Bonnie Greer on how Trump, Farage and Johnson have been able to channel the anger of the disaffected
PUBLISHED: 11:37 29 September 2016 | UPDATED: 11:37 29 September 2016
Looking at this tweet which just went out the other day, I was reminded of that undoubtedly hot night just this past August in Mississippi, when Nigel Farage strode out on to the stage of a Donald Trump rally.
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This was one of modern politics’ most beautifully symmetrical moments.
Here they were – the two leaders of right-of-centre / right wing Anglophone populism – hugging one another like the brothers-in arms that they are.
Farage grinned broadly at the crowd yelling the words “Make American Great Again!” as if he invented them and indeed, in some ways he has.
With the shock success of Leave in the EU referendum campaign, right-of-centre/right wing populism has suddenly become a kind of language. It has become “The People”. This “People” are identified with the success or failure of one man.
Let’s call him “The Strong Man.”
First of all, how did Trump and Farage get to where they are?
An official at CBS, the American television giant, has been quoted as saying: “Trump may not be good for the country. But he’s good for CBS.” And CNN and NBC and ABC.
Trump is what’s known as “media candy” – always watchable, makes great copy; and he has quotable quotes. The French would call him a “numéro” – a “character”.
I’ve been on Question Time with Nigel Farage once and very many panellists on that show have too. He’s been on umpteen times and for the leader of a party with only one MP – and that one a defector from the Conservatives – you have to believe that, for this programme, Farage is social media click-bait.
In the huge arena that is broadcast news, what, in America, is called “infotainment”, engulfs what we traditionally understand to be the “news”. It renders it a kind of entertainment.
Add to this the rise of so-called “news” aggregating sites like Breitbart on the right and you have a circus which begs for the ring masters. Farage, for example, went on record in The Mirror, before the result of the referendum, saying that if the vote was 52-48 for Remain, then it was “unfinished business”.
But to fact-check Farage or Trump is to bring the circus to a shuddering halt.
In this age when young journalists are judged by how many retweets they get on Twitter, we must understand that our politics have become skewed, even “invented” like never before.
This is not to denigrate journalism and journalists. They have to eat – so the tightrope is walked.
What would not in the past be given much airtime suddenly is front and centre. Scrutiny becomes an inconvenience as the rules are set by The Strong Man.
Farage yelling to the Mississippi crowd: “We had a foreign visitor come over and tell us what to do! He talked down to us.” (referring to President Obama’s pre-EU referendum visit) creates, names and justifies a synergy between Trump’s “Basket Of Deplorables” and those who voted Leave.
Except that Leave voters, unlike Trump supporters, don’t care what they’re called. Because they’re angry. They’re enraged. They’re through.
As David Cameron drove out of Downing Street he was booed. He’s now being called “the worst Prime Minister ever” in some, quarters, a title previously held by Gordon Brown and Tony Blair before him.
No doubt there will be another “worst ever”. What’s striking is that only a year before, he’d won a majority in the House of Commons, something the Conservatives hadn’t been able to do since 1992. So perhaps the answer to the referendum result lies in that boo. Leaving Europe was, too, an expression of rage. Rage at being left behind.
In many of the areas that voted Leave, unemployment, disinvestment, a sense of not being in the national conversation prevail. Austerity hit these areas the hardest, coupled with the sense that there was no voice for them at Westminster – no one to express their fears and anxieties.
Free trade felt like an enemy, allowing those not born in the country to participate. With the weakening of the unions, there was no way that many post-industrial regions could fight back. These areas are called the “Rust Belt” in the US and are one of the battlegrounds between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. They are battlegrounds in the UK and in Europe, too.
Leave quickly identified that immigration and the NHS were the “simple” stuff. Trump‘s “simple” is immigration, too, and “peace through strength”. Never mind that the slogan has a tinge of Mussolini about it. The people he’s talking to – and the ones “Leave” talked to – know little about him. This isn’t to denigrate them. It’s to point out the severe disconnect between government and The Governed.
Rationale; holding up facts and figures; parading a core of People Who Know only enraged this demographic further. No matter what happened, they were seen as The Winners pontificating to The Losers. This time, The “Losers” were determined that THEY were going to win.
This is one of the reasons that the rules don’t apply to Farage and Trump.
No one is quoting Farage’s “unfinished business”. No one in his Base is asking Trump to honour a custom that’s been done for over 40 years: revealing his taxes.
Because it’s not about that. It’s about The Rage and the sense that this is their last chance before the inevitable march of the unavoidable “overwhelms” them and the things that identified them as who they are gone forever.
Remain didn’t get this. But sites like Breitbart and channels like Fox News do.
They legitimise pub talk: dark conspiracy theories, paranoia and what’s called in the States “nativism” (White Nationalism). They help make the dark side of social media’s Back Fence the world’s back fence.
This new “Back Fence” is one of the roots of populism and a reason for the success of Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders and Podemos in Spain on the Left; and Marine Le Pen in France, plus movements in Italy and Austria on both sides of the spectrum.
This populism – with its idea of the charismatic leader – is why an Old Etonian like Boris Johnson, could mouth a phrase that said in effect: “ignore the experts”. It is also why he is fronting Vote Leave’s metamorphosis Change Britain, which is harrying Teresa May for a quick exit.
“Boris adds 2% to us,” a Leave person chirruped. Boris ‘Off-The Telly’ helps to channel The Rage and The Anger, give it a voice and meaning, too. The media, in particular, have to keep repeating those ratings, so they’ll continue to create infotainment and provide an arena in which the forces do battle. It will suit them to have this negotiation long and drawn out. It keeps the national conversation going. And them in business.
They dare not label this what it is: The Conservative’s Battle For Europe now in its 21st century form; and ancient indeed.
This ancient struggle-to-the-death caused David Cameron to call an “In/Out “ referendum in the first place, confident that he would vanquish “the bastards” as John Major labelled them and therefore set his seal upon the times.
But what is in his wake is uncertainty and a kind of chaos that has left many of the world’s economists and the markets scratching their heads. He has left the nation with a stripped-down Civil Service ill-equipped to begin the negotiations that would unpick 40 years of legislation and thousands of pages of secondary legislation.
We are now facing a massive structural change. What we might discover is how much the UK IS the EU, how much law and custom and practice are built on that 40 years; how much there is to be undone.
Those ideologues; media punters; and obsessives who won’t suffer whatever happens, have to shoulder the responsibility to a generation of the young who may not have freedom of movement; may not participate in the world with the ease that they might have had.
But, as Trump told his audience; as Farage has implied in Britain; and Marine Le Pen in France, too: this is the last throw of the dice.
“Hillary Clinton will let all the undocumented (“illegals”) vote!” Trump yells.
Those, whom the Elites did not hear correctly, carefully listen.
Many of those listening are some of the most dangerous people to social cohesion and peace in this world.
To me, Leave has to be held account for unleashing these people; they have to be held to account for every promise they made; every insinuation they gave.
The signs, so far, are not good. They won’t accept this responsibility.
So, let’s hope that Trump, Farage and their ilk do not unleash Yeats’ “rough beast” beautifully evoked in the poet’s great work ‘The Second Coming’.
Let’s hope that we don’t witness his Beast as it: “Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born..”
Bonnie Greer is a playwright, novelist and critic
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Almost four years after its creation The New European goes from strength to strength across print and online, offering a pro-European perspective on Brexit and reporting on the political response to the coronavirus outbreak, climate change and international politics. But we can only rebalance the right wing extremes of much of the UK national press with your support. If you value what we are doing, you can help us by making a contribution to the cost of our journalism.Become a supporter