The year 2017 began on 24 June 2016 with the leave result in the EU Referendum and was accelerated several months later with the successful election of Donald Trump as President of the United States on 9 November.
In both events, significant proportions of the electorate in both the UK and the US had ostensibly become fed up with the status quo, and a renewed politics of resentment ushered in two astounding electoral victories that will change Anglo-American politics forever.
Much of the diagnosis of the problems of contemporary politics and governance was correct: globalisation, free trade, democratization, human rights, integration, and other symbols of a liberal world order simply had not delivered enough tangible benefit to enough people who then used their power of the vote to make their voices heard.
The solution being offered for the ills of this liberal world order, however, have been extremely divisive with their appeal to the baser instincts of human nature: relative deprivation, xenophobia, racism, isolationism, economic nationalism and an extreme over-simplification of politics that divides the world between notions of ‘us’ and ‘them’.
BREXITRUMP is my own neologism that captures what we experienced in 2017 and what we will experience in 2018 and beyond as the full ramifications of these two elections run their course. As 2018 begins, my deepest worries are about how profound and how long the effects of BREXITRUMP will be.
First, the campaigns for leaving the EU and Making America Great Again engaged in a certain ‘logic of equivalence’ where highly disparate groups of people are discursively constructed to be the same (or at least equivalent) with a view to galvanising supporters through a politics of ‘the other’ and fear of the unknown.
For Nigel Farage, the scion of the leave campaign, all migrants to the UK were bad, whether they were EU nationals with legal rights to movement, illegal immigrants, refugees or asylum seekers. The nadir of his appeal to voters’ darker instincts came with his billboard proclaiming ‘Britain is at Breaking Point.’
For Donald Trump, the logic of equivalence meant that significant ‘outgroups’ (Mexicans, Muslims, Syrian refugees, among others) were no longer welcome in America; a stance that manifested itself in repeated attempts at a travel ban against 8 Muslim majority countries, the fortification and enhancement of ICE, and the continued promise to build a wall to separate the United States from Mexico.
Second, there has been a dismantling or threat to dismantle long fought human rights achievements. The Withdrawal Bill, if passed, will allow the UK Government to reconsider and rescind human rights commitments found within the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, as well as various social and economic protections found within EU directives and regulations.
More fundamentally, in the US, Donald Trump does not seem to understand the basic protections and rights set out in the US Bill of Rights (perhaps with the exception of the Second Amendment) and the US Constitution. In his recent interview in the New York Times, he declared that he has ‘absolute authority’ to do what he wants with the Department of Justice. Such a statement comes off the back of a year of firing Department of Justice Officials (e.g. Sally Yates and James Comey), lambasting federal judges for challenging his attempted travel ban, and casting aspersions on the FBI and other intelligence agencies for their work on investigating possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Third, there has been a retreat from global alliances. The year-long process of getting past stage one in the EU negotiations has seen repeated attempts by the UK government to not honour its financial commitments to the EU, while asserting a renewed sense of national identity and independence through an appeal to changing the colour of UK passports. Whether we have a hard or soft BREXIT, the economic dip I predicted on 24 June 2016 is upon us, and likely to affect us for some time. Indeed, the World Economic Forum shows that the UK economy will contribute 1.6% to global growth in 2018 next to the Euro Zone at 7.9%, India at 8.6%, the US at 17.9%, and China at 35.2%.
Fourth, there has been an assault on both reason and reasonableness. Bold claims from many in the EU referendum simply did not bear empirical scrutiny (e.g. the claim that the NHS could see an additional £350 million per week), while Mr Trump has cast doubt on well-established scientific findings, prohibited the publication of scientific findings (particularly those related to climate change), and has gaslighted the media for false reporting, while telling remarkable tall tales himself. White House officials have either sought to present ‘alternative facts’ or have had to reinterpret what the President has said (or tweeted) to maintain some semblance of rationality in public discourse.
The assault on reasonableness is probably the most troubling. On line and off line behaviours have degenerated into more confrontation, which at times, has led to extreme inter-personal violence (e.g. the murder of Jo Cox in the UK and the ram raid against a protester at the Charlottesville ‘alt right’ rally). Public debate and discussion on fundamental issues facing society are proving elusive, as opposing groups retreat into their own news and social media bubbles. Death threats have been made against anyone who questions BREXIT negotiations and process, or those who were survivors of the Las Vegas shooting.
This descent into barbarism must be confronted and challenged through a re-centring of our politics and a re-grounding of it on reasonable discussion of facts, patterns, and evidence. There are simply not ‘alternative facts’ but competing bases of evidence and interpretation that should form the basis for rational debate. There is also an accumulation of scientific knowledge that is based on observation, theory, collection of evidence, testing of theories, findings, and refinement of theories and explanations. Pure assertion without evidence is simply not good enough and can lead to the polarised post-truth politics that are destined to destroy our societies if left unchecked.
There should be an acceptance that mainstream media (MSM) do not always get it right, but their work is grounded in reason and evidence, and their role is to hold public officials to account. When they get it wrong, they explain and retract. The honesty of explanation, apology, and retraction is not evidence of ‘fake news’ but evidence of the fallibility of news reporting and the challenges of quality reporting in an era of real time access to information.
The academy also has a role to play here. Across the disciplines is a commitment to engage in the genesis and evolution of ideas, where freedom to enquire and challenge is the bedrock of the scholarly endeavour and raison d’être of academic institutions. Many scholars are stepping out and sharing their research with wider communities, but more could be done to engage with the world’s smartest minds in order to solve some of society’s toughest problems. The dismissal of ‘experts’ in the UK is done at our peril. Legal, political, economic, and other experts have much to share on the many problems that confront us today.
All of us need to transcend our informational and cultural bubbles. We need to engage with other bubbles, read uncomfortable thoughts and ideas, and discuss problems without lapsing into vitriol and violence. Failure to address these problems now risks a prolonged crisis of politics for the medium to long term. The impact of BREXIT will, in many ways, be more profound and long lasting than Trump, but after March 2019 when the UK leaves the EU and after Donald Trump (whenever that might be), the sentiments, attitudes, and instincts that underpin much of this dark turn in politics will remain. This week’s release of the Thatcher papers show that the issue of Europe has riven the conservative party for decades, while political scientist Cas Mudde argues that a post Trump America will still harbour all the same feelings that led to Trump’s America.
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