These are dark times. The world I live in, it seems, is precisely what the world I grew up in defined itself against. We’ve had our era of global peace and prosperity; now we’re reverting to hatred and nationalism and divisiveness.
After the Brexit referendum on June 23, I blamed the Brits, was ashamed of my nationality, and even became a U.S. citizen. In the wake of Brexit, British politics, on both sides of the aisle, became idiotically amateurish–a repudiation of the ideals of representative democracy. But while I have given up on Britain, I have not given up on my adopted country of the USA. For this is the single biggest and most important difference between Brexit and Trump: Trump can be opposed; Trump can be fought.
When you become a naturalized U.S. citizen, you’re given a small booklet containing key texts, including the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Here’s the most important part of the latter. You know the first line by heart, but keep on reading:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
As much as I believe with my whole heart in the European project, I have to admit that in this sense it did lack democratic legitimacy. Europe’s government is technocratic, not democratic: From day one it has lacked the explicit consent of the governed. When Brits were given the opportunity to have a say in whether they wanted to be governed by unelected and unaccountable European institutions, they gave a clear answer.
In the U.S., by contrast, as both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have clearly said, Trump won a clear majority of the Electoral College in full accordance with the pre-set rules of the game. He will take power in this country because, and only because, that’s what America voted for. If and when America comes to the determination that the actions of President Trump are destructive of the liberty of the people, they can kick him out and replace him with someone else.
The question is when and how that will happen. The lesson of Brexit and of Trump is that millions of citizens react very favorably to the kind of campaign which, quite literally, can’t be waged by any self-respecting politician. The winners, in the Brexit and Trump campaigns, were people like Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson and Trump himself–people who love to shout and argue and make a spectacle of themselves on TV much more than they have any particular desire or ability to govern effectively once in office.
Tommy Craggs is absolutely right that this election was about the most important issues of our time: sexism, racism, nativism. But it wasn’t about policies. Hillary Clinton’s encyclopedic knowledge of policy minutiae was a hindrance rather than a help: In 2016, to be experienced, to have been around long enough to have made mistakes, is to be overqualified as a candidate. The insurgent successes of 2016 were those candidates who campaigned on aspirations, and the more laughably unrealistic those aspirations, the more they resonated with the electorate. Of course Britain will be worse off outside Europe, just as the United States will be worse off if, as Trump threatens to do, it leaves some or all of the trade blocs it’s part of. But wouldn’t it be nice if we could reclaim manufacturing jobs just by tearing up trade treaties. The dream is so much stronger than the dispiriting reality.
2016 marked the beginning of post-truth elections, the point at which fact-checking stopped being able to hold politicians to account and started being a way for hated elites to become even more insufferable. Britain’s “Leave” campaign was built on lies; Trump lied–and continues to lie–even when he didn’t need to. Lying was by far the most effective strategy of 2016, because you could tell your base whatever they wanted to hear while simultaneously tweaking your opponents and sending them into paroxysms of self-defeating insufferability.
This year was also the year when overt racism, in both the UK and the U.S., went from being fringe to being mainstream. Both campaigns were run on the demonization of people of color, and both countries saw a terrifying uptick in racist attacks following the election.
None of this bodes well for the immediate future. If we’re living in a world tilted in favor of lies and nativism and campaigns that pander to racist and sexist prejudices, then we’re living in a world that naturally favors the right, rather than the left. It’s clear which way the wind is blowing: Our politicians are tearing our nations apart, rather than bringing them together.
Yet Trump can be opposed, in a way that Brexit can’t be. This weekend’s demonstrations are a good start; January’s march on Washington will be, too. Trump must be opposed, and his most poisonous policies defeated. Hillary Clinton won a substantial majority of the votes for president in 2016; her voters can’t give up now. We are living in dark days, and a crucially important battle has been lost. But the fight continues. It can still be won.