We have now had more than two clear years since the votes for Brexit and Trump. And although most Brexit voters dislike the tendency to link the events, the two are unavoidably intertwined.
A neutral way to interpret both surprise results was to describe them as “disruptions.” But very swiftly a range of carefully pejorative terms (“populist,” “reactive,” etc.) came to be deployed to suggest that these disruptions were not morally neutral. Soon a counter-narrative was adopted that went much further.
It was the identical nature of the pushback in both countries that was immediately striking. Shortly after the Brexit vote, the British public was inundated with media claims of “spikes” in racist incidents, “hate crimes,” and more. Whatever way people had voted, this was genuinely alarming. Had such beasts lain dormant that they had now been unleashed simply because more people ticked the box marked “Leave” than did “Remain”? Two months after the Brexit vote, a 40-year-old Polish man was murdered in Essex. The press and pro–European Union politicians pounced on it. The Guardian claimed that the killing “exposes the reality of post-referendum racism.” Even the conservative Telegraph asserted that the killing raised fears that “migrants are being targeted in post-Brexit hate-crimes.” The head of the EU Commission blamed the murder on “galloping populism.”
By the time that the man’s 16-year-old killer was convicted of his murder one year later, the story had fallen out of the news. Before the trial it had become clear that the killing was the result of nothing more than a pointless, late-night street row, awful, terrible, and with lessons of its own to impart. But the victim’s race had nothing to do with it. Neither did the British public’s decision to vote Leave.
Still, the narrative continued. The enthusiasm for the “outbreak of racism” line was such that whatever facts or counter-arguments emerged to the contrary, the “spike” in hate crimes was clung to as an article of faith. It vindicated the worst suspicions of Remainers and cowed many Leavers. That the police had been urging people to report “hate crimes” during this period (the police generally find it more restful to investigate online offense-taking than, say, deal with the upsurge in knife crime) was ignored. The narrative of “racist vote leads to upsurge in racism” was too useful to be dispensed with.
Precisely the same claim was pumped into the American system after the election of Donald Trump. A collection of offhand, occasionally off-color quotations were characterized as flagrant “dog whistles.” One joke about Mexicans — unwise though it was for a candidate — was declared to be a racist assault on all Mexicans. And once that link was made, it was the smallest of steps to pronounce the vote for Trump “racist” and some sort of green light for real racists. Politicians and pundits tied a spate of bomb threats made against Jewish community centers in the U.S. and abroad in January 2017 to the inauguration of President Trump. A congressman blamed Trump supporters for the threats, and commentators issued dark warnings that these forces would come for everyone next. Two months later arrests were made of two men — one a journalist formerly with the far-left website The Intercept, the other an Israeli-American man with mental-health problems. Few people were detained by such details. The stories fit a far bigger pattern. Unlike the leaders of Brexit, the president does sometimes use language that is loose and objectionable, but nothing to allow the “Trump encourages anti-Semitism” narrative to thrive as it has done.
Nor has the rise in alleged hate crimes been limited to ethnic minorities. In both post-referendum Britain and post-election America, other groups were alleged to have got caught up in all this primordial outbreak of “hate.” The Guardian (again) claimed that “homophobic attacks in UK rose 147% in three months after Brexit vote.” Why? It made no sense whatsoever. Why would the British people vote to leave the European Union and celebrate by attacking gays? Unless the European Union could be said to be the only restraining force on an otherwise unalloyedly bigoted populace (a theme that was convenient for certain campaigners to claim). In fact the data on which the Guardian and others based their reports did not concern criminal convictions or even hate-crime reports but came from a single online survey carried out by an LGBT charity and voluntarily replied to by a few hundred people who may or may not have been gay.
Precisely the same smear was rolled out in the U.S. Because Donald Trump represented everything that was bigoted, obviously his election would lead to an outpouring of every type of bigotry. When Washington Post journalist Jonathan Capehart broke down in tears in a television interview just after the election, he declared that as a black man but also as a gay man he was “frightened” by the future that the Trump election would bring. That LGBT people were “scared” by the Trump victory was the perfect narrative. In the months and years that followed, various groups and media outlets continued to push onto Americans the story that they had already pushed onto the British. Anti-LGBT hate crime was now everywhere and always “on the rise.” And we all knew who was to blame. The sewers had opened, and these were just some of the visible results.
Of course none of this is to say that racist or homophobic acts do not occur. But a causal connection between those real events that do occur and two political events of 2016 has simply not been proven. It is a claim that it is targeted solely and purposefully to further one political contention: that the 2016 results legitimized hate and that therefore countering those results is the only thing for any decent person to do.
But the “rise in hate” narrative has not been the only one to span the Atlantic since 2016. Another — it only grows with time — is that the results of the Brexit and Trump elections were illegitimate because they were “stolen” or “influenced” from abroad. This idea, which has had multiple manifestations, motivates a deep and ongoing effort to claim that the two results are in this way not merely illegitimate but linked.
In the U.K., those who opposed the Brexit vote early on tried to pick up trails that would enable them to allege that the vote was suspect. But those efforts didn’t properly get under way until the Trump election, at which point people on both sides of the Atlantic who had an interest in casting doubts on the election results worked tirelessly to make a connection between an electoral surprise and a hostile foreign power. Of course elections have been disputed before. Swinging chads divided America almost 20 years ago. And yet the latest claims of electoral illegitimacy don’t come from one recount in Florida. They appear to able to come from almost anywhere, although those opposed to the 2016 votes have consistently focused their attentions on Russia.
In the U.S., the most high-profile effort to prove the case has obviously been the Mueller investigation — an investigation that, in the manner of U.S. special-prosecutor investigations, is duty-bound to find something to justify its creation. In the U.K., multiple journalists and parliamentary committees have investigated similar claims. But few have got anything remotely like evidence. Researchers at Oxford University last year looked into the claims of Russian interference in the Brexit vote. They found a grand total of 105 Russian-linked Twitter accounts that had been tweeting ahead of the vote. Twitter itself said that only one Russian-linked account had spent any money ahead of the vote (buying just six advertisements), and a number of the Russian-linked accounts turned out to be tweeting in favor of Remain. To believe that the Brexit vote was swayed by a small number of Russian bots rather than decades of British disillusionment with the EU’s mission creep is a delusion of the highest order.
And yet it goes on. After the Twitter-bots claims fizzled, we had the saga of Cambridge Analytica, this even though the official Leave campaign at no stage hired the firm to do any work for it. For the past 18 months the claim that one data company (again, in the words of the Guardian) “hijacked” British democracy and then hacked the American election has been pumped remorselessly into our bodies politic.
Yet the Cambridge Analytica story was never about one firm. It was about an attempt to draw the dots that could be connected to prove that Russia had swayed the vote. And if it could be proved that Russia directed, hacked, or otherwise stole either of the 2016 votes, then obviously they not only would be illegitimate but ought rightly to be rerun.
A suggestion that the facts may not be on the side of the people making these claims can be partially demonstrated by the retreat of the claims themselves. Both in America and in Britain, the claims started with allegations of vote-rigging, including actual hacking of the vote. Then they moved on to social-media influencing. Now the search is for evidence that anyone connected with either the Trump or the Brexit campaign was in some way influenced or compromised by Russian money.
In the U.S. this search obviously now rotates around what connections Donald Trump Jr. did or did not have with a Russian in the course of the campaign. In the U.K. it has reduced to whether the principal funder of Leave EU, the unofficial Leave campaign, had Russian business connections. The idea that a financier of a group that did not even win the distinction of becoming the officially designated Leave campaign would nevertheless have the power to swing the referendum is now the basis of weekly strings of conjecture, suggestion, and hyperbole by Remainers in the U.K. And even though the story continues to retreat ever further from the political center of the Leave campaign, still the drip-drip of nearly unfollowable claims suggests to some that these past two years could yet be undone.
For my own part, despite having seen some of this up close, I have not written on these matters for more than two years. I do so now only because it seems to me that there are several lessons to take from these events.
The first is that it is now clear that the Brexit vote and the Trump election are hugely important milestones in both democracies, not because of what has or has not been achieved but because both constitute the first democratic mandate in either country that an elite in each country has refused to accept. I say “an elite” rather than “the elite” because my experience is that there is never one single entity of people who can control affairs. Nonetheless, in America and Britain, exceptionally powerful figures in influential positions (in politics, the media, and much more) decided that they could not accept the verdict of the people and chose to utilize precisely the same playbook (“racism,” “hate crime,” “Russia,” “Cambridge Analytica”) to undo or at least undermine the judgment of the people.
The second observation is what an unbelievably unwise and wasted opportunity this already looks to have been. If you were an anti-Trump strategist or a pro-EU campaigner, you might have taken all sorts of things from the results of 2016. In the U.K. you could have tried to work out why the EU had been so unappealing to the British public for so many years that, even with the opt-outs and carve-outs that we had up until the vote (and despite the uncertainty that a win for Leave was always going to cause), most of the public wanted out of the whole damn thing. Why had the “experts” become so little trusted by the public? What could be done to rebuild that trust? What might the EU do to show that it was not an un-listening monolith but an adaptive and helpful partner? How might you in the decades to come persuade, rather than trick, the people into once again being inside the EU?
An interested party in the States might try to work out why, even though every allegation and claim in the book is thrown at Donald Trump, and despite his possession of character defects that are visible at a glance, the public still voted for him. Why had the GOP and Democrats lost their hold? What justifiable concerns and unaddressed problems did Middle America suffer? Were there any lessons to be learned from the last time a Republican had been in the White House? Or could we continue to pretend (as in Britain) that the grown-ups had done such a terrific job that the voters had no reason not to just hand over the keys once again to a leading member of one of the ruling families?
Even now almost none of this reflection seems to have occurred, on either side of the Atlantic. And if there is one reason, it is that, even after all this time, instead of accepting the votes and trying to learn from them, elites have expended almost all their available energies trying to pretend that the voters in 2016 were bad or duped. The past two years could have been spent trying to learn something or build something. Instead, the best minds of Left and Right have spent their time making claims of “racism,” “Russia,” and “Cambridge Analytica.”
The final observation I would make is that all of this has gone to create a phenomenon that I have come to think of as snowplow politics. As after any other vote or election, after the Brexit and Trump votes a process should have started in which the road ahead became populated. Obviously, by their nature, elections and referendums divide. But after the verdict is in, public-minded men and women put themselves forward to help the country in whatever way they can. People in the commentariat make criticisms where they are founded and (less commonly) extol successes. Around their dinner tables and social gatherings, members of the public argue the merits or pitfalls of different people and policies.
Only in the past two years has this act of commingling become all but impossible. Because any time that anybody attempts to inhabit what would be the middle of the road, this great snowplow is driven straight at them. For the time being, the snowplow continues to operate on the gasoline provided by allegations such as those listed above. If you praise a particular policy of Donald Trump’s, you are not praising that policy but legitimizing racism, or misogyny, or Russian influence, or a hundred other things. If you are among the many people who voted Remain but decided to spend the period since 2016 accepting the vote and seeing the advantages that could come from it, you were not being pragmatic. You were encouraging hate crime, homophobia, and the hacking of your elections by foreign powers. Instead of just inhabiting what should be the normal terrain of political acceptance, you have become an accessory to a crime.
Offer the merest hint of an ameliorative or conciliatory position in public or private and the snowplow will be driven at you with the intention of flinging you back onto whatever side of the road you started out on. American pundits and politicians cannot even celebrate the current success of the economy or job market without the snowplow coming at them. Britain’s best pro-EU minds, including statesmen and negotiators with decades of experience, did not rally around and spend the past two years helping their country. Instead they waited for the occasional TV opportunity and then used spittle-inflected fury to denounce anyone who had accepted a reality they could not — hoping thereby to empty the middle of the road of any and all pedestrians.
People often talk about the increasing divide in our politics. But they do not recognize the cause. The cause is that even after all this time the process of acceptance, healing, and mending has not even started. Instead our societies are stuck, and seem intent on staying stuck, in this period of denial and rage. Perhaps Mueller will find that Vladimir Putin personally organized the election of Donald Trump. Perhaps somebody somewhere in the non-official Leave campaign didn’t declare all his earnings once. It is impossible to know for certain, but it seems unlikely in the former case and unimpressive in the latter.
What we can now see is that these past two years have come at a terrible opportunity cost. Our countries, and our elites in particular, could have accepted the new reality and acted on it with good faith, in the interests of their country. Instead a precedent has been set that will not end in this electoral cycle or any other in the coming years: a situation in which accepting the results of a vote becomes a matter of choice and the idea that the public’s decision is final moves from being a convention to a quirk. Our politics has been rancid before. But rarely has a component so toxic been released from such a height as this ongoing failure, as we start 2019, to accept that 2016 happened at all.