 30 years, and it is understandable why those people would feel anger at how their own town or city has been left to rot by those in power. That they would seek to effect a change which puts them back on the map and hand back respectability. But what seems to have been completely missed in both elections is that it was right wing solutions which put those areas into that state. Thatcherism and Reaganism directly embarked on policies of eroding the manufacturing bases in both countries, of rampant belief in the free market above all else, mass privatisation of services, a dismantling of the concept of society, a race to the bottom in terms of employment and the continual espousal of the total myth that is trickle-down economics. So why has a form of further right wing dogma won the day on both occasions? This absolutely defies belief, akin to handing a burglar a set of your house keys after he’s made off with your possessions so he can have a go at pilfering the replacements a few weeks later. This counter-intuitive thinking has been shown up in the UK most recently by people reliant on in-work benefits voting for a Conservative government who brazenly state their desire to hack away at the welfare state and make the future of all such payments extremely precarious, and areas who have greatly benefited from EU funding voting to leave the EU regardless. One can only wonder what disaffected low paid US workers believe the arch-capitalist Trump is going to do to improve the lot of the working man.
It is fairly clear that we are now living in a sloganised and ‘post-facts’ era of politics. There’s a running theme in the second series of Extras where Andy Millman despairs that his dream of comedy has been reduced to shouting out inane phrases; worryingly, our politics has gone down that exact road. ‘Long term economic plan’, ‘fixing the roof while the sun’s shining’, ‘strivers not skivers’, ‘doing a Greece’, ‘take back control’, ‘make America great again’, ‘build a wall’, ‘lock her up’, ‘Brexit means Brexit’ – these are all phrases that any regular consumer of news will have heard constantly at various points over the last five years. Not one of them has any substance whatsoever, yet they are parroted ad infinitum as if their sole existence is good enough, as if that will do instead of actual policy or proper arguments.
The post-facts aspect is no less troubling and seems to be getting worse. David Cameron won his second term by continuing to peddle the long-standing – and virtually unchallenged by the media – lie that Labour alone caused the global financial crash of 2007/8. His party manifesto for 2015 stated that there would be a further £12bn worth of cuts to welfare over the next Parliament if they were elected, but refused to say where they would be coming from until they got into power, and yet people still voted for this complete absence of content. Between 2010 and 2015 his Government managed to miss virtually every single one of their own self-imposed economic targets, but he continued to press the line that only the Tories could be trusted with the economy. Austerity in itself was discredited by the overwhelming majority of leading world economists, was indeed partly abandoned through that 2010-15 Parliament, yet was then redressed as the only solution for the following five years, despite all evidence to the contrary. The culture hasn’t gone away since Cameron himself departed; only last week Damien Green was insisting that the benefit cap – which is currently being invoked and resulting in thousands of low-paid families no longer being able to afford rent or basic essentials – was a good thing as it encouraged those claimants to find more work. This despite there being no evidence whatsoever for his claim, a claim singularly debunked by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, as so many of the post-2010 welfare policies have been.
The rafts of misinformation in the campaign to leave the EU almost verged on the territory of parody, but still that side somehow won the day. Be it £350m a week being sent by the UK to the EU, all that saved money being spent on the NHS, myths about health and benefit tourism, wildly exaggerated claims of entire populations of prospective new EU member states migrating to the UK, Turkey imminently joining the EU – none of it had any basis whatsoever in fact, indeed none of it was even hard to check. But it was allowed to run riot. Michael Gove even infamously stated that ‘people are tired of hearing from experts’, as if respected expertise based upon empirical evidence in a certain field somehow now detracts from an argument. The campaign was also structured around the insistence that Britain should retain its own sovereignty in law making, a noble enough concept yet one which the Government is as we speak seeking to override, as they believe that they are not answerable to Parliament in terms of putting forward the process of withdrawal through our own elected representatives. Despite over 300 years’ worth of precedent and a High Court ruling.
Trump himself has practically no credible policies of his own. His speeches have been littered with outright lies, impractical promises and slurring of his opponents. He has been allowed to lie about his own past, his own positions, his aims and his vision for the country. His views on foreign policy are nothing short of terrifying, not to mention in breach of the Geneva Convention. He has been allowed to behave with complete impunity with regard to his personal behaviour, most shockingly in his language regarding Hispanics and women. But none of this – be it concerning the Tories, Brexit or Trump – seems to matter any more. You can put facts out in an argument. You can demonstrate the clear fallibility of an opponent’s dogma. You can produce reams of evidence to suggest that on the balance of probability, you are right and the slogan shouting, myth eulogising guy on the other side is wrong. It doesn’t count any more.
What has been apparent in all three of these campaigns, and of course why all three were to differing extents shock results, is that the pre-election polling has been found in retrospect to be completely inaccurate. This could well be due to the methods employed being greatly outdated, for the way in which people consume information these days and indeed express themselves has altered greatly in the last 20 years, while polling itself appears to be stuck in the past. But equally, there is a theory that people are ashamed to admit openly to preferring these right wing policies, the concept of the ‘shy Tory’ in the UK. This does beg the question – if it is seen to be taboo to publicly endorse thinking that is by turns racist, small minded, insular, lacking in empathy, outrageously selfish and utterly mendacious (as all three successful campaigns have variously been at different stages), it shouldn’t really be acceptable to secretly vote for it. One of the reasons so many people of my age group and demographic – the latter of which I fully accept isn’t necessarily representative of the country as a whole – find Brexit an incomprehensible concept is that we personally know so few people who will admit to voting that way (or indeed, for the Conservatives at any stage). There’s a certain irony in the contrast between the public bombast of right wing politics and the reluctance of those who endorse it to reveal themselves.
It should be said that the Left and liberal politicians in general are also complicit in the current state of affairs. The perception of ‘elite politics’ doesn’t exist by accident, governments in both the UK and the US have been increasingly remote from ordinary people for quite some time. There appears to be a fundamental issue of coherence on this side; Labour are riven by internal chaos and appear to be condemning themselves to years outside of Government at the current rate, the Liberal Democrats cut their own throats in enabling a brutalist hard-right Tory strategy in quasi-coalition, the Democrats put up perhaps the only feasible Presidential candidate who Trump could hope to beat, with a mass of public groundswell already against her and plenty of skeletons in her own closet. So while we can rightly rail against those who are now inexplicably in power and what they stand for, there simply has to be more of a credible alternative. Left-leaning parties can’t just expect people to vote for them by default because they aren’t Theresa May or Donald Trump. That isn’t anywhere near enough.
To finish – we are now intractably bound on both sides of the Atlantic to hardline, authoritarian, throwback governance, led by people with a sense of their own power and little else, with a side order of Brexit to follow. We are so often told by the overwhelmingly right-leaning media that right wing Government is the only sensible and practical way to go, that left wing policy is for political theorists and wooly-headed idealists. The next four to five years will bear out whether they are right and the likes of me are wrong, as I have been with all my political predictions over the last 18 months. Time will tell, if in the spirit of the day I can throw out my own trite, meaningless slogan. What I will say at this stage is that having the likes of Theresa May and Donald Trump as the architects of our future is deeply unpromising. They promise the politics of division, fear and elitism – that doesn’t sound like a future to me that is ‘taking back control’ for any of us.