16 March 2016

Britain must detoxify its politics or face its own Trump moment


Like many Europeans (and indeed Americans) I am watching the rise of Donald Trump with a mix of horror, sadness and trepidation, not to mention a macabre fascination. It’s like one of those compilation videos of slow-motion car crashes; obscenely hard to turn off.

This week news that militias (a particularly specific, emotive and important concept in American history we do not share here in Europe) are being formed to “protect” Trump supporters from those who would protest against their man takes the matters to a new level. This election has already seen more violence than any since the racially-charged days of the 1960s and the civil rights movement, and the idea that these Trump militias will claim their rights under the 2nd Amendment to bear arms is alarming .

I don’t have a vote, being British, and nothing I say here will change a single would-be Trump voter’s mind (in fact hectoring liberal Europeans probably gain him votes rather than cost him any).

Yet there is a warning to us on this side of the Atlantic from the Trump phenomenon and the ugly way it’s developing, its repercussions and how it has been created that we in Europe would do well to think about, lest we end up in a similar place.

Most attention so far has been focussed on what a Trump presidency (highly unlikely, even if he secures the GOP nomination) might mean for us in Europe. That the President of the United States is a kind of de facto President of the World is something that Europeans use to claim they have a dog in this fight. Were Trump to actually make it to the White House we’d soon see that that’s not true. If President Trump acted as Candidate Trump says he would, America is going to find itself isolated even faster than the man himself would like.

A Trump-led America would be politically toxic. Governments elsewhere will do what they need to do to maintain the economic links that matter so much to both sides, but little more.

The US’s geo-political position in the world, for all its immense financial and military power, has never been unilateral. It has always required the ability, sometimes as little more than a fig-leaf it’s true, to talk about coalitions, teams, nations coming together. America sees itself as the leader of the free world, but that requires something to lead. I doubt the US population has much appetite for going it alone.

Anyway, it’s not going to happen. Wider America, for all its faults, is just not that stupid. The really important thing about Trump for us on this side of the Atlantic is how he came to be, for there we can see alarming parallels with the way politics across Europe is moving.

The seeds of the mountainous anger and hatred that define Trump and his popularity with some Americans, and indeed the utter polarisation of US politics, were planted here in the UK in the 1980s, and they have been slowly growing ever since.

Prior to Margaret Thatcher’s terms in office people on different sides of British party politics regarded their opponents as misguided, or plain wrong. With the exception of a few tiny groups out on the far fringes of right and left, politics was effectively an argument about each side’s analysis of the issues of the day and the policies they came up with to resolve them.

What changed in the polarising years of Thatcher was that each side began to assign failings of morality to the other. On the left many began to think that Tory politicians were taking perverse joy in hurting the poor, and on the right their opponents began to paint leftists as people who hated Britain, its history and institutions.

This began in the US in the 1950s, not the 1980s, and was accelerated by the McCarthy era and the Cold War. America’s deep-seated fear of Communism led it to gaze in at itself and decide that criticism of the US was akin to taking the Soviet side in the greater game being played geo-politically.

And yet in both countries there remained a steadfastly centrist tradition which didn’t talk in these bi-polar terms. Tory, Labour, Republican and Democrat politicians who may have disagreed but respected that their opponents wanted the same thing as they did – the best for their country.

That began to erode in the 1990s in the US as the power of broadcast media (and then the internet) grew. Suddenly the everyday political rhetoric became not about disagreement and negotiation, but treachery and motivation. You had a 15 second soundbite to persuade the viewer that you were right and your opponent was wrong – far easier to call them a traitor or evil than to try to deconstruct their complex policy position.

And the networks loved it of course, because it made for sparky TV.

Britain, sadly, began to catch up in the early 2000s. If you want an idea of how true this is, watch an old episode of the BBC’s weekly political debate show Question Time from before the Iraq War and compare it to today’s version. There were disagreements, lots of them, but there was also debate, acceptance of good points, common ground. Today nobody on the panel or in the audience has the slightest interest in listening to the other side or having their minds changed about anything, it’s purely political theatre in which soundbites are exchanged in pursuit of rounds of applause and cheers. The BBC loves it, which is why it tries so hard to construct panels each week of people who will go for one another’s throats in the basest possible terms.

Sometime in the last 15 years Tories suddenly became “evil”. They delighted in the suffering of the poor, or ethnic minorities, or the north of England. They were no longer people with the wrong solutions, they were super villains who wouldn’t have disgraced a 1970s Bond movie. Labour, meanwhile, became self-serving Britain haters concerned only with feathering the nests of the public sector and the workshy at the expense of everyone else.

The problem is, this is a fast-burning fuse. Once political arguments become about the morality, motivation and honesty of those behind them, when they become about the people not the politics, they become rapidly personal and escalate terrifying quickly.

Is David Cameron an elitist aristocrat who awakes each morning thinking of new ways to make his friends rich and inflict misery on the less well off? Is he, really? Is Jeremy Corbyn a Soviet lapdog who wants to see the Red Army marching down Whitehall and make living on benefits a career-choice? Seriously?

Neither is true, but both sides accuse the other of being submerged in a hatred of the electorate, just for different reasons.

If we want to know where this ends up, we’ve been shown in 2016. At the end of a fuse there is usually a bomb, and in America the emergence of a charismatic candidate prepared to see that bomb explode if it gets him elected is all it has taken to reduce the democratic process to pitched battles.

Britain does not have a Trump to do that, on either side. Yet. But he or she is out there, somewhere, and if we allow our politics to become ever more personal, allow the rhetoric to be ramped up to ever more ridiculous levels, allow the abuse to become normal and demonise those politicians who do still try to find common ground, then we have set the scene for Britain’s Donald Trump to take the stage.

To assume this is far-fetched is to also assume our Trump will never exist. I hope that’s true, because if it’s not we are busy doing all we can to smooth their path to the podium.

James Clark is a communications consultant and journalist.