Trump, Corbyn, UKIP, Brexit, the SNP, Bernie Saunders… on both sides of the Atlantic it’s the age of Anti-politics. It is a time when conventional politics has morphed into protest movements and when conventional wisdoms have been suspended. Even just a few years ago the idea of Donald Trump or Jeremy Corbyn leading, respectively, the Republicans and the Labour Party would have been absurd. Neither was part of the political mainstream and neither’s CV matched that of a credible contender for high office. But it has happened – and at the same time, and for the same reasons, other forces are at play which are manifestations of the same Anti-politics theme.
In America “Change” has always been a useful campaign theme. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” and Barack Obama’s “Change you can believe in” are just two among many campaigns which have promised a break with the past. But these changes were, I think, always predicated to be within known boundaries. Donald Trump’s message “Make America Great Again” starts from a very different premise. As the “Washington Post” put it “Trump’s portrait of America was dystopian and desperate” (in his acceptance speech). And it was conventional politics which had, in the Trump argument, got America into the state it is in
Anti-politics requires scapegoats. A huge advantage that the “Leave” campaign (Brexit) had in the recent EU Referendum was that they had something to blame for what it cleverly recognised were underlying fears and concerns in the electorate. At an intellectual level Britain is a tolerant country and at a working level we get on with our neighbours (mostly!). But among many of us there are deep-seated prejudices against things that are “foreign”. Maybe this is a consequence of our history as an Island nation and our often courageous past “We have become the sole champions now in arms to defend the world cause…We shall defend our Island home” as Churchill put it in May 1940. That home, surrounded as it is by sea, has repelled invaders over the centuries but was now increasingly being populated by aliens – or so many thought.
The “Batten down the hatches and repel boarders” message has been common to Trump, UKIP and the Brexit campaign. It predicates a norm which is “people like us” and describes the threat to that norm “people who are not like us”. In the EU referendum campaign those who told the (positive) truth about free movement of labour in the EU were drowned out by the anti-migrant xenophobes of Brexit. It was an unequal battle. “Free movement” within the EU is linked directly to the free movement of capital and enterprise and is a key element of the “single market” which has removed tariffs and promoted free trade. The approximately 3m EU citizens who live in the UK have largely been absorbed effortlessly – they work, pay their taxes and contribute positively to our country as countless independent studies show. The only objection to them could be that they are “not like us” – a bias so offensive that it shames more of us that just those who say it.
A couple of years ago UKIP leader Nigel Farage said this about a recent experience on a London train “It was not until we got past Grove Park that I could hear English being audibly spoken in the carriage. Does that make me feel slightly awkward? Yes it does.” Asked why he minded people speaking in foreign languages, he replied: “I don’t understand them … I don’t feel very comfortable in that situation and I don’t think the majority of British people do.” That type of attitude lies at the heart of the anti-foreigner imperative which is now taking us out of the European Union.
Post war politics has been pragmatically centrist both in the United Kingdom and in the United States (the latter more centre-right the former more centre-left). The openness of both countries has been a common strength and neither is monocultural – certainly no longer overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon and white. But the promoters of Anti-politics do not like these changes – or they know that they can use the deep-seated prejudice of some of the electorate against them to their own advantage. The issue of the UK’s membership of the EU is immensely complex but in the campaign only one thing really mattered – migration. It is no exaggeration to say that had migration not been in the equation the country would have voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU. Except in a very small number of instances the residence of EU citizens in Britain is barely visible. There are no equivalents of the areas which we do have which are predominantly British Asian among the Poles, or the Rumanians or the Italians or the French living here. No ghettos and no takeover of towns. But those who do object to the British Asian presence which is indeed in some places ubiquitous and visible (and brings mosques etc. with it) will be core objectors to EU migrants as well. Prejudice is prejudice. Foreigners are foreigners.
Pragmatic, centrist, tolerant politics has, as I say, been the norm. But in Britain that started to break down first with the rise of UKIP (4m votes in the 2015 General Election) and then with the takeover of the Labour Party by Jeremy Corbyn and co. The fact is that a 67-year-old largely unknown backbencher (33 years) became leader despite having no track record in Government or opposition (and coming from the outer fringes of the party on policy) was a freak occurrence and shouldn’t have happened. But it did and once it did the messages of his brand of Anti-politics had their appeal. The Labour Party in the country was and almost certainly still is strongly in favour of Corbyn, despite the fact that an overwhelming majority of Labour Party Members of Parliament do not support him. They don’t like his policies but more than that they know that he could never win a General Election and become Prime Minister. Politics is the art of the possible – and a Corbyn Premiership is impossible. The same applied to an extent with Bernie Saunders in America who gave Hillary Clinton a run for her money before (unlike Corbyn) realising that his genuine popularity would never be transferred into office.
Donald Trump is the most Anti-politics of them all. He is not a politician to start with and would be the first President since the rather different Dwight Eisenhower to have had zero political experience. But in the same way that the Brexit campaigners won despite their pitch being overwhelmingly rejected by every serious British political party, institution and body of authority so Trump could also win. Brexit won by narrowing a highly complex question down to one gut-feel issue. “Do you wish to reduce immigration?” and “Take our country back” . Trump’s wall between the US and Mexico is in the same area though the scapegoats (illegal immigrants rather than legal ones) are slightly different. Trump is not a one trick pony and arguably his anti-migrant (especially anti- Muslim) message is less important than his anti- establishment one. Towards the end of this acceptance speech he said this:
“America is a nation of believers, dreamers, and strivers that is being led by a group of censors, critics, and cynics.”
Donald Trump promises to “take our country back” in the same way that Nigel Farage, UKIP and the Brexit campaigners did. It is an appeal to the guts and to prejudice. Trump’s message is that the leadership consensus has failed and in Britain Farage’s message with its contemptuous dismissal of “LibLabCon” is the same. It is not, though, a political message so much as an Anti-politics one. Rich in rhetoric and name-calling but with “how to do it” almost completely absent. The Brexit campaign, as we are now seeing, was the same. We want our country back but quite what this means and how we do it – well that’s for another day.