In 2009, James Delingpole – a right-wing scribbler known for his hatred of the EU and total dismissal of climate change – wrote a book aimed at an American audience called ‘Welcome to Obamaland: I Have Seen Your Future and It Doesn’t Work’. You could be forgiven for missing it, but it argued that Barack Obama would seek to turn the United States into a socialist state like Britain, based particularly on the delivery of universal healthcare. All nonsense, of course, but it got me thinking at the parallels between right wing politicians and campaigners here – and their overblown claims – and the politics of Donald Trump over there, not least given Nigel Farage has appeared at a Trump rally and reportedly helped prepare him for Trump’s disastrous debate performances.
Both Donald Trump and the Vote Leave campaign epitomised ‘post-truth politics’. In Britain, we have seen what happens when such people end up in power. Their most graphic claim took the form of the massive red battle bus carrying a slogan that was repeated in nearly every press release and leaflet they produced – “We send the EU £350 million a week let’s fund our NHS instead.” Despite thousands of people signing a petition calling on them to keep their promise, there has been much backtracking since. Other Vote Leave promises, such as cutting VAT and introducing a points-based immigration system, have similarly sunk without trace.
Donald Trump has carved out a similar line in simple untruths. A fact-checking service has found that the Republican nominee told 40 lies in one day on Saturday – breaking his previous record of 37. These ranged from exaggerating the number of people attending his rallies to claiming that Hillary Clinton is responsible for the creation of so-called Islamic State.
Worryingly, both the victorious Brexit campaigners and the Republican candidate Trump have indulged in angry rhetoric against some of the framework of constitutional democracy itself. Trump has achieved notoriety for claiming that the US election is being rigged (without a shred of evidence), and raising the possibility that he would simply refuse to accept the result if he lost. Meanwhile, in Britain, judges who upheld the right of the people’s representatives in parliament to decide the timing (not the fact) of British exit from the EU have been excoriated as ‘enemies of the people.’ Brexiteers have also called on the independent Governor of the Bank of England to resign. Whether on the Left or the Right, almost all politicians accept certain rules of the game and the rule of law – such as the independence of the judiciary and the inviolability of election results – but not so Trump and his Brexiteer friends in the UK.
This anger and rejection of moderate, fact-based argument has already had serious consequences. In Britain, the level of hate crimes committed rose 49 per cent higher than normal levels in the weeks after the referendum vote. The Commissioner of London’s Metropolitan Police himself said there was a “spike” in such crimes after the vote. The rise of Trumpism has likewise been accompanied by acts that one would have hoped would have passed into the history books, such as the burning of a black church in Mississippi last week. When passions are whipped up against foreigners, against so-called elites, when the legitimacy of the political process is called into question – these actions have consequences.
Whatever the result of the presidential election today, those of us on the Centre and Left of politics, in Britain and in the United States, must work out how we respond to the new establishment which is what populists like Trump become, and how we build a new coalition for a politics that unites and does not divide our nations. For even if Trump loses, he will have been shockingly successful – capturing the nomination of the Republican Party in the first instance was after all no mean feat.
We must fight hard for the values we believe in – respect, openness, and a solidarity that cuts across races, religions and classes to bring people together. To prove that by the strength of our common endeavour, we achieve more than we achieve alone. But we also must seek to address and understand the forces that lead to a rise in support for the demagogues, by giving all people a share in the proceeds of growth, and addressing legitimate concerns about the pace and scale of change driven by immigration in some communities. As progressives, it is up to us to prove that we should be seeking to make our countries greater still, not ‘great again’.
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