With the initial hysteria subsiding in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s victory in last week’s US election, his opponents at home and abroad are coming to terms with his unprecedented victory, and commentators have started asking the important questions – how and why did this happen?
From the perspective of a pro-European in the UK, this was a Brexit mark 2. Once more, as the first results rolled in and the analysts began their discussions, all the telltale signs of a huge upset were there: Trump was winning big across the board, whereas Clinton’s leads were uncomfortably small. The pollsters got it wrong – again. The pundits got it wrong – again. My friends got it wrong – again. The bookies, who had favoured Hillary from the outset, steadily shifted their odds, and they soon fell in line with those seen on the night of June 23rd – Trump had not just clinched it, he’d swept to victory.
The initial reaction was not dissimilar to the night of Brexit either. Again, I found myself bombarded with a torrent of messages and online posts, ninety-nine percent of which were making the same points; this is essentially end of days, so who on Earth could possibly have voted for this, and why did they do it?
Once again, to answer this question we can draw parallels with Brexit and the situation in the UK. Both results reveal a painful rift at the heart of our two societies that will take some time to heal. Britons and Americans now live in countries where one half of the population is so far removed from the other, that at least one side does not seem to be aware that the other exists. For pro-Europeans and opponents of Trump, both Brexit and the US election were gut-wrenching tragedies, but they also taught us a very important lesson; that it is incredibly dangerous to simply dismiss those views we disagree with as ‘wrong’ or ‘stupid’, even if we believe that to be a valid judgment, and that by surrounding ourselves only with those whose political ideals fall in line with our own, we remain blind to the reality of what our more distant compatriots believe. In doing so, we set ourselves up for shock results such as these.
So who are the 17 million Britons who voted for Brexit, and the 50 million-odd voters who voted for Trump? Furious liberals and left-wingers were quick, in both cases, to apply all manner of labels to these unknown masses: stupid, racist, sexist, idiots. Yes, there are undoubtedly racists in the Brexit camp, misogynists and white supremacists in the Trump camp, and an exceptional number of ignorant voters in both groups – to deny this would be even more foolish than claiming that all 67 million are vile xenophobes. Yet it is unthinkable, and indeed impossible, that every Brexiteer and Trump supporter falls into the category of ‘racist scum’. The problem is that in our vehement opposition to Trump and Brexit we have silenced the hidden masses, and it is only when they reach the ballot box that they are able to speak up. A few people I know were quite happy to declare open support for Brexit or Trump, but they were so few and far between that by taking a look at my newsfeed the night before the EU referendum and the US election, you might be excused for thinking that Remain and Hillary were about to win by a colossal landslide. In the end, the ‘silent majority’ came out in force to vote for what they believed in, but until that point they had been too afraid to speak their mind.
Particularly in the case of Brexit, we have since been able to identify some of the factors other than racism and xenophobia that led people to cast their votes as they did. Disillusioned and disenfranchised working-class white individuals, fed up with a system that had been worsening their lot for many years, suddenly turned out to vote en masse. For them, both Brexit and Trump offered an opportunity to stick it to the establishment and shake up the political system. It is unfortunate, therefore, that neither option is likely to improve their lives in any meaningful way. We have entered an age in which many voters no longer want to hear from the ‘experts’, and cannot or will not properly inform themselves before voting. They look for quick answers to complex problems, and demagogues such as Trump and Farage are quick to offer scapegoats like Mexican immigrants or the EU that seem to adequately explain the root causes of issues such as austerity, unemployment, and a generally lower quality of life.
What is most concerning is that those who are ill-informed hold so much sway over the transfer of power. If Brexit and Trump’s election were the result of an educated decision across the board – even one that we don’t agree with – this would be far less of an issue, at least in terms of what it says about our voting population. The truth is, however, that Brexit and Trump triumphed because of an angry electorate that was, in each case, spoon-fed lies on a grand scale and did not fully understand what it was voting for. Sadly, while these people may believe they have punished the establishment, they have in fact played right into the hands of an élite caste that uses endemic ignorance to fuel its political ambitions.
It is clear that our democracy, for all its worth, is being undermined and corrupted. This is not new or unusual, but when sweeping constitutional changes are made and heads of state are elected during an epidemic of ignorance and gross dishonesty, the validity of the democratic process must be called into question. The voter may well be the one holding the pen, but all too often the vote that is cast is nothing more than a product of lies, deceit, and somebody else’s populist agenda.
It is now time for a reality check. We cannot continue as before, lambasting and ridiculing all those who voted for Brexit and Donald Trump, but must instead take this as a wake up call that was sorely needed. Granted, very difficult times lie ahead, but the sky will not fall in and the ground beneath our feet will not open up. We need to think critically about what has happened and ask ourselves what can be done to combat widespread ignorance and the feeling of under-representation in many parts of our modern society. We must then act on this, or we will be forced to watch as this worrying trend continues and more demagogues step up to abuse cynical and misinformed populations looking for seemingly easy solutions to deep-rooted issues. I am not the one to offer a concrete solution, but better education is clearly a priority, along with a major reduction in the dissemination of false information by those in a position of authority.
If we are unable to change our tack, it is not unthinkable that similar situations will arise elsewhere in Europe and the rest of the developed world. Far-right parties and populist leaders, armed with a list of convenient untruths to feed to an unwitting electorate, are ready to pounce. It is our duty, as global citizens, to ensure that this does not happen.