The mainstreaming of post-truth politics in Britain, and what that means for America

Joining the dots between Trump and Brexit reveals a web of lies and social division. On both sides of the Atlantic, the left must confront this dangerous rhetoric.

Emma Pike
22 August 2016
Not #InFor this? Anti-Brexit graffiti in Bristol. Flickr/Duncan C. Some rights reserved.

Not #InFor this? Anti-Brexit graffiti in Bristol. Flickr/Duncan C. Some rights reserved.Days after the EU referendum result in June, SNP MP Alex Salmond — former first minister of Scotland — was asked on BBC Question Time whether the outcome of the referendum was valid given that many Leave voters had based their choice on lies. He said yes, that it had been a democratic decision and that the will of the people within all four nations of the United Kingdom must be respected. “All political campaigns, I’m afraid, have misinformation at their heart,” he stated. 

It is time for progressives in both the UK and US to challenge this fundamental principle of political campaigning, to take action to guard against the blatant misleading of the electorate by all parties of government, and to work to change the opaque, elitist environment in which political misinformation is allowed to proliferate.

When I arrived in Philadelphia from the UK in February as a newly-admitted immigrant, I wasn’t worried about the outcome of the EU referendum, or indeed the political campaigns that would be fought on either side in the run up to it. I should have been; we all should have been, regardless of our political position. Now America should be too. 

Back then, I was certain that the Remain camp would win outright. Not because I thought that the European Union was perfect — far from it. Nor did I believe that the UK government’s austerity programme was working well for most of its constituents. But I failed to connect those two crucial pieces together: like so many on both sides of the debate, I assumed that when faced with a Yes/No decision on remaining in the Union, the majority of British voters would opt for the status quo.  

At that point, former UKIP leader Nigel Farage was still not being taken seriously by the mainstream media, and high profile Conservative figures had yet to announce their affiliation to the Leave campaign. I naively imagined that the almost four million people who voted for UKIP in the 2015 general election might be joined in voting Leave by a smattering of older, far-right Conservative voters. None of us had any idea what would ensue on either side of the battlelines in the following months.
None of us had any idea what would ensue on either side of the battlelines in the following months.
As I settled into life in the US, I was preoccupied with attempting to integrate into a new and often jarringly different culture, how to manage missing family and friends from home, and wondering whether I would ever get away with slipping the word ‘jawn’ into an English-accented sentence. Although I’d worked around Westminster for the previous three years, I was now distracted from the politics of my home and it was the American presidential primaries that held my attention rather than early referendum campaigning in the UK.

A newcomer to the primary process, I was an outsider looking in incredulously. As state after state caucused or cast their votes during the drawn-out primary season, I watched the indomitable rise of Trump on the right with his inflammatory anti-immigrant rhetoric, the corruption of the Democratic Party on the centre-left with its now proven sabotage of the socialist Bernie Sanders campaign, and the mainstreaming on both sides and in the media of a ‘post-truth’ approach to political campaigning. While populism and misinformation are by no means new to politics, I found the scale of these phenomena in the US to be unrecognisable and alarming. 

In my quest to better understand what was happening around me, I immersed myself in the televised primary debates for each party, the media commentary on each candidate, and the outrage swirling at both ends of the political spectrum. When I asked searching questions of my American friends, they often expressed disgust and a sense of helplessness about the entrenched divides that are part and parcel of their nation’s politics, but which felt more extreme this time around. The long and increasingly ugly primary campaign went from being somewhat comical in the beginning to becoming an embarrassment of global scale; one that now continues into the presidential election season with Wikileaks’ revelations on the inner machinations of the DNC and Trump’s recent incitement to his supporters to use the second amendment against Hillary Clinton. 

Transatlantic parallels

As the EU referendum drew closer at home and both the Remain and Leave camps became louder and nastier in their own campaigning, I began to see parallels in the tactics of the right and the missteps of the left on both sides of the Atlantic. Where Trump’s populist approach has no time for facts, consistency or evidence-based discussion, the unholy trinity of Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove similarly churned out half-truths at the best of times, lies at their worst. Campaigners in both countries spun stories based on fear, with the protagonists being ‘us’, the antagonists ‘them’.

Supporters of both Trump and the Leave campaign were — and in Trump’s case continue to be — actively encouraged to not only fear and hate immigrants and refugees for taking their jobs and burdening their infrastructure, but to distrust and reject ‘the establishment’ too, whether that comes in the form of ‘Crooked Hillary’, Republican Speaker Paul Ryan, the European Parliament, David Cameron or the Bank of England. No acknowledgment, of course, from Trump, Gove, Johnson or Farage of their own privileged, establishment backgrounds, nor their former prominent roles in business, government and the media that have helped to shape the very societal ills that they now condemn and promise false solutions for.

Perversely, by so effectively branding their opponents as the establishment and the establishment as liars, elite far-right political campaigners in both countries have managed to cultivate an environment where their own lies were able to go unchecked and unchallenged. Lies that had the Leave campaign citing a figure of £350 million as being the cost per week of our membership to the EU, which they promised to spend on the NHS if the referendum succeeded. Lies that also included the claim that the UK would be able to control its borders upon leaving the EU while still having access to the free market. Both have since been retracted.

In the US, we don’t yet know which of Trump’s outrageous campaign promises he will go back on if he wins, but his claim that he will somehow force Mexico to pay for a wall along the Mexico-US border seems up there as a likely contender for retraction if he succeeds in his presidential bid. 

When challenged on the Leave campaign’s claims prior to the referendum, Michael Gove declared, in words that wouldn’t have seemed out of place coming from Trump: “people in this country have had enough of experts … I’m not asking the public to trust me. I’m asking them to trust themselves.” While the sentiment undoubtedly hit close to home — the 99% are indeed fed up of experts, or at least the leaders who quote them — this statement also served as the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card for a slippery politician seeking to avoid accountability at all costs.
Campaigners in both countries spun stories based on fear, with the protagonists being ‘us’, the antagonists ‘them’.
Where have the ‘establishment’ been in all of this? In the UK the Remain camp, loosely comprising David Cameron and his supporters, the majority of the Labour party, the Green party and the Scottish National Party, struggled to come up with a coherent liberal counter-narrative to the bold and misleading declarations of the Leavers. Swiftly losing ground with voters across England and Wales, their strategy — branded ‘Project Fear’ by their opponents — dealt more with gloomy predictions of a post-Brexit apocalypse than with pitching a compelling case to the British public for sticking with the European project. It wasn’t enough. 

As lies compounded lies in the lead up to the referendum, immigration became the central focus of both the Leave and Remain campaigns. The British media, considered the most right-wing and biased in Europe, repeatedly stoked the fire with headlines from the Daily Mail and the Express that included: “Britain’s broken borders”, “Migrants cause housing crisis’, and ‘2m migrants grab our jobs”.

This kind of demonising journalism, widely condemned by progressives as being utterly unacceptable in the modern world, helped to prop up a far-right racist narrative that legitimised Nigel Farage’s final campaign push: a Nazi propaganda-style poster depicting a line of migrants and refugees beneath the words "Breaking Point: the EU has failed us all". The horrific murder of Labour MP Jo Cox by a man reported to have shouted "Britain first" as he stabbed and shot her on the very day that Farage’s poster was unveiled, was a dire indication that — as noted in the Guardian — if you inject enough poison into the political bloodstream, somebody will get sick. 

In the UK, the lies of a group of a well-connected and well-financed middle-aged white men, supported by the right-wing media empire of another white male billionaire, were effective enough to change the course of our country’s future irrevocably. Since the result, it has been my turn to be both disgusted and ashamed of my country’s divisive political system, the platform it has given to far-right hate speech, and the blatant misleading of the electorate by our political and media elite. In a role reversal none of us had anticipated, I have since been asked incredulous questions by my American friends:

“I don’t understand why you had a referendum in the first place — why couldn’t your government make a decision?”

“How could they make this kind of constitutional change based on a simple majority vote?”

“Did nobody have a plan for this outcome? What’s going to happen now?”

And in my opinion the most critical question of all:

“How did the Leave campaign get away with lying about everything?”

My American friends became perplexed outsiders looking on in dismay as Westminster seemed to fall apart — with almost daily resignations — and the future of the European project hung in the balance. I don’t have the answers to most of their questions, and it scares me that those in power – and in opposition – don’t seem to either.

What I am sure of is this: in the UK the effects of the EU referendum will be felt for years to come, not only because of our imminent exit from the EU itself, but due to the divisive, hateful and misleading campaigning that has driven that departure. Since the referendum result, reports of hate crime and racist abuse have shot up across the country, and there is no telling when that will end. At the same time, the Conservative party has recovered astoundingly quickly from the Brexit fallout that should have lain firmly at its feet. We have a new prime minister and a reinvigorated Conservative government that is moving quickly to reassert its mandate and its commitment to austerity, while the Labour Party is distracted by a drawn-out leadership contest at the exact moment when it should be fighting tooth and nail against Theresa May’s vision for post-Brexit Britain.

Many who voted Leave are starting to realise that they were sold a lie — that the politicians who told them not to trust the establishment weren’t to be trusted either. And in the wake of the chaos they inflicted, the Conservative party now has a legitimised platform for continuing to cut government services in the name of post-referendum austerity, in such a way that will impact marginalised and economically deprived British communities the most. These are also the regions that overwhelmingly voted to leave the EU. 

Theresa May. Flickr/Policy Exchange. Some rights reserved.

"The Conservative Party now has a legitimised platform for continuing to cut government services in the name of post-referendum austerity." Flickr/Policy Exchange. Some rights reserved.Brexit is a warning about the consequences of populist elites blatantly misleading the electorate, and America should be worried. Regardless of whether Trump wins the presidential election in November, he and his fellow far-right ‘anti-establishment’ campaigners on the other side of the Atlantic have heralded a new era of politics where the truth doesn’t feature, where demonising others is commonplace — and if you’re powerful enough you won’t be held accountable for the lies that got you there.

It is also a warning against complacency on the left. In the UK, as both major parties scramble to pick up the post-referendum pieces of our country, the progressive left must work harder than ever to understand the needs of the entire electorate — not just those who voted Remain — and come up with a bold, unified, truthful vision for them that still challenges the one set out by Leave campaigners. Labour’s in-fighting must end soon, and whether Corbyn remains leader or is ousted by Owen Smith, the party should strengthen their ties with progressive allies from the Green Party and the SNP. The left needs to be unified, inclusive and ready for battle in another bruising campaign when the next general election is called.

In the US, there are less than three months to go until the presidential election on 8 November. Whether or not Trump ultimately carries through with his proposed policies to build a wall along the Mexican border or to prevent Muslims from entering America, the long-term threat he already poses to tolerance and unity in this country through the division and hatred he has fostered during his campaign cannot be overstated.

I urge the American left and the Clinton campaign to take heed of what has happened in Europe, to step out of their liberal echo chamber, to take the time to understand the needs of Trump’s supporters, and to challenge his rhetoric by developing a compelling, true alternative vision for America that works for the 99% — all ages, races, colours, religions, classes, abilities, genders and sexual orientations. #NeverTrump as the keystone of the Democratic campaign is not enough – generating fear around his candidacy will not be effective enough to win an election, in the same way that generating fear around leaving the EU was not enough for Remain to win the EU referendum. 

We cannot continue to do politics in the UK or the US in a way that puts misinformation at the heart of major democratic decisions. If we continue to let that happen, the far-right will be given a golden ticket to further entrench existing social divides and dismantle the efforts made in our lifetimes towards creating a more progressive society.

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