What Trump, Brexit and the rise of populism say about politics and media now and in the future
Posted on 8 December 2016 | 9:12am
Yesterday I made a speech to a conference organised by Fremantle Media, the independent production company that has given us such delights – depending on your taste – as Pop Idol, The Price is Right, and The Bill. They wanted me to talk about Trump, Brexit, the rise of populism, and what it all said about politics and media now and in the future. On arrival at The Grove in Hertfordshire, I discovered that what I thought was a fifty minute slot was just twenty-five, and some of that was for Q and A. So I got out the red pen and set to slashing. It seemed to go well enough, but here, for those who don’t mind a bit of long-form, is the fifty minute version.
I do like an event where I get a good clear brief, based on clear questions emailed over to me well in advance to give me time to think.
So here goes with the questions you asked me to answer.
What will the Trump presidency look like? That one is easy. Fuck knows.
What are his priorities? Also easy. No idea. They change from tweet to tweet. Today it seems to be the replacement of Air Force One.
What do we know he’s definitely going to do? Normally it is what the elected politician campaigned on. So … Lock her up. No, he’s changed his mind, Hillary is a wonderful woman. Build a wall. Apparently it is going to be a fence now. Drain the swamp. Now the Goldman Sachs guy is in the treasury, several of Trump’s billionaire pals are in the Cabinet, and there is a confusing mix of politics and business, including taking his daughter to meetings with PMs so she can tweet pictures and tell the world where to buy her bangle.
Who is on his team and what does this mean? Steve Bannon for one. It means the alt-right is normalized and part of the mainstream. As yet he still has no Secretary of State, and given the row over Taiwan I kind of feel he may be needing one quite soon.
Who are his allies globally? Nigel Farage, Piers Morgan and Vladimir Putin, and none strike me as US Secretary of State material. It makes that other trio of Johnson, Fox and Davis look like Abraham Lincoln’s team of rivals … with China, it is fair to say, he has made a bad start. But rival superpowers apart, he knows other countries will want to get close. Power attracts power.
What is Trump like and what can we expect from his leadership? You know the answer to the first part – you saw the horror show as much as I did – and the second part you know you don’t know.
Next you asked me about the Global Implications of The New Populism. What is it? What is the emerging new world order and what does it mean? Why is populism becoming so attractive around the world? How we can expect the world to change – what is under threat? Nothing much – just the whole of Western civilization and the future of the planet maybe. What could go wrong with a leader who said climate change was a Chinese hoax? What could go wrong if two leaders like Putin and Trump went man to man, fell out, got the willies out and neither would back down?
What should we be watching out for in 2017? My own hope is that we wake up to the disaster that is Brexit and change course, and Trump’s win turns out to be the most spectacular example of Fake News yet. Instead we shall look to see how Le Pen fares in France and Wilders in Holland. We shall in the main be praying Angela Merkel survives to win another term. And we will be watching to see who or what can tame Trump.
Certainly we are living through remarkable change. Recently I published volume 5 of my diaries, which cover 2003-05. Theresa May appears once. Jeremy Corbyn not at all. Trump not at all. The word Brexit did not exist. Now here we are, a tumultuous referendum come and gone, David Cameron – come and gone; a leader of the Labour Party seen as unelectable by many but unassailable in the Party, and Trump seen as unelectable by most members of the human race, but now president elect of the most powerful country on earth.
‘Love trumps hate’ goes the slogan. Oh yeah? Not in the populist age.
Feeling would seem to trump reason.
Anger trumps logic.
Direction trumps detail.
Simple messages trump complex arguments.
And the Oxford English Dictionary chose ‘post-truth’ as its new word of the year.
Hillary’s campaign wasn’t bad, you know. Experience. Knowledge of how the world works. Detail and understanding of complicated policy briefs home and abroad. Stability in a time of turmoil. Continuity from a widely respected President she had served closely and well.
These are all, to anyone involved in post war democratic politics, positives. And up against what? Someone with no political, diplomatic or military experience. A proven liar, sexist, racist, narcissist, misogynist and even – when it came to things like demonising whole races or religions, or saying he would only accept the result if he won, and lock up his opponent when he did – with tinges of proto-fascist in there too.
So what did he do well? He turned her strengths into weaknesses, and his own weaknesses into strengths – not in the eyes of most of the political, diplomatic and mainstream media classes, who became ever more convinced of his awfulness, but in the eyes of the people he decided he needed to win, for whom the reaction of these elites seemed to bolster his appeal. For experience, read Washington insider, part of, and indeed symbol of, the system that needs to change. The first woman President? That excited liberals. Helped by Bernie Sanders, who started with the ‘creature of Goldman Sachs’ thing, and by the email ‘scandal’, he turned her into something close to a witch. Does anyone here know what she did wrong with her emails? In the end it didn’t matter. No fire, lots and lots of smoke.
As for him, for billionaire businessman who won’t reveal his taxes, read smart success story. For a few Chapter 11 bankruptcies along the way, read resilience. For temperamental unpredictable firecracker, read someone who tells it like it is and says the things nobody else dare. Hillary’s supporters projected her as the perfect President. Trump supporters liked his flaws.
Also, his message was clearer. Make America Great Again. It is active not static like Stronger Together. It is a call to arms suggesting a better future. But it also relates back to what people can be made to think is a better past. Make says the future. Again summons up the past. Stronger Together says Now, trapped in time … Hillary seems to have forgotten the Fleetwood Mac anthem of her husband’s first win … Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow. We had a similar theme in 1997, Things can only get better, remember. They did by the way.
Trump was change. He turned Hillary into continuity. People wanted change, at least enough of them did to get him over the line. She won the popular vote but he won the election by winning where he needed to.
To those struggling in the rust belt, there was a better past, the good old days seemed real. ‘Take back control’ in the referendum was a similar message. ‘Back’ is the key word there … let’s restore something we have lost because of others. Brussels. Immigrants. Globalisation. Elites. All easy targets. Then wrap in a few lies about NHS spending, and you’re away.
Brexit and Trump focused, with non conventional politicians in the lead, pretending they were anti elitist, on what a brand would call forgotten consumers. What is remarkable about this in the States is that the Clintons built their rise on an understanding of these people. Bill was of them. It’s incredible that a spoilt, rich, inherited wealth billionaire should now seem to understand them and claim to represent them better, but he made them think he did. What is more he used methods that our conventional wisdoms felt would backfire. This exposed the level of disconnect. Likewise with Brexit, the Big Lie that this was about taking on the elite – an old Etonian like Johnson, a City trader like Farage, media barons like Murdoch, Dacre, the Barclays – the elite of the Brexit Lie Machine.
Media change is important here. When reality TV first became a thing, one Christmas at Tessa Jowell’s house, she, her family and mine were all getting into Pop Idol or X Factor or one of those. I’m afraid I have never much liked any of them. Tessa was obsessed with a binman called Andy and kept pinging her phone to vote for him. And when I said you are playing with fire, they said I was a grumpy old man who didn’t understand the modern world. But I think I did.
To millions, voting in those entertainment shows seemed to matter at least as much as voting in elections. The increasingly nihilist papers would give you ten reasons to vote for singer X or comedian Y, made into instant celebrities by dint of being on the show. The same papers would tell you day after day ten reasons not to get involved in politics where they are all the same, in it for themselves, blah blah blah.
Trump is the perfect symbol for this change. An entertainer. A storyteller narrating his favourite subject – himself. If he spoke, the media felt compelled to cover it because they knew the public wanted to see him … see the next episode … what will he do next … mock a disabled person, insult a race, fight with a war hero, whip up anger against journalists in a pen, hit new lows in the attacks on Hillary, make policy promises no serious person believes will happen …? He got $4.2billion worth of free air time in the US, and media companies the world over need to reflect on their role in his rise. Oh, and guess who is on Question Time again tomorrow? Farage. I don’t know why he doesn’t just take over from David Dimbleby.
Even a few years ago, the Trump strategy wouldn’t have worked. It worked now, in the reality TV/ social media world that is transforming our politics in ways which Trump clearly fathomed better than Hillary, the media, the pollsters, the bookies. In my day, you needed consistency of message. But Trump’s inconsistency and unpredictability became part of the appeal. He was like a one man soap opera, and the next episode was likely to fascinate and shock even more. And we all thought there was no way the American people would fall for this. But they did. Someone once said politics was showbiz for ugly people. In Trump the two have fused. He even tweeted out, a week after he won, that only he knew who ‘the contestants’ were for the top jobs. In the reality TV age, the reality TV President. In the post-truth world, the post-truth President.
There is a very interesting social media analytical tool called EMOTIVE, which correctly predicted the outcome based on an analysis of the emotional depth of the many millions of tweets the two candidates were generating. It can analyse thousands of tweets a second to extract from each tweet a direct expression of one of eight basic emotions: anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, surprise, shame and confusion. It was first developed in 2013 to predict whether another riot could happen in London. It accurately predicted our 2015 election.
During the three weeks leading up to the vote, Trump led in terms of the consistency of the emotions he was arousing. What the model is seeking out is not numerical support so much as consistency in the emotional response. The more emotions fluctuate, the greater the uncertainty towards a candidate, and the fewer votes the model predicts a candidate is going to get. The model does not concern itself with the direction of the emotion or put value on one emotion over another – because an emotion such as anger can be positive or negative.
Another plank of populism is the demonization of people who know what they are talking about, their reason made irrelevant alongside people’s anger. Just as in Brexit ‘we have had enough of experts,’ (copyright Michael Gove) so in the US all voices of conventional wisdom were dismissed by those forgotten consumers Trump was chasing.
So anger was the key. He needed to express anger as a way of showing he got the anger of people. It became a virtuous circle for him. Say they are angry. Show he is angry. Make them more angry. And make them believe that the old ways and the old people who had been around for years wouldn’t be able to fix the reasons for their anger. Only he would. Saviour time.
Meanwhile in the media and political bubbles we all persuaded each other we knew what was going on. As the date neared I found myself increasingly emailing and calling my US friends – some working for Hillary – saying please tell me this isn’t happening. No way, they said, all of them, without exception, including on polling day. She will win. Fret not.
It was strange – during our referendum campaign in June, every time I ventured out of the UK I was met with people from other countries stunned that we were even thinking of leaving the EU. Then I would come back home and hear so many people here – particularly outside London – who were determined that it is exactly what we should do. It has been the same for Americans travelling abroad in recent months – nobody outside America (and Putin’s Russia) seemed to want Trump. But Trump is what the world now has. The people who create the conventional wisdoms – the political, economic and media class if you like, all in their own bubbles, barely speak to the kind of people who swung it for Brexit and for Trump. And when they do there is a disconnent.
Conventional wisdom says don’t go full frontal on the media. Trump did. Did it harm him? No. Because the landscape has changed so much.
24 news and social media have changed journalism out of all recognition. People just move on. All about impact. Straight to comment. Fusion of news and comment. It’s easy to see why this happened – papers not merely in competition with each other but with all other parts of the landscape. Fake news now a reality in this post-truth world.
And campaigning which disregards facts in favour of emotion having proved successful in the most followed democracy of all, we can expect more of it, and the media will have to adapt.
Also, be honest, what has most of our broadcast media become? Journalists talking to each other about what other journalists say. Commentators reviewing on TV what they and others have said in the papers. Newsreaders telling you what commentators are saying on twitter. Media outlets with more space to fill and fewer journalists to fill it with. This is tailor made for a Trump or a Brexit campaign, storming social media, overwhelming mainstream media.
Most reporting is done from the desk and less and less on the ground. The antennae picking up and understanding social change are less alive. Easy talk is prioritised over news-gathering because it’s cheaper – but not necessarily well informed. And in elections, it has spawned an over-reliance on telephone and online polls – now proven unreliable, yet still relied upon to fill the space.
Also, again be honest, media has become a largely white, middle-class profession with fewer ways into the business for those without connections. This reinforces insularity of views, attitudes and approaches – not simply along political lines but social lines of class, region, education.
As traditional media has struggled, social networks have grown. But through the lens of these two campaigns, Trump and Brexit, their shortcomings are clear. Facebook now a planet of misinformation, Twitter a planet of abuse and division. Mark Zuckerberg happy to take credit for two million more people registering to vote, but shunting aside any responsibility for monetized fake news sites which add to his power and wealth. And the power of algorithms, which so few of us even begin, or even try, to understand, creating sealed echo chambers where we are seldom challenged by views we disagree with –further driving polarisation. Angela Merkel made a fascinating speech recently in which she warned of the dangers posed by algorithms constantly pointing us all in the direction of views we already hold. I remember my daughter on the day after Cameron won … ‘but how did this happen? Everyone said Labour would win.’ No, everyone in our digital world did.
Obama advisor David Axelrod once said when Obama was defying the odds to beat Hillary for the nomination in 08, ‘conventional wisdoms are always wrong.’ But actually nearer the mark is that there is no conventional wisdom any more. There are just billions of people around the world and we all have our own world, our own view, our own bubbles.
So as Trump moved to make the sale, the Brexit comparisons were obvious. A divided country still healing from the scars of the global financial crisis for which working people felt they – and not those who caused the crisis – paid the price. A feeling that the pace of change was too fast and the system needed a kick up the backside to get the message. An anti-establishment and anti-politics and anti-mainstream media mood. The politics of identity being turned into the politics of blame and becoming centred on immigrants at one end of the social scale, vaguely defined elites at the other. Hugely complicated issues reduced to simple messages repeatedly hammered home by the campaign and endlessly ventilated on social media. And the reason I feel this is a scary time to be alive is because I see in all of the above – particularly with the possibility for the break-up of the EU – echoes of, and parallels with, the 1930s.
We had it confirmed that we are indeed now in the era of post-truth politics. Trump made statements that made the Johnson Red Bus lies look tame by comparison. He said and did so many things that would frankly have killed off any other candidate in the past. The ‘pussy grabbing’ tape was but the most high profile as the campaign neared its close, when only FBI director James Comey saved him from further embarrassment.
But the forgotten consumers he was chasing saw someone saying what he – and maybe they – thought. An actor playing to their emotions. His ‘locker room banter’ defence was not seen as abuse of women but an attack on political correctness.
‘I never said that,’ said Trump in one of the debates pushing back at his comments on climate change being a Chinese hoax. He did. It is on camera. Ten, twenty years ago that might have done for him. We saw similar here … Lies just accepted … The £350m a week for the NHS. The tens of millions of Turks flooding Britain. The end of the British army being nigh.
Populists the world over, not least in Europe, will take heart from this. The insurgent has an inbuilt advantage. The more noise you make the more people seem to listen. Making people laugh, or making them feel, is as important as making them think. Getting down and dirty, despite what Michelle Obama said about the need to stay high when your opponent goes low, seems to have won the day.
As for what Trump will do, is it not incredible that normally we complain if politicians don’t do the things they said they would? With Trump, he is getting praise from the media, and we are breathing a sigh of relief, every time he looks like he won’t do something he said he would. This is politics and democracy turned upside down.
The red bus liar-in-chief is now foreign secretary, and in interviews and debates the Brexit lies barely seem to get a mention. What happened to being held to account? He says during the campaign we need to vote Brexit to keep the evil Turks out of the EU. Then goes to Istanbul as Foreign Secretary to say we support Turkish accession to the EU. Post-truth politics indeed.
This makes it so much easier for the liars and the charlatans of our world if they can just move on without properly being held to account.
We pride ourselves on the strength of our democracies. But if this is the way our politics is going, how long before we are not really so much better than the Putin we all claim to say is worse? Is it not perhaps just a question of scale? There is a great book about Putin’s Russia, by Peter Pomerantsev, called ‘Nothing is true and anything is possible.’ Invade a country, then say you haven’t. Poison your enemies on the streets of London. Say you didn’t. Bring down planes. Deny it. Interfere in elections abroad. Say it is a CIA lie. How fast has the world changed, that seeming direct Russian interference in the US elections actually created such little fuss?
And on fake news, Barack Obama made an interesting observation. ‘The new media ecosystem means everything is true and nothing is true.’ Perhaps he had also seen the Pomerantsev book. ‘An explanation of climate change from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist looks exactly the same on your Facebook page as the denial of climate change by somebody on the Koch brothers’ payroll,’ the President went on. ‘And the capacity to disseminate misinformation, wild conspiracy theories, to paint the opposition in wildly negative light without any rebuttal—that has accelerated in ways that much more sharply polarize the electorate and make it very difficult to have a common conversation.’
Trump eyes Vladimir Putin not just with a certain admiration as a strongman leader, but with envy too. He sees a leader who can get more done when he has no real opposition, control of his Parliament, the media, civil society and all the other checks on power. This is the other worrying lesson to draw from the Obama years of gridlock – that democracies seem in some ways to operate at a disadvantage to non-democracies and pseudo democracies.
But if he had campaigned overtly for that kind of power, it is unlikely Trump would have made it. So, just as the Brexiteers had to do, he needed to dress himself up as the crusader for the common man, taking on the elites on behalf of those who felt powerless and left behind. Given who and what he is, it was of course a gigantic con, with many lies wrapped around it. But when people feel that they are powerless and left behind, a populist message and messenger will resonate far more powerfully than someone offering stability and continuity.
So what does it mean for how politics and campaigning now change. Most people, even at the top end of politics, are not gigantic personalities as he is. Most people wouldn’t get away with it. Boris Johnson is the nearest parallel, but when push came to shove, the Tories decided he was not the guy. Theresa May, fair to say, is no Trump. We cannot see Merkel changing her ways, thankfully.
But Merkel is outstanding in the literal sense. She stands out, and long may she do so. Europe needs her right now. But what recent events have shown is that people are looking for insurgence, for disruption, and incremental won’t do.
So does that mean we are doomed to see politics fought on the extremes, even if most people still live their lives close to the centre? It is certainly easier to do so from there.
It is not just about dumbing down. It is about the pace of events around us. It is about the death of journalism as a profession with real standards. It is about us being able to create our own media landscape.
Trump was there, present in all of our lives and minds for some time. Did people want HIM? Not so much when he started. But did they want what he was offering – change, disruption, yes. He was making the weather in a way that felt horribly tactical, but in the end it turned out to be a remarkable strategic success. Everything said Me not Her. Everything said Feeling not Reason. Everything said Big Change not Continuity.
There will be plenty of politicians hoping he is a one off, and plenty more aiming to learn and somehow adapt and follow. But will they have the nerve and the personality to emulate?
In the end this is about the public. We say we want politicians who tell us the truth. But do we? What were the American people looking for? A savior. Or someone to kick the system? What was Brexit about? As much about kicking the establishment as a thought through decision on the detail of an exit that will be as fraught and complicated as it is uncertain and dangerous.
Trump is going to be President. Brexit is likely to happen, even with most of our MPs and the loathed experts knowing it will be a disaster. Brexit means Brexit. And now that means it is going to be a ‘red, white and blue Brexit,’ says Mrs May, meaningless gibberish in the absence of a meaningful government strategy.
But remember this – just because something is happening doesn’t mean we have to accept it is right. I am reminded of former tennis champion John McEnroe’s brilliant observation ‘show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser.’ Frankly there is too much good losing going on, and a lot for the losers on both sides of the Atlantic to get bad about.
Trump lost the popular vote by a fair old margin yet now conducts himself as though he speaks not just for the whole of America but the whole of the world. The Brexiteers won by a narrow margin, yet conduct debate as though the referendum means only one view is allowed. So Trump’s chosen Ambassador for the UK, Farage, in this era of post truth politics, struts around the place insisting 17million people voted to leave the single market when even those he campaigned with were clear at the time it meant nothing of the sort.
Here is where the losers need to stop feeling they have to pander to the winners, and keep calling them out on their lies past and present. And here, both with Trump and with Brexit our Prime Minister needs to take a lead in shaping a more nuanced response.
Accepted, Trump has been elected leader of the most powerful country in the world and Mrs May must develop a relationship with him. But pandering to rudeness and narcissism does not constitute a foreign policy. She should study carefully the words with which Angela Merkel greeted Trump’s election. She cited shared values, not least to remind the Americans these were as much their values as hers. Mrs May has looked by contrast somewhat desperate, briefing out of her phone call with Trump that he had confirmed his commitment to a ‘special relationship’ – so special (sic) that she was the eleventh leader he called and the transcript subsequently revealed his ‘invitation’ to visit was little more than ‘let me know if you’re ever popping by.’ Then came the notion, even before he is installed in the job, of a State visit to the UK with all that entails. God alone knows what Trump might tweet about the Queen and Prince Philip. If Air Force One isn’t grand enough for him, I fear the faded charms of Buck House and Windsor Castle might get the full treatment from the Tweeter-in-Chief.
Instead of saying ‘there is no vacancy’ as UK ambassador, Mrs May would garner more respect – not least from Trump, given bullies only understand the language of strength – if she politely suggested he get on with sorting out his own team and leave her to decide hers; and put talk of Windsor Castle on the back burner until he shows he understands that for all that he won as a change candidate, there is a purpose to diplomatic protocols and he would be wise to follow at least some of them.
There has been a lot of talk of Trump’s Presidency being ‘normalised’ and of course the good losing of Obama and Clinton helped with that. But both the manner of his win and much of his conduct since have not been normal and there should be far greater resistance to the idea that they are.
In both Trump and Brexit, we have seen victories secured by myth now being followed by fantasy. The myths were helped by the lies they told. The fantasies are that everything is going to be alright. Trump will be like Reagan, say the normalisers. But the evidence suggests he won’t. Brexit will go fine. But the evidence suggests it won’t. I thought businessman Charles Dunstone put it well this week … ‘What I feel about Brexit is that it’s a little bit like we’ve jumped off a 100-storey building and have just passed the 50th floor and we’re saying, “Actually this isn’t so absolutely terrible” — but we haven’t hit the pavement yet.’
In fantasyland not only do we have to accept defeat. We seemingly have to accept anything the victors throw at us. We have to let Trump think he can say or do what the hell he likes. We have to believe that anyone who dares suggest there may be a downside to Brexit is deeply unpatriotic, enemies of the people, their views utterly irrelevant.
Several months on from the vote surely there should have been a clearer path laid out to this bright shiny new future we are all being asked to believe lies beyond the triggering of Article 50? For Mrs May to be talking of cliff edges and red white and blue Brexit suggests that our government is no clearer about where we are heading.
But one thing I will say for Trump … he was, in many ways, the most erratic of campaigners. In fact, part of his appeal was you could never guess what he would say or do next. But he always returned to the same messages – making America great again, Crooked Hillary, life is rigged by the elite against you. Even when angry, which seemed to be most of the time, he didn’t lose sight of what would motivate the voters he needed to win.
He had a message. In his own unique way, he stuck to it. And those of us who believe he will take the world in the wrong direction, and those who think Brexit in the wrong direction, need to keep to our message too. Politics is not like sport, my other great passion. In football, the game ends, the final whistle goes, there is a settled result. Trump won, but he alone does not shape the future. Brexit won, but the Brextremists alone must not be allowed to dictate what ‘Brexit means Brexit’ actually means in terms of the laws and practices under which we are governed.
So never stop fighting for what you believe in. Never stop calling out the lies and the excesses. And never stop reminding David Cameron that his referendum was a very very bad idea, the consequences of which will be with us for a long time, all of which makes me very angry that the ambitions and needs of my children’s generation have been thwarted by the shortsightedness, the fake nostalgia, the loss of historical perspective of our generation, gleefully exploited by the charlatans who led the campaign and the tax-dodging or foreign media barons who so happily and so loudly banged their drums for them.