Politics & Policy

After Brexit and Trump: An Interview with Douglas Murray

Brexit supporters celebrate the results of the EU referendum outside Downing Street in London, June 24, 2016. (Neil Hall/Reuters)
Study what populists are doing right and adapt rather than keep finding ways to dismiss what may just be ‘popular.’

In an article featured on the cover of the latest issue of National Review, Douglas Murray discusses Trump, Brexit, and the divides deepening between us. Here he talks with Madeleine Kearns.

Madeleine Kearns:
In your piece you write that Britain’s decision to leave the European Union and the election of Donald Trump are “unavoidably intertwined.” Why are you reluctant to link the two?

Douglas Murray: Supporters of President Trump tend to link the two, but as I mention in the piece, people who voted for Brexit tend to downplay the link. There are several reasons. One is that the leaders of the official Brexit campaign in Britain (Boris Johnson, Gisela Stuart, Michael Gove, et al.) used a political rhetoric that was very far from that deployed by President Trump. It is true that the official Leave campaign allowed the unofficial campaign (led by Nigel Farage) to do some of the dirtier work, and this unofficial division of labor probably aided the Leave campaign as a whole. But I think that, in general, Brexit voters are unsure how the Trump presidency pans out and are worried about linking the cause of a generation to the, let us say, unpredictable actions of one U.S. president.

Both results are, you suggest, “the first democratic mandate in either country that an elite in each country has refused to accept.” The political reaction to the Brexit vote has also been described as the five stages of grief only backwards — so: acceptance, depression, bargaining, anger, and denial. What, exactly, are the elites grieving?

DM: There is no one elite in America or Britain, but certainly a part of one elite and a part of the public are genuinely shocked, because there was a presumed direction of travel we were all meant to be going in: greater multilateralism, weaker borders, a more porous, interconnected world, and so on. The only job left was to progress through ever more minute remaining rights issues and then arrive at our destination. But then the public came along — twice in a few months — and threw the biggest spanner available to them into this machine. A lot of people still cannot believe the public could do this, and I understand their shock. This was the first time in their adult lives that they were told No, and it destabilizes everything for them because it suggests we may not be going to the place they thought we were heading. If the Brexit vote had gone the other way, I would have moped around for a day or two and then gone about my normal life. It would never have occurred to me — or to most Leave voters I know — to rage for years, purge from my personal life anyone who voted Remain, and smear the majority of my countrymen with the most hurtful epithets I could come up with.

Elsewhere you have described “populism” as a vacuous term. Why?

DM: I think that over the last two years it has come to be used as a synonym for “things I personally do not like” and “unpalatable people.” Why is President Macron never described as a populist? He broke the traditional party structures in France, ran a one-man campaign, and had to put together candidates for his party only after he had already secured the presidency. Many of the old definitions of ‘populism’ fit Macron perfectly. But of course he has the “correct” views on a range of international institutions, primarily the EU, which mean that the term doesn’t get used of him. The term is both too vague and now too clearly used in a pejorative light to be of any use. Besides, since “populists” keep doing well, I suggest we try to study what they are doing that is right and adapt rather than keep finding ways to dismiss things that may just be “popular.”

Who benefits from the narrative that the vote for Leave and for Trump has made life more dangerous for minorities?

DM: Well, the grievance industry does, obviously. Over the last two and a half years a whole range of groups have carried out what we in Britain would call “piss-poor” research to get themselves all over the news agenda. Consider the “Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect,” run by two Democrat activists who took over a shell organization with no connection to the Frank family. After the election of Donald Trump, they used the name of a murdered Jewish girl with whom they had zero connection to claim that President Trump was an anti-Semite, that Sean Spicer had engaged in Holocaust denial, and so on. Such groups provide the ammunition that sections of the media and public want. What they want is to make complex things seem simple (which incidentally used to be a definition of a “populist”). They wish to ignore that the EU has serious problems, and to ignore that the U.S. may have taken wrong turns over recent administrations, and to pretend instead that it is all very simple: that if it’s not them, then it’s the Nazis. Which is not just a slur on the general public but a demonstration of what Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff call “the great untruth of us versus them.” That is that life is simply a battle “between good people and evil people.”

Is there any truth to this argument (that the Brexit vote and the election of Trump have made life more dangerous for minorities)?

DM: I have seen nothing that persuades me of it. Although if there was any credible evidence I would happily change my mind. Significant societal gear-changes always have some effect, and there could be people who take them to be a green light for something they are not. I think we should all remain very aware of the risk of spreading political memes that wake up the darkest elements that exist in all societies. But we should also be suspicious when these claims are one-sided. In Britain we have a leader of the left-wing opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, who spent decades supporting the IRA when it was killing British soldiers and civilians and assassinating Conservative politicians. Not to mention his support for every anti-Semitic group out there. But he appears to be surrounded by a halo and is regarded as a “peacekeeper” by his supporters. There is an imbalance at the moment in the attribution of blame in cases of political violence. The fact that one side takes no accountability and the other is expected to take all means that we will reach a point where nobody takes any accountability, because that so clearly works. Incidentally, I thought the politicization (“Vote Democrat”) of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting was one of the lowest such moments. In what world was the choice on the ballot between “pro–shooting up synagogues” and “anti–”? How did anyone dare to make it that simple?

Recently on the Web a video was circulating of a Syrian child being horribly bullied at a school in England. The video made international news headlines. What role have social media played in furthering the “rise in hate” narrative?

DM: Children are different from adults. It is one of the reasons why they shouldn’t have the vote and why there are a range of issues that I think it inappropriate to discuss with children. For instance, I would never give a speech on the complexities of multiculturalism to a class of schoolchildren, because you can’t be sure they’ll hear it differently from adults and act appallingly, as children always can. But I will not treat adults like children, or hide difficult issues from them. I think adults can be trusted not to turn on the person beside them. Children you can never tell. That video was horrible. The children bullying the Syrian boy were horrible. They can have no idea what he went through before that or what that made him feel afterwards. I hope they are deeply ashamed of the way they behaved. But I refuse to extrapolate from the behavior of some schoolchildren to the social attitudes of an entire country. Schoolchildren bully people for all sorts of things. When I was at school, the worst prejudice was against ginger-haired children. It may well still be. But it does not signify a pandemic of anti-gingerism in the population at large. Again, we have to wonder why some things are used and alleged to be emblematic and many other things are not. Why were we told after the Manchester Arena suicide bombing “Don’t look back in anger” (at the slaughter of 22 young people) but are meant to regard a few schoolchildren being vile as a source of comprehensive societal shame?

The sociologist Musa al-Gharbi studied the work of “activist scholars,” especially in relation to racism in the Trump era, and found that many had produced research papers with in-built biases (for example, using opposition to affirmative action as a proxy for racism in order to prove that conservatives are racist). What accounts for the inability of scholars to recognize such basic methodological flaws?

DM: Who among such “scholars” would want to be methodologically rigorous when they could be more successful as activists?

How have universities contributed to polarization more generally?

DM: Dismantling the concept of truth for decades, then claiming that this is a Trump-era phenomenon; having almost no identifiable “conservatives” on faculty; teaching degrees that are valueless and pretending that there are jobs at the end of them; pretending that “gender studies,” “queer studies,” etc. are actual disciplines rather than indoctrination classes; thinking that the job of education is to create citizen activists; flooding the world with too many “social scientists” and too few scientists; thinking that this is going to go on for very much longer once the students work out that they’ve been lied to on a monumental scale and that their future Chinese bosses have no interest in their bachelor’s degree in lesbian dance.

Gallup polls show that “government dysfunction” has been first or second on the American public’s “top problems” list for the past five years. Brits have similar frustrations with Brussels and Westminster that long predate 2016. What are some of the frustrations that help explain the way people voted?

DM: The main one was not just immigration but the lack of accountability over that and all other issues. We were used to a system where if someone didn’t do what you wanted them to do, you voted them out. Over recent decades, especially since the Maastricht Treaty, the feeling had grown that you just couldn’t get any message to the European Union. Britain elected into the European Parliament more representatives of the U.K. Independence Party than of any other party, and still it made no difference. Also, here is a too-rarely-made point. Many of the people who are responsible for Brexit are the people who have most opposed it. But consider this. In the 1992 general election in Britain, we voted Conservative over Labour. John Major promptly sent the failed Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, up to be Britain’s European commissioner. Ten years later and Peter Mandelson twice had to leave the Labour government of Tony Blair for allegations to do with basic dishonesty. After being unable to serve in the British cabinet, where was he sent by his friend Tony Blair but to the European Commission? So there was a growing feeling that we just couldn’t reach these people. That they were beyond our approval or disapproval. The British people were right to fear this lack of democratic accountability, and their decision to vote accordingly should be celebrated by anybody who actually believes in democracy. They made a realization of which the status quo had lost sight.

Why did you vote for Brexit?

DM: Because I saw that the EU wanted to become something that Britain did not want to be. We never wanted “ever closer union,” and we were always going to be a problem. We were going to hold them back and cause resentment in Europe. At home the public were aware that the EU had become something other than the European Community we voted to join in 1975. The EU army is a prime example. When Leavers said in the referendum that the EU wanted to create an army, the Remainers accused them of scare-mongering. What is the EU now intent on doing? Creating an EU army. So this was my wider reason, along with the basic issues of sovereignty and accountability. My closer-to-home reasons in 2016 were the actions of Angela Merkel and the European Commission in 2015 in allowing millions of migrants into Europe. I saw that disaster unfold firsthand and thought, If they could do that single-handedly and in spite of the protestations of so many of their allies, then they could do anything and still not be held accountable.

What do you think is Trump’s most redeeming quality?

DM: I don’t especially like it, but he may be one of the only Republicans unwilling to play by the Left’s rules. The Left threw much of what they have thrown at him at John McCain and Mitt Romney and it helped floor them (“binders of women” . . .). Trump responds to bullying with bullying and to low politicking with even lower politicking. I think the endless insincere claims against him would have floored anyone else. The trouble is that it allows some sincere claims and criticism to get lost in the flood. Who knows whether this balances the political equilibrium or whether what we pay for this means it just isn’t worth it?

What will it take to heal the divisions of 2016?

DM: The votes have to be accepted. Not agreed with, but accepted. There is no other way. If they are stolen away from the people, then we are in exceptionally dangerous territory.


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