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Brexit and Trump: In a divided society we need to respect, not abuse, one another

Theresa May; Donald Trump; Recip Tayyip Erdogan - Credit: Archant

Neither side is all right, nor all wrong. That includes Donald Trump

Ten years ago, when Theresa May’s second best new friend, Recip Tayyip Erdogan, was just getting into his stride as Turkey’s civilian strongman, one of the London newspapers published a revealing feature about how the country’s educated, urban elite regarded their then prime minister. Their responses dripped with scornful, misplaced condescension, reminiscent of many responses to Donald Trump’s presidency and – closer to home – to Brexit.

At a high-minded London think tank’s seminar on how best to achieve better British government the other week, the Q&A session left the distinct impression that some high-minded folk in the room were more than disappointed. You sensed they’d consider reintroducing a property qualification or giving an extra vote to people with a degree (four for a PhD, anyone?) as a means of avoiding more outcomes like June 23. ‘I feel a bit that way myself,’ confessed another high-minded chap when I repeated the anecdote at the weekend.

This won’t do, will it? Such talk is divisive and it isn’t decent either, not a proper way to view one’s fellow-citizens. Especially not when you fear they have been led astray by chancers and rogues, rashly given an opening by David Cameron’s ‘Etonian insouciance and self-confidence’, as the political writer, Robert Harris, put it this week.

Almost as important, arrogant disdain for voters is not smart politics either: it’s exactly the response hardliners on the other side hope to provoke for their own dark ambitions. Think Steve Bannon, Breitbart’s fake news shaman, now installed at Trump’s elbow to sow discord. He’s not the only one: Rod Liddle wrote a cynical ‘How liberal elite are you?’ quiz last week, divisively ugly, not funny. He’s actually a closet liberal elitist himself.

If Remainers want to persuade Brexit voters – or Camp Clinton devotees to win back defectors to Trump Tower – that they share their concerns, if not the remedies they voted for (whatever they turn out to be), they’ll have to show them more respect. Rogues like Bannon and Rod are waiting to pounce on any hint of ‘liberal elitism’ and, given half a chance, they’ll be happy to lower the evidence bar. For some reason bankers, billionaires and Borises aren’t deemed to be elitists. But Guardian reading teachers are.

Back to Turkey whose recent domestic history is starting to look like a guide to trends now popping up elsewhere. Since his first constitutional referendum, in 2007, to create a directly elected presidency, Erdogan has run rings around his critics in consolidating his personal authority at the expense of all and any institutions that might challenge it.

As a reformist mayor of Istanbul, from 1994 to 1998, he had already demonstrated his political skills: not by imposing Islamic law, as predicted in the city’s affluent postcodes, but by tackling traffic jams, water shortages and assorted pollution. Erdogan even tackled corruption, though he’s since fallen off a bit in that department. Voters with cleaner water and more buses may forgive their new Ottoman sultan his 1,000 room palace.

Populist and authoritarian, increasingly a nationalist too since Turkey’s EU accession talks stalled, clever Erdogan could easily be a role model for emerging regimes as far apart as Budapest and Manilla, via Beijing and Delhi, though Vladimir Putin has developed a parallel degree course for wannabe autocrats to study. In the struggle between globalisation and revived nationalism, between authority and accountability, none with a monopoly of vice or virtue, who knows where it will end? As this week’s street revolt against corrupt officialdom shows in Romania, the traffic need not be all one-way.

Repeatedly the talented President Erdogan seems to overreach himself and come close to a fall: over his divisive Kurdish and Syrian policies, over brinkmanship with Russia, over the Gezi city park and civil liberties, over a cooling economy. But he keeps overcoming setbacks and winning, pocketing his gains and moving further against judges, the media, the military or big business.

Sounds familiar? After a few weeks of the Trump presidency it should. The courts are fighting to uphold the constitution, but – as Robert Harris learned from the fall of the Roman republic into empire – even old and solid systems are not guaranteed. In a widely read blog this week, Google privacy engineer, Yonatan Zunger, went as far as to suggest Team Trump is gearing up for a coup. A bit OTT? I thought so.

British institutions are not so beleaguered, but ‘enemies of the people’, ‘traitors to the will of the people’ and other slippery phrases are now bandied round more than is decent – or smart. Authoritarian leaders are needy. They can suddenly fall out with allies. Ask Erdogan’s exiled buddy, Fethullah Gulen, whom he now wants to extradite from the US for treason. Even compliant editors can find they’re not compliant enough either, usually when it’s too late.

But in deeply divided societies (Erdogan won the Turkish presidency on 51.79% of the vote, a fraction less than Brexit’s 51.89%), those who claim to be the wiser, more experienced side of the argument need to demonstrate it by setting a better example of inclusivity than opponents who talk about ‘so-called judges’ and dismiss the views of the 48%.

When I hear EU leaders bracketing the Trump presidency with ISIS and Putin’s foreign policy adventures as equal threats to Europe, I’m unimpressed. When I hear them threatening to veto the possible appointment of Ted Malloch, the idiot who compared the EU to the old USSR, as US ambassador to Brussels, I flinch because it’s only speculation.

Window breaking riots in Washington DC? Not sure that’s a great idea and nor is Middle America. Are we watching grown men and women trying to proclaim their own virtue and to wind each other up on purpose? Steve Bannon certainly is.

Of course Malloch won’t be appointed US ambassador. It’s another populist provocation designed to make the EU look silly, a cheap way to distract and cheer up Trump fans in the heartlands where few ambassadors venture. So far it’s working. Trump played the same trick with his ‘Farage for British ambassador’ tweet and we all fell for it.

Arnold Schwarzenegger showed much more class after Trump mocked his successor’s ratings on the president’s reality television show. ‘Let’s swop jobs, so I do yours and people can sleep again at night,’ was the drift of the former California governor’s reply. A good Ronald Reagan answer and most Americans will have seen the funny side of it, even many of those who voted for the Republican nominee and are yet to admit they may – it’s still ‘may’ at this stage – have made a bad mistake.

Which is the current point of the campaign to retrieve lost ground and stability. Remain expected to win, just as Nigel Farage (demanding a second referendum if he lost by 52% to 48%) expected to lose. Hillary Clinton expected to win. Jeremy Corbyn’s rivals for the Labour leadership didn’t take him seriously either.

They all lost because of their own campaign’s weaknesses and the unpopularity of their records in office. The defiantly unrepentant Ken Clarke, sole Tory MP to vote against the Article 50 bill, almost got it right when he admitted in the Guardian that no politician in the boom years had cracked the problem of how to share the country’s growing overall, London-driven prosperity – ‘How is this going to benefit Hartlepool?’

Downtown Hartlepool actually looked all right the last time I was there on a sunny day. Most town and city centres do, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t grim job prospects in their poorer neighbourhoods and in the respectable suburbs too, where parents worry about their children’s prospects and their student debt. Interviews on Radio 4 showed the painful contrast between attitudes in Middlesbrough (it has worked hard on its central district too) which voted overwhelmingly for Brexit and Cambridge which – surprise, surprise ! – voted equally emphatically the other way. Some voters interviewed were respectful of the opposing opinion, others less so.

So it’s fine for cartoonists and columnists to savage leaders they disapprove of. Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin imitation or Alec Baldwin’s Trump on Saturday Night Live – White House ‘alternative facts’ spokesman, Sean Spicer, has recently joined the target list – and local equivalents here are good for morale. Or do I mean ‘liberal elite’ morale? I’m a great fan of news panel games on radio and television, but they don’t often feature right wing comedians peddling Remoan gags, do they?

In any case, as the late humourist, Peter Cook, famously remarked, Weimar Berlin’s thriving nightclub satire scene – think Bob Fosse’s Cabaret – didn’t do such a great job in stopping the rise of Hitler whose speeches, incidentally, were funny as well as sinister.

How to attack the arguments and their flaky advocates without disrespecting those who supported them in such large numbers, that’s the challenge. It’s part of the explanation as to why Labour has got itself in such a mess over the Article 50 bill, split three ways, between principle and electoral arithmetic, a dilemma the SNP does not share at this stage: it gets a free kick.

A more powerful and creative Labour leader than Jeremy Corbyn could have fashioned a unifying formula either for opposing May’s bill or for supporting it, as his barely-concealed Brexit leanings have encouraged him to do. The feebleness of it all is another form of disrespect for voters, one which leaves Corbyn’s Brexit spokesman, Keir Starmer, still a novice politician, scrambling to convince fair-minded voters that MPs have extracted significant victories on the bill. This week’s concessions will prove important when EU/UK negotiations come to a head and the Commons votes on May’s draft deal in late 2018 or spring 2019, Starmer insists.

Take it or leave it, reply ministers, a response that also suggests novice status. Don’t they realise their government could fall in response to such threats? In due course we will discover who is more right and who more wrong. Neither side will be all right or wrong. Nor will President Trump.

Michael White is a former political editor of the Guardian

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