As global events take a sinister turn, Tobias Stone explores the perilous historical parallels. His chilling analysis has clearly resonated, but will the warning by heeded in time?
In July, I published an article about Donald Trump and Brexit on the blogging site, Medium. It went viral.
It was viewed by 12 million people, and read by around six million. It has been a daunting experience, and has left me wondering why it struck such a chord. The feedback, which ran into an unmanageable tens of thousands of comments, Tweets, and emails, gave some insight into the zeitgeist I had inadvertently tapped into.
I first took to Medium in June of this year. I was so upset and angry about Nigel Farage’s anti-immigrant poster that I felt I had to do something, and for my part, albeit tiny, I decided to stick my head above the parapet and write about my immigrant family. They had come here with nothing and made something of their lives in Britain, as is so often the case, and I felt the urge to share that story to try to counter balance what was being said by people like Farage.
It took some courage to write so personally, but I felt that the time had come to join the debate and have a voice. The ‘Tipping Point’ poster had crossed a line, and in my opinion was un-British.
I have written before, and been published, but not really blogged, let alone taken that nervous step of announcing my opinions to the Internet. When I once wrote a very personal piece for the Guardian, pre-web days, I knew fairly well who my readers were. But with Medium, and sharing it on Facebook and Twitter, you’re shouting from the roof of a building for all to hear. The first Medium post was well received, albeit widely ignored. I wrote a few more blog pieces as Brexit unfolded, and enjoyed a dialogue, mainly with my friends.
In July, the same impulse overcame me again and I wrote a piece called ‘History tells us what may happen next with Brexit and Trump’. I was watching the world as I’ve known it start to crumble. As someone with a background in history and an analytical way of thinking, I wondered why others could not see the parallels with the history of the last century. It looked to me just like history repeating itself; demagogues, scapegoats, isolationism, and revanchism.
The two ideas really running around my head were, firstly, that we generally don’t see big cataclysms coming. It is small events that trigger them, which only make sense as catalysts when looked back at by historians, and secondly that Hitler wasn’t Hitler until he was Hitler. Hitler in the 1930s was just an odious narcissist, and could have gone the same way as Mosley if things had been different. Was Trump such a man now?
I was told by commentators on my writing that it was absurd to compare Trump to Hitler. I responded that I was comparing Trump now to that Hitler of the early 1930s, not to the Hitler of history. The nasty, shouty, divisive little man who whipped up crowds in German beer halls, that was who I was comparing Trump to. And the point of that comparison was that we were still in time to stop him, to consign him to the history bin before he does any real harm. Could we learn from the past and act to stop another giant mess from unfolding? I concluded: probably not, as that is the human condition.
My point about triggers I called the Archduke Ferdinand moment. I assume when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was killed, (almost) nobody worried that it might lead to the greatest global war mankind had known until then, and to the death of around 17 million people. Looking back, the web of treaties and the complex political map of Europe make it seem more predictable, but at the time who would have believed that one death would lead to another 17 million?
I explained how I’ve long felt that most peoples’ perspective of history is limited to the experience communicated by their parents and grandparents, so 50–100 years. Also, that we humans have a habit of going into phases of mass destruction, generally self imposed to some extent or another. When these are unfolding, at a local level, at the time, people think things are fine, then things rapidly spiral out of control until they become unstoppable, and we wreak massive destruction on ourselves.
For the people living in the midst of this it is hard to see happening and hard to understand. To historians later it all makes sense and we see clearly how one thing led to another. Obviously, that is the benefit of hindsight, but could we not use the benefit of history to guide us?
What I see as history repeating itself is that we are clearly now in an era of hardship and uncertainties, and it was at this point previously, when people felt they had lost control of their country and their destiny, that they looked for scapegoats, elected a charismatic leader who captured the popular mood, and singled out that scapegoat. Then, and now, he talks in rhetoric that has no detail and drums up anger and hatred. Soon the masses start to move as one, without any logic driving their actions, and the whole becomes unstoppable.
While this seems fantastical today, we have to understand that if we are entering a bad period, then we are at the very beginning – the moment historians will point to, and ask why we didn’t do more.
In my article, I wrote: ‘We should be asking ourselves what our Archduke Ferdinand moment will be. How will an apparently small event trigger another period of massive destruction. We see Brexit, Trump, Putin in isolation. The world does not work that way — all things are connected and affecting each other. I have pro-Brexit friends who say ‘oh, you’re going to blame that on Brexit too?’ But they don’t realise that actually, yes, historians will trace neat lines from apparently unrelated events back to major political and social shifts like Brexit.’
I chose to play out just one scenario to show how things connect globally, and how Brexit, and Trump, could lead to a major war. I postulated that Russia might start to agitate in eastern Latvia as they had in Ukraine. This leads to Russian troops crossing the border, and because of Brexit and Trump dividing a previously united Europe and NATO, rather than a rapid unified response, America hesitates and undermines the NATO reaction. And within Europe, countries split over whether to defend Latvia. The Baltic States stick together and have to go to war and gradually different countries chose different sides, in what would rapidly become a complex and then nuclear war. The same unstoppable spiral we saw twice in the last century.
I concluded the scenario saying ‘this is just one Arch Duke Ferdinand scenario. The number of possible scenarios are infinite due to the massive complexity of the many moving parts. And of course many of them lead to nothing happening. But based on history we are due another period of destruction, and based on history all the indicators are that we are entering one.’
When the article came out, one explanation of why it went viral was that I had dared to say all the things that journalists and politicians couldn’t; namely that this is too much like the last time, and that it could easily lead to a war or some conflagration we cannot yet see unfolding. I think it tied into an undefinable fear people were feeling that there was more to this than they could see.
I suggested that we ignore such things at our peril, and bemoaned the human condition of never learning from history. People foresaw the First and Second World Wars, but were equally ignored and ridiculed.
‘Ignoring and mocking the experts, as people are doing around Brexit and Trump’s campaign, is no different to ignoring a doctor who tells you to stop smoking, and then finding later you’ve developed incurable cancer. A little thing leads to an unstoppable destruction that could have been prevented if you’d listened and thought a bit. But people smoke, and people die from it. That is the way of the human.’
Rather nervously I posted the piece on Medium, shared it on Facebook – open to the public – unlike any of my other posts, Tweeted it, and went to bed.
Whereas my previous Medium posts had been read by a maximum of 5,000 people, and viewed by 8,000 people over some weeks, by morning this latest piece was on tens of thousands of views. I watched the numbers rise, and my Tweet get liked and re-Tweeted. By the end of the day, friends of mine were writing to me from around the world saying they’d seen my article shared by friends of theirs on Facebook. It started to become clear that in some countries it had gone completely viral. Friends wrote to say it was coming up again and again on their Facebook feed, recommended by people who didn’t know me. By the end of the first day I had hit 372,000 views on Medium.
At one point it was being read by around 10 people every few seconds. I reached one million views on Medium by the end of the second day. Whilst I was out at dinner, 150,000 people read my article. It was exciting and frightening. It was no longer in my control.
Soon afterwards, Huffington Post wrote and asked if they could publish it. So did Newsweek, Business Insider, and Aftenposten in Norway. My friend in Prague sent me a link to a Czech translation of the article somebody had posted. I was contacted by the kindest of people, some of whom asked if they too could translate it. It is now online in Spanish, Norwegian, Romanian, German, and soon Japanese. The Japanese translator wrote:
‘As you perhaps know, the current Japanese government is one of the most right-wing in its post-war history. So, I am confident many people in Japan will be very interested in your article for their own reasons, in addition to the more general viewpoint from the global influence the US and UK have. Besides, I believe your article is well worth wider audience.’
Medium is interesting because people can highlight and mark up parts of the essay, so you can analyse reading pattern. For example, these sentences received the most highlights:
‘We should be asking ourselves what our Archduke Ferdinand moment will be.’
‘What can we do? Well, again, looking back, probably not much. The liberal intellectuals are always in the minority. See Clay Shirky’s Twitter Storm on this point. The people who see that open societies, being nice to other people, not being racist, not fighting wars, is a better way to live, they generally end up losing these fights. They don’t fight dirty. They are terrible at appealing to the populace. They are less violent, so end up in prisons, camps, and graves.’
It also prompted a dialogue between the readers, with commentaries such as these:
Comment from a reader:
‘Stupid, idiotic article. Comparing leaving a political union which was corrupt, didn’t work due to the self-serving nature of it’s members states and ignored and overrode the democratic will of individual members, as leading to a nuclear war?!?!
People chose to make a choice as to how they were governed — this is a GOOD thing and a sign that we live in a truly free democratic society that we were able to do this. And you belittle the will of the people, as some sort of sign that it signifies an oncoming apocalypse or armageddon. This is intellectual snobbery of the worst kind.’
Response by another reader:
‘You are proving the author’s point. You don’t seem to connect the negativity and political populism that led to Brexit to the bigger picture the author describes. Read the article again, this time without any preconceived ideas.’
For about a week, like a real virus, it raged. It eventually slowed to a daily trickle of re-Tweets and around 10,000 views. And like a real virus, it was mainly just frightening and uncomfortable. I felt very exposed. I hadn’t planned this or done anything to make it happen. I wasn’t really sure what the consequences would be. As is the way in this modern world, I received a mix of stupid criticism, insults, and a handful of well thought through, courteous counter arguments. I ignored the stupid comments, and eventually they ran into the thousands so I had no choice. With the better-argued criticisms I initially responded again on Medium, quoting them and answering back. I was happy to debate, and appreciated, with some relief, people disagreeing with me, with their own equally thought through ideas. The only future we have at this point is through balanced debate.
I was taken aback by the whole experience. I had written the piece pretty well over breakfast and not given it a lot of thought. It was full of inaccuracies, and was never intended to be seen by more than my friends and their friends. It seems from the comments and feedback that I had somehow summed up what everyone was thinking. One of the many emails and messages I received, seemed to sum it up:
‘Never felt like I wanted to write to someone before and say YES! Exactly! I am always struck by patterns… I loved what you wrote, anyway, and wanted to tell you. Hope this isn’t the end for all of us either, but maybe there’s reincarnation? And we’ll be back. – Peace!’
The morning after Trump was elected it started again, quite out of nowhere. On the first day, the article on Medium was read around 800,000 times and viewed 1.2m times. Then Ricky Gervais put it on his Facebook, it was read out on the radio, and again friends around the world started telling me it was everywhere… their Twitter, Facebook, local media. Politicians, commentators, journalists were re-posting it, and by the end of this stint it had been viewed on Medium alone 6.7 million times, read around 2.3 million times, and viewed on Huffington Post over four million times.
It is good to know that it became part of this moment in history, and at that scale may actually have made a tiny, tiny dent on the future. However, my concern was that people either agreed with me or rejected me as an idiot. There were a handful of balanced counter arguments, but on the whole they were just rants.
Like many, I was beginning to understand the echo chambers we’d all become lost within. If you are reading this, chances are we live in the same echo chamber.
What we in the UK realised after Brexit, our American friends are now rapidly learning about their country too. The liberals who believe in freedom, democracy, and openness are actually imprisoned in their own ghettoes – London, New York, California. We don’t know the people beyond our walled gardens, and don’t realise that they are not seeing the same news feed as us on Facebook, let alone living in the same realities as us. They are not hearing our fears, sharing our concerns, or understanding our logic. And we are not hearing or sharing theirs.
Moving forward it is clear that we, in this particular echo chamber, have to do two things, and they are hard to reconcile.
Firstly, we have to find our voices, start to shout, and don’t stop. If we see our democracies being damaged, and our freedoms curtailed, we cannot sit back and assume it will all be ok. It’s clear from the response to what I wrote that people can feel something bad is unfolding, and the lesson from before is that not doing something is wrong. Our time has come, and we need to stick our necks out and defend the liberal democratic world we value. And that is not just the protests in the days after Brexit, and now in the US, but that is protests for years to come. Whether we march on the streets, write on the internet, or debate in the pub, we need to keep the fight, not just as a brief outburst of protest.
Secondly, we have to find ways to build bridges between the echo chambers. My fear is that my piece on Medium was read by however many million people who generally agree with me. If I didn’t change opinions, and just affirmed them on both sides, then the exercise was essentially fruitless. I soothed the wounds of one camp, whilst pouring salt on those from the other. I am wondering how I can start to reach out to the people who are increasingly living in a parallel universe to me. How could I find a way to communicate with Trump voters who think Hillary is a dangerous criminal, Mexicans are all rapists, and Muslims are all terrorists? It is too easy just to write them off as they do me, but their Facebook feeds are telling them this is true, as much as ours are telling us it is not.
I fear that historians will point to 2016 as the year that the period of liberal democracy born out of the Second World War started to end, or ended. I think what may follow will come to be called fascism, or some new word we don’t know yet with a similar meaning updated for our time. Historians will find it easy to piece together how we got here, and will think we were fools for not foreseeing what happened next. I am sure they will point to the social divide, as indeed commentators already are now – history is written days later now, not years later.
We need to re-group and work on these two interconnected and opposing challenges. It is easy to write for an accepting audience. I don’t, however, know how to reach people outside my echo chamber, or what to say to them. That is the challenge now.