The Trump & Brexit results are not of the same kind; only the political discourse

Two elections and twice the liberal elite have been rocked to their core. First, the British referendum on whether or not to remain in the EU. Most centrist MPs, big business and those bien pensants who determine what it is to be ‘progressive’ based on what they’re told by the keepers of orthodoxy were faced with an electoral defeat they could not explain when Britain voted to leave the EU. The overwhelming sense of confusion stemmed from the fact that the British public had dared to think for themselves and that being repeatedly told they were bigots and idiots surprisingly did not lead them to accede to the right thinking that is defined by the liberal elites whose interests such right thinking clearly serves.

Never mind that there were perfectly liberal and progressive reasons for voting leave (cf. here and here). Ignore the fact that Diane Abbott, who voted Remain, stated clearly on Question Time back in June:’There are good progressive reasons to want to come out of the EU. Tony Benn spent all his life campaigning to come out of the EU’. Forget the fact that staunch left-wingers such as Dennis Skinner voted to leave. By-pass the fact that, historically, doyennes of the left such as Tony Benn and Michael Foot were all strongly for leaving the EU. Overlook the fact that Jeremy Corbyn himself has a history of voting against the EU and during the Labour leadership election had this to say:

Let’s ignore all that because if you want out you are, by definition, a racist bigot. How do we know? First, the purveyors of orthodox thinking tell us so. Second, to vote out is to be a racist bigot (because that’s what they tell us). Ergo, you are a racist bigot if you voted to leave. As Brendan O’Neil rightly points out here, it is this prevalent attitude that smacks of bigotry.

As some were coming to terms with the brexit result, and others were doing all they could to plot against it, Donald J. Trump was taking a run at the US presidency. At first, it looked like some sort of joke when he ran for the GOP nomintion. Then he got it and it appeared that no-one in their right mind would vote for him. Then the Democrats managed to select a candidate so deeply unpopular, even within Democrat circles, that the polling began to suggest a very close race indeed. Then the man the liberal elite wrote off as too buffoonish and amoral to win, went and won. He capitalised upon the discontent many feel with the political class and, as one paper suggested (at least partially rightly in my view), Donald Trump won the election because the Democrats rigged the system against Bernie Sanders or, similarly, as Elizabeth Warren argued, Hillary Clinton made it nearly impossible for other candidates to stand.

In typical style, however, it seems the American elites are little different to the British ones. As one twitter comment so rightly stated:

This seems to be the sad reality of politics at the moment. Self-styled ‘centrists’ – who have dominated the political scene for the last 20 years – cannot fathom why their brand of so-called moderate politics no longer seems to hold water. As Owen Jones points out in the Guardian:

Centrism, the ideology of self-styled moderates, is in a state of collapse. In the 1990s, the third way project championed by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair could claim political dominance in much of the US and Europe. It has shrivelled in the face of challenges from the resurgent populist right and new movements of the left.

Younger citizens feel aggrieved at being condemned to a life less affluent than that of their parents; older working-class voters feel economically and socially dislocated. Whether it be the dramatic surge of the leftist Podemos in Spain, the popularity of the far-right Front National in France, or Brexit – it’s all interlinked. The aftermath of financial crisis left centrism with ever fewer answers, and yet its advocates continue to attack the political hopelessness and failures of their leftwing opponents. Lashing out is easier than addressing their own lack of clear vision or strategy at a time of crisis.

Hillary Clinton stood on a centrist Third-Way ticket her husband would have been proud of. But Bill Clinton has not been president for 15 years. Likewise, Tony Blair is on record as saying he doesn’t understand politics anymore. This isn’t because politics has become utterly unfathomable, it is because of their enduring certainty that centrist/moderate thinking is what wins elections. As Owen Jones tweeted last night:

Despite all the evidence to the contrary – the brexit result, the rise of UKIP over the last decade, the overwhelming majority Jeremy Corbyn commanded in the Labour leadership election, the rise of both far right and harder left movements across Europe, and now the presidential victory of Donald Trump – there is a hubris amongst the liberal elites that says we still know best.

Which brings me to the link that people insist on making between the brexit result and the Trump victory. Trump himself said, before the election result, he was going to do a ‘brexit-plus-plus-plus’. It was a comment repeated by several of his supporters, in one form or another, following the result. It has given fuel to the liberal self-soothing mechanism that brexiteers must clearly be nuts because they and Trump supporters are of a kind. It is, of course, nonsense of the highest order. The brexit result and the Trump victory are simply not the same.

Clearly, there is one overriding similarity: anti-establishment feeling. There can be no denying that the vote to leave the EU was, at least on some level, a comment on the status quo. Likewise, there can be no doubt that same anti-establishment sentiment propelled Trump, at least in part, to victory. But, it should be pointed out, that same factor is at play throughout Europe in the rise of both far right and hard left groups. Unless we want to argue that all these things are effectively the same (which even the most casual observer would surely recognise they cannot be), it is difficult to suggest the brexit and Trump results are of a piece.

To look at the finer detail, here are some reasons why they cannot be considered the same:

  1. The EU referendum asked one basic question: do you want to leave the EU? Beyond asking whether we want to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, we were not asked anything about the terms on which we want to leave. Contrast this with a political campaign by Donald Trump in which specific pledges were made within a manifesto upon which people voted. Brexit dealt with one very narrow question; Trump offered an entire political programme. The two votes are therefore not comparable.
  2. The EU referendum saw individuals from across the political spectrum on both sides of the question. There were old fashioned left-wingers for brexit e.g. Dennis Skinner; left of centre moderates for brexit e.g. Kate Hoey, Frank Field; moderate European-heritage MPs for brexit e.g. Gisella Stuart; centre-right moderates e.g. Boris Johnson and Michael Gove; old-fashioned right-wingers e.g. David Davis, Bill Cash; and then all those who voted remain but we all secretly suspect wanted to vote out e.g. the Labour leadership. Likewise, the same is true for the Remain side. Contrast this with the total lack of political diversity among those who voted for Trump. In fact, although clearly a large number of Evangelicals did support Trump, a significant number did not which for a GOP candidate is highly unusual. Certainly, Trump was denounced in the strongest terms by many Evangelical leaders and, despite the regularly cited 81% of white Evangelicals voting for Trump, this does not include non-white Evangelicals nor does it give us any frame of reference because we have no figures on overall Evangelical turnout (81% is simply the percentage of those white Evangelicals who turned out to vote, we haven’t been given figures on how this translates into actual numbers, which would show how many abstained). This certainly means the political pool from which Trump drew support was much narrower than Brexit and potentially, if only slightly, even narrower than is normal for a Republican win.
  3. As Tim Montgomery pointed out the The Times (paywall)The Times (paywall), the behaviour and pronouncements of Donald Trump throughout his campaign saw no similar comparative comment from anybody campaigning for Brexit:

To say it again, the only similarity between the results was the strong anti-establishment feeling at play in both results. People are sick of being told what to think and tired of being castigated with pejoratives when they come to a conclusion that does not suit the liberal elite. If the ruling classes want to apportion blame for any of these results, perhaps they should take a long hard look at themselves.

You cannot cajole people into voting for and with you simply by calling them simpletons and idiots if they don’t. At the first chance of voting for someone or something that is not simply more of the same old choice, a matter of choosing between A or B who basically think the same thing, the people made clear that they did not want more of the same. Whether it is a binary choice in which the vote actually changes something that matters, with two polarised sides, or a choice between a more establishment Democrat and a Republican political outsider (whatever we may think of either of them), people were clear they wanted something different. The response from the media and political classes has simply been more of the same: the people are idiots because the plebs didn’t do what we told them was good for them.  And they wonder why people want change.

The saddest thing of all is that those who clamour to be seen as ‘liberal’, ‘progressive’ and ‘forward thinking’ are the very people who most frequently undermine their own stance. For all their talk of tolerance, acceptance and liberalism, when push comes to shove, anyone who demurs is a cretin and ought to be shamed into agreeing with the new orthodoxy. We tolerate you so long as you agree with us. We accept your view so long as it doesn’t actually challenge anything we hold as untouchable truth. We are willing to be liberal but only in in matters pertaining to views we don’t care about so much. Tolerance only exists where there is disagreement. It is not tolerance to share a view, that is agreement. That certainly doesn’t mean we can’t disagree with one another, indeed, we must disagree to be able to tolerate. It simply means slapping people with the label bigot or intolerant because they don’t agree with you is a mite bigoted and intolerant.

We do not have to like either Brexit or Trump. We do not have to pretend we agree with either if we don’t. We don’t have to keep quiet until the next election rolls around. We can continue to make the case, make the argument and speak as freely as we like. What we perhaps shouldn’t do is presume everyone who doesn’t share our views are thick, uneducated bigots who simply need to read a bit more. Whilst you may be free in a liberal society to voice such views, when the next Donald Trump is elected you will only have yourself to blame.

*Correction: an earlier edit claimed that fewer Evangelicals voted for Trump narrowing his core. The article has been amended to reflect the fact that Evangelical leaders openly rejected him and turnout of white Evangelicals is, at the time of writing, unknown. We only know that 81% of white Evangelicals who turned out to vote supported Trump. We have no information at present as to how many abstained and how this compares to previous elections.

7 comments

  1. You’re right about the intolerance of liberals and how it strengthened their opposition.

    And you’re right that Trump and Brexit are not identical, far from it, but the similarities are certainly real and important.

    But regarding your statement “In fact, although clearly a large number of Evangelicals did support Trump, a significant number did not which for a GOP candidate is highly unusual. This means the political pool from which Trump drew support was, albeit potentially only slightly, even narrower than is normal for a Republican win.”

    Please see: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2016/11/09/exit-polls-show-white-evangelicals-voted-overwhelmingly-for-donald-trump/

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    1. Thanks for your comment.

      Is it not the case that those stats are based on exit polls? So it is not 81% of Evangelicals who voted for Trump but 81% of the Evangelicals who turned out to vote. if we have a comparison of the Evangelical turnout, that would put that into some context. I was making the argument that, as far as I was aware and in respect to the pronouncements of many Evangelical leaders, fewer voted Trump. That does not mean they switched allegiance to the Democrats by any stretch, I understood they stayed away.

      Happy to be corrected on that if Evangelical voter turnout is available to put the 81% in context.

      Like

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