Does Brexit illuminate Trumpism?

by Emrys Westacott

Obama-trump-brexitWhether we like or not, whether we admit or not, those of us who live in the modernized world are heirs of the Enlightenment. We know from experience and from scientific studies that there are numerous ways in which human beings are often quite irrational. Nevertheless, rational, informed deliberation in which evidence and arguments are critically and carefully evaluated remains an ideal that most of us subscribe to. It is how we think (and say we think) most decisions should be made, both in our personal lives and when we act politically as citizens, whether we are hiring an electrician or voting in an election.

So when we see people acting, as we see it, out of ignorance, or unwittingly against their rational self-interest, or swayed by emotions we don’t respect, such as racial hatred, xenophobia, or machismo, we are naturally critical. We are also, if not shocked! shocked! often bewildered. How can people not see what is so obvious to us?

This is certainly my initial reaction to the people who support Donald Trump. It seems blindingly obvious that Trump is a narcissistic, mendacious windbag, an attention junkie who manifestly lacks the knowledge, experience, judgment, and character that one would hope for in any individual who wishes to shoulder the responsibilities of high office. Asked by journalists to explain their position, Trump supporters seem to traffic mainly in vacuities or absurdities. Here’s how a Trump fan (TF) responded to questions from journalist Jordan Charlton of The Young Turks, a political commentary web series. She was asked about her favorite Trump policy.

TF: I really don’t have a favorite policy but I really like Donald Trump because he is a U.S. citizen and he is an entrepreneur and what he says is what he’s going to do.

Charlton: You said you think he’s going to get things done because of his business record.

TF: Yes. Definitely. He’s built many hotels. And what he says is he’s going to do it. And he gets the right people, the correct people……I have been into his Miami Golf course, which was very beautiful, classy, elegant, amazing.

Charlton: But there’s got to be at least one policy of his that drew you in…..I would hope. Because he gets criticized that he’s not specific about what he’s going to do.”

TF: Well…..if you’re a businessman you don’t just give away your ideas ’cause you don’t want other people to take your ideas.

Charlton: But you’re trying to convince people to vote for you to become president, so don’t you need to give them something to go on?

TF: I think he does pretty good. What he says is what he’s gonna do, and I trust him one hundred percent. [Watch the interview here:]

To be fair, many people across the political spectrum would probably not do much better if asked to explain which policies of their favored candidate they especially approve of. “He’s a good guy.” “She’s one of us.” “He knows how to get things done.” Quite often, explanations of voting preferences don’t go much further than this. After all, “In our family we’ve always voted this way” isn’t any better. What’s puzzling in the case of Trump, though, is that the claims made by his supporters seem to be so obviously at odds with the truth about the man. Given his well-documented record of bankruptcies, scams, evasions, falsehoods, inconsistencies, and patently unrealistic proposals, he’s a strange one to trust one hundred percent.

The recent victory of the Brexiters in the referendum on whether the UK should remain in the EU has led many people to reflect on–and worry about–similarities between support for Trump in the US and support for Brexit in the UK. Clearly, both campaigns have appealed to racist attitudes and anti-immigrant sentiments; indeed, this has been a core element without which neither would have got off the ground. The lack of clarity about what Leavers think Brexit will entail, and the immediate backpedalling after their victory of those who campaigned for it, is also revealing. It looks like a classic case of chickens coming home to roost when overly simple solutions are proposed for complex problems. And Trump’s critics hope the US electorate will draw the appropriate moral from this.

But suppose we bracket the racism, the xenophobia, the hopeful embracing of simplistic solutions, and (in the case of Trump supporters) the messianic faith in an individual savior. Are there, in addition, cogent reasons why people might vote for Trump. I think there are, although “cogent” does not here mean “good”; it just means understandable in rational terms. And here, too, there are interesting parallels between the appeal of Brexit and the appeal of Trump.

Leavers in the Breixt debate could point to the EU’s bloated bureaucracy along with its various inefficiencies and absurdities (to ensure certain subsidies, the French managed to get snails classified as “inland fish”). People feel that that the system they live in–or under–is controlled by people over whom they have no control. In the US a similar feeling of powerlessness has arisen because of the way politics is dominated by money. Politicians’ primary concern is to be re-elected; so they listen to and obey those who contribute most to their campaign coffers. Trump, of course, even if he’s nothing like as rich as he claims, still belongs to the socio-economic elite. So he’s an unlikely wrecking ball. But many of his supporters, believing his pitch about not owing anything to anyone,

see him as an alternative to the reigning political establishment, an outsider who would clean the stables. He isn’t, and he wouldn’t. But the stables certainly need cleaning. That much is true.

More fundamentally, a lot of people feel that they are losing out in a fast-changing world. Communities that were built around mining, manufacturing, fishing or farming have been hollowed out by new technologies and globalization. Individuals have their expectations of a decent living, their social identities, and their self-respect undermined by the same forces. Confusion, anxiety, bitterness, anger, resentment, and despair inevitably follow.

These negative reactions are exacerbated by two other features of twenty-first century capitalism, particularly as it is experienced in places like the US and the UK: the ideology of meritocracy; and the widening gap between winners and losers in the new commercial-technological order.

In the US, especially, the idea that capitalism is basically meritocratic is remarkably pervasive. At bottom, this is a form of social Darwinism, and it is pleasant reading for those who are doing well and riding high. Prominent among this group are those who have abilities and skills that are highly valued today and so can garner wealth, influence, and respect. Inevitably, though, these “winners” will be tempted to look down on the “losers,” those who for whatever reason are not able to surf the wave of rapid and constant change that has engulfed the modern world. And with equal inevitability, those looked down on will feel and resent the contempt directed towards them.

We are less inclined than the ancients or the medievals to ascribe our fortunes, good or bad, to fate or providence. So while the fortunate congratulate themselves on their achievement, the unfortunate look for someone or something to blame. Some, like Donald Trump and Nigel Farage (leader of the UK Independence Party), encourage people to blame immigrants. Trump also points to foreigners and foreign countries who benefit from “unfair” trading practices. Others from various points on the political spectrum, but particularly on the left, critique “the system.” This may refer to the political system which ensures that the people with a hold–effectively a stranglehold–on power will prioritize the interests of the rich. Or it could refer to capitalism, an economic system in which the well-being of human beings is at the mercy of market forces. Or to the whole shebang, the integrated workings of wealth and power in the interests of the wealthy and the powerful–a.k.a. the ruling class.

Those who have done well, or can expect to do well, under the present system will understandably be disinclined to rock the boat too much. Those who feel that they have lost out, or are in the process of losing out, will be more willing to take a chance and roll the dice. But whereas in ordinary gambling one knows exactly what the stakes are, in politics it’s different. The consequences of winning or losing are not known ahead of time; only in retrospect do we learn what was really at stake. It could turn out that the consequences of the Brexit vote are not so very great. Perhaps in ten years time the UK and the EU will be muddling along like a divorced couple who have remained friendly, more or less, and have managed to not mess up the kids too much. Or the UK may have broken up, its remnant in a long term recession, while the EU may have suffered further diminishment. Who knows?

I suspect that a fair number of the Brexiters and Trump supporters have the cavalier mindset of people who feel that they don’t have a lot to lose (or that they are in the process of losing what little they have). Paid up members of the chattering classes do not typically share this outlook. They tend to be educated, cosmopolitan, and liberal-minded, and therefore, especially if young, fairly well attuned to our changing times. But if you hate the direction in which the ship of state is sailing, why would you want a steady hand on the tiller? You might even welcome a storm.