The year 2016 has witnessed the most dramatic electoral exercises of the 21st century – Brexit – the referendum that saw Britain voting to leave the European Union; and now Donald Trump voted into the White House.
The full implications of the Brexit vote in June are still far from clear and it will be months if not years before one can assess the extent of the Trump surge to victory. In both cases, the implications just grow and grow the more they are examined. Many try to link the two earthquakes. It is tempting.
Both were shocks way up on the political Richter scale embarrassing pollsters. Both “insurgent” campaigns were notable for the devastating poverty of a genuine political project. They were mass rejections of the existing political order, where expertise and facts were rubbished and ignored. The optimist slither of hope is that the young largely did not vote for either. This was no youth revolution.
Worryingly both campaigns exposed just how bitterly divided these two nations are. They are not alone. Next up is the rerun of the Austrian Presidential election next month where Norbert Hofer of the extreme right wing Freedom Party may well win. Who would dare rule out a Marine Le Pen victory in France’s Presidential elections next year? Europe will face a historic challenge to its democratic culture.
Both are leaps into the unknown fronted by derisory slogans such as “take back control” and “make American great again.” Trump himself moved from now knowing what Brexit even was to promising to deliver “Brexit plus, plus, plus”. In both cases disillusioned voters opted for a negative, a rejection of the existing order, in favor of a totally unclear path.
The elites had failed. The frontline salesman for Brexit, Boris Johnson, could hardly work out what it meant. The British government still cannot. And Trump policy statements have usually been spouted out in 140 characters or less. The reality is, barring a couple of key positions, nobody is sure quite what President Trump will do, just us nobody knows what Brexit Britain will look like.
Bigotry, hatred and racism were the jet fuel in both campaigns, but in particular Trump’s. Racism was an electoral asset. In Britain, although the remain campaign had no winning answer to the fear of refugees and immigrants and increasing anti-Muslim sentiment, it never even started to plumb the depths of Trump’s rallies.
Trump deliberately and openly ran the most bigoted, racist, sexist fascist campaign ever seen in a supposedly democratic nation. Yet he knows as his acceptance speech highlighted that while he can sadly win an election on hate and division, he can only govern with a degree of consensus and unity.
The reality is, barring a couple of key positions, nobody is sure quite what President Trump will do, just us nobody knows what Brexit Britain will look likeChris Doyle
Across the world every far right extremist and crackpot is celebrating from David Duke, to Geert Wilders, Nigel Farage and Viktor Orban. It will be open season on liberal values and human rights. Historic struggles that many liberals assumed they had as good as won on racism and sexism have regressed decades. Walls that had been taken down are going back up, the worst walls being those in the minds of too many far right foot soldiers.
It also exposes huge chasms in society in the United States, Britain and a host of other countries experiencing far-right surges. These splits are not easily healed. To get elected Trump needed to expose these splits; to govern he may need to heal some.
Yet like so many analogies it can only go so far. Britain deciding to leave the EU is a long term decision that totally revises its relationship not just with Europe but the world. It could also unravel the United Kingdom. The relief for those who did not vote for Trump is that in four years they have the chance to kick him out.
Yet the division and hatred are deep rooted. Brexiteers did reject the European Union but all claim to want to open up to the rest of the world and create new relationships. Protectionist Trump, proclaims to be anti-free trade (despite being a long-term beneficiary) who will shred the various trade deals the US has entered into.
Brexit was a dour campaign that hardly inspired along with Clinton’s lacklustre and visionless effort. Trump however was playing to the mob like a Roman Emperor entertaining the mob in the colosseum. From the get-go his campaign was energetic, entertaining and never out of the headlines. Being grossly offensive became a campaign plus. He is unlikely to govern in the same fashion.
Above all, it is hard how to see how either project will not end in failure, complete or partial. Brexit could damage Europe, not just the EU, for decades, and will not resolve the issues that so many in Britain hope it will. Trump has revealed so little in terms of policies it is hard to believe that his little chubby fingers will pull rabbits out of a hat that so many blue-collar voters expect him to.
Yet progressives must learn some painful lessons. Too many people have been left behind, see globalisation as a threat and are scared of losing their core identity. Both in the US, in Britain and across much of the rest of Europe huge swathes of the population cherish change. These voters will not just automatically return into the arms of centrist parties when the far right fails. Fresh vision and leadership is required that can deliver real and lasting change.
Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. As the lead spokesperson for Caabu and as an acknowledged expert on the region, Chris is a frequent commentator on TV and Radio, having given over 148 interviews on the Arab world in in 2012 alone. He gives numerous talks around the country on issues such as the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arabs in Britain. He has had numerous articles and letters published in the British and international media. He has travelled to nearly every country in the Middle East. He has organized and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Most recently he took Parliamentary delegations to the West Bank in April, November, December 2013 and January 2014 including with former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. He tweets @Doylech.