(or, Another Person Pontificating about Brexit and Trump)
It may not surprise you, but it surprised me, that I was extremely upset by the result of the UK’s referendum in June on whether to stay or leave the EU. I didn’t expect to cry or feel so strongly about it. After all, as a vaguely left-of-centre, tending towards the Liberal Democrat Party person, I am used to my chosen person or party losing. It wasn’t just that I thought that Brexit was and is a bad idea in practical terms (although we don’t seem able to agree on what Brexit actually is), it was all the lies and partial truths that both sides blithely spouted and, most of all, the ugly xenophobia and hatred that some people now started to express so openly. It was the first time that I’d paid any real attention to the tabloid press and I was shocked at what I saw there.
Like many other Europeans, I’ve been watching the rise of Donald Trump with increasing horror and bemusement. It seemed there was nothing that he could say or admit to which would deter people from voting for him. And a presidential election surely focuses very much on the character of the candidate. There are checks and balances (we hope) on a president’s power, but he is what the American people choose to show the world to represent their values. I don’t like Donald Trump’s values, and I fear them.
So for a while after Brexit and for a while after Trump’s victory I just felt sadness and anger. How could they? And in my inability to understand why anyone could justifiably vote for Donald Trump I have found an answer, in a way, although I hope it’s not a glib answer and I still wonder if it stands up. I am surrounded by people who think like me, broadly speaking. I read newspapers and sites who share my views. I don’t have much to do with those who hold different opinions. I am isolated from the people who voted to Brexit, physically and mentally. I don’t read about their concerns and I dismiss those of their views I find repugnant as if that will make them go away. It’s not often that I really have to argue a point any more, or that I subject my ideas to much scrutiny. Why then do I expect others to have done this? Why should a Daily Mail reader have done it, if I haven’t?
We all increasingly live in chambers of mirrors, which reflect back to us what we want to believe. The British and the American media often serve us badly; many outlets are partisan and we know it. We read those papers and watch those news bulletins which share our perspective. Those who become cynical about hidden agendas often seek alternative news sources on the internet, and not all of these are reliable. Soon it’s difficult to distinguish what is ‘true’ from what is ‘fact’, so to some extent we all give up and just stick with what we want to believe. We choose to see only what we want to see and ignore the rest if it doesn’t fit.
While we shouldn’t over-emphasise the similarities between Brexit and Trump, there do seem to be some. Of course, unless mind-reading devices are now standard issue for political journalists, we can’t be sure of why people voted, though there are lots of analysts writing thoughtful opinions about this. After reading quite a few of these pieces, I think it is reasonable to say that both Brexit and Trump represent for sure a surge in nationalism, isolationism, anger at the political classes, selfishness, racism/xenophobia, Islamophobia and delusion. But how much each of those elements weighed with individual voters will have varied. I don’t think that everyone who voted Brexit was a roaring racist, for instance (though some were), but it seems likely that they considered the dangers of isolation and xenophobia to be less important to them than ‘taking back control’. I don’t think that everyone who voted for Trump is a dyed-in-the-wool misogynist (though some are), but for some of them misogyny was less of a problem than Clinton’s hawkishness. Some people are less bothered by racism and sexism than they are by other things, or because they haven’t thought much about them, crucially because they are not the people adversely affected by them; I think this isn’t quite the same as their being actively racist or sexist. Surely a person who is thoughtless about something can be shown it; a person who has thought about something and actively decided on hate is harder to persuade. Or is this my own delusion speaking?
This year has taught me that we take our freedoms for granted and bear our responsibilities to each other lightly. It’s taught me I’m not the only coward and that that’s no longer good enough. It’s taught me that people prefer easy answers to hard truths and won’t look at what they don’t like. It’s taught me we need to start listening to each other better and also challenging each other’s perceptions and calling people out for racism or misogyny; we need to step out of our chambers of mirrors and be brave. It’s taught me that there are some politicians who will take advantage of our apathy, selfishness and ignorance; we should not let them and we should hold all our leaders to account for what they say and do. This year is still teaching me. I haven’t liked what I’ve learnt so far, but I am paying attention.