As it is twisting itself into knots over Brexit—the ham-handed effort of the Brits to leave the European Union—it is heartbreaking to watch a train wreck in slow motion. Brexit’s searing divide runs right through British society, creating bitter divisions among friends and families.
It has a leader to match: its new Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has more than a passing similarity with his US counterpart. No wonder Trump likes him. When it comes to mendacity, Johnson can give Trump a run for his money—no small feat. Here’s a man who has the dubious distinction of being fired twice for being economical with the facts.
But there’s far more to these crises than Trump and Johnson. When you think about it, what’s so baffling about the rise of these leaders is the fact that the shortcomings of either leader are one of the worst kept secrets in the world.
Yet both have almost a cult-like following. Trump once joked that he could shoot a person in broad daylight and his supporters wouldn’t bat an eyelid. He is on to something, as polls consistently show.
Trump and Johnson are bad enough. What’s scarier is the strong possibility that their blind support represents something more sinister.
It’s hardly news that the fruits of globalisation have not benefitted everyone. What’s worrying is that the discontent among those left behind is curdling into something disquieting.
“Over the four years during which he has dominated American political life, nearly three of them as president, Donald Trump has set a match again and again to chaos-inducing issues like racial hostility, authoritarianism and white identity politics,” Thomas B Edsall wrote in a column in the New York Times.
Edsall quotes from an academic paper, “A ‘Need for Chaos’ and the Sharing of Hostile Political Rumors in Advanced Democracies,” by Michael Bang Petersen and Mathias Osmundsen, both political scientists at Aarhus University in Denmark, and Kevin Arceneaux, a political scientist at Temple University in Philadelphia.
“It argues that a segment of the American electorate that was once peripheral is drawn to ‘chaos incitement’ and that this segment has gained decisive influence through the rise of social media,” Edsall writes.
“The rise of social media provides the public with unprecedented power to craft and share new information with each other,” the researchers write.
This technological transformation allows the dissemination of negative information with little evidence. This includes “conspiracy theories, fake news, discussions of political scandals and negative campaigns,” the researchers add.
Petersen, Osmundsen and Arceneaux found that those with a need for chaos express that need by willingly spreading disinformation. Edsall adds. “Their goal is not to advance their own ideology but to undermine political elites, left and right, and to ‘mobilise others against politicians in general.’ These disrupters do not ‘share rumors because they believe them to be true. For the core group, hostile political rumors are simply a tool to create havoc.’”
This sentiment is echoed in raucous Trump rallies in the US, in the antics of far-right fringe provocateurs in the UK like Nigel Farage and Tommy Robinson. Chants from supporters appear to be fuelled more by a destructive rage than a hope for a better future.
Politicians across the Atlantic have been happy to fuel and capitalise on this rage. Former British Prime Minister Theresa May’s tart observation that “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere” fanned the flames of a desperate xenophobia.
Here in the United States, Trump’s ascent—and the total capitulation of the Republican Party—is perceived by opponents as an assault on all that the western world prides itself upon—rationalism, reason, scientific inquiry, social equality. Climate change is denied, incendiary race-baiting remarks are de rigueur, and argument is based on polemics and vitriol, reason and science be damned.
In the United Kingdom, the cussed stubbornness in bringing in Brexit come what may is a dead giveaway. Supporters are not championing a well-considered programme that will address their grievances. They just want to bring down the socio-economic structure that they feel has sold them short.
The most disheartening part of this crisis is how utterly resistant supporters are to reason. Brexit without a deal an economic catastrophe? Trump has not prevented the decline of the coal industry? With climate change uncontrolled, the world will be going to hell in a handbasket?
Who cares? The fact that something Trump or Johnson wants can outrage and scandalise their opponents is reason enough for his supporters to be happy.
I won’t hide the fact that I loathe both leaders. But I also think that the pain that their supporters feel is genuine. The only way out of this current impasse is a dialogue which will lead to a policy that addresses the grievances of the disaffected.
But I can’t honestly say I feel very optimistic. The atmosphere today is eerily reminiscent of Europe between the two world wars. Europe was barely recovering from a carnage of mass murder with the dark foreboding that the schisms and hatreds had not quite been resolved. One thinks of the Weimar Republic, utterly unable to halt the rise of Hitler. Reason was an ineffective, feeble corrective to the fatal, toxic power of jingoism.
In the oft-repeated words of William Butler Yeats: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…/The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”
I wish I am proven wrong.
Ashfaque Swapan is a contributing editor for Siliconeer, a monthly periodical for South Asians in the United States.