James Melville reflects on how the post-truth rise of politicians such as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson has been made possible.
Donald Trump has previously said he doesn’t read much. He has become the political embodiment of a widespread epidemic of ignorance while being the main cultivator of it.
On an almost daily basis, he litters American political discourse with a multitude of easily debunked falsehoods which are then reinforced to his supporter base through media outlets such a Fox News, which muddies the waters between fact and fiction and, in the process, tears down the concept of objective fact.
Boris Johnson was sacked in his previous professional life as a journalist for lying. He stood in front of a duplicitous red bus during the EU Referendum campaign and has successfully reduced British politics to a grotesque circus that has disturbing parallels of Trumpism through disingenuous post-truth messaging.
We appear to be losing the art of seriousness, clout, gravitas, and diligence within our political discourse.
The dumbing down of democracy has been gradual, but a Pandora’s Box of idiocracy was fully opened with the election of Trump in the US and the EU Referendum in Britain. Both were seismic events that shook the foundations of politics through the blatant manipulation of basic truths. Expert and nuanced opinions were routinely disregarded and replaced with simplistic, jingoistic sloganeering.
The messaging has become vacuous and without any form of detail. “Take Back Control” and “Make America Great Again” were wildly successful in connecting with large parts of the electorate but were fundamentally sold with complete hollowness.
Brexit has been a bottomless pit of simplistic messaging that, over time, has been often proved to be disingenuous at best or downright lies at worst. High-profile Brexiters ranging from Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Nigel Farage and Owen Paterson have gone from a pre-EU Referendum positioning of stating that the UK wouldn’t leave the single market or advocating a single market Norway-style model and that frictionless trade would be maintained to a complete reversal of their previous statements.
We are now at a point where the Prime Minister wants a clean break from the single market and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sajid Javid, is now warning businesses that “there will not be alignment” with the EU after Brexit and insists that firms must “adjust” to new regulations. He has even used the example of Japan to justify this by stating that “Japan sells cars to the EU but they don’t follow EU rules”. He must have conveniently forgotten that the EU and Japan have recently agreed the world’s biggest free trade deal and, as such, Japan will have to adhere to the agreed trading rules within its EU deal.
For almost four years, key Brexiters have been saying that we will be able to take back control of our money and that, after leaving the EU, we will save £350 million a week to put into the NHS. Apart from the fact that this figure has been repeatedly debunked, it also ignores the money that will actually be lost because of Brexit.
The negative impact on the economy from changes to trade after leaving the EU is likely to be far bigger than savings from the UK’s EU membership fee. According to Bloomberg Economics, Brexit is likely to have cost the UK more than £200 billion in lost economic growth by the end of this year – a figure that eclipses the total amount that the UK has paid towards the EU budget over the past 47 years. Put that on a red bus.
The Cult of the Celebrity Politician
The rise of this type of messaging is the diametric opposite of what politics should be about.
Politics should not be about inconsistent, fake slogans to frame binary, simplistic choices. Instead, politics should be about a fundamental understanding that big decisions require a knowledge of big details, a willingness to deal with the complexities and truth. Politicians must have the intellectual rigour and emotional capacity to master the brief.
Instead, we have two self-entitled and privileged leaders on both sides of the Atlantic who have been rewarded by the electorate despite their unwillingness to engage with detail. Their simple messages seem to connect with many voters who see them as ‘men of the people’ who ‘tell it like it is’.
We are seeing a slide towards a basic-level political narrative, which has a historical context. The Princeton Review found that the Lincoln-Douglas Presidential debates of 1858 were engaged at roughly a high school senior level. A century later, the presidential debate of 1960 was deemed to be a notch below, at a 10th grade level. By the year 2000, the two presenting contenders were regarded as speaking like sixth graders. As for the debates of 2016, one of the candidates was resorting to referring to their opponent as “Crooked Hillary” and urging his supporters to chant “lock her up” – equating the discourse to kindergarten levels.
How did this happen?
How did a property tycoon and reality TV star who thinks that climate change is a Chinese conspiracy and a scandalised journalist who swans around flipping his political opinions on almost everything end up convincing millions of voters that somehow they are the best options to lead their countries?
Anti-intellectualism has become the new political populism and politics has become a culture war against insight and knowledge. Idiocracy has become normalised. We now appear to be at a point in our society where we simply lack the political critical thinking to call out the falsehoods. We appear to be learning facts about what doesn’t matter, but not how to think about what really matters.
Nothing reflects this stultification more clearly than our politics in 2020. Knowledgeable men and women are spewing out narratives pretending to believe in things they can’t possibly believe to be true – because it gives them a road map to power. Johnson is the perfect case study of this. He will literally say anything to win a vote and, tragically, it has worked.
What characters such as Trump and Johnson have in common is a public profile far bigger than their actual record, plus an uncanny ability to attract crowds – usually with nothing more than the promise that every problem can be resolved by just being tough or optimistic and that all established politicians should simply be dismissed as being out-of-touch.
Political grifters such as Trump and Johnson have exploited a vacuum in political messaging. They keep it dangerously simple and provide an antidote to the bland political management speak that has blighted our politics for the past 20 years. Perhaps established politicians have only themselves to blame for making such a blunt and simplistic message sound plausible.
Social media has also played a role in this dumbing down. It has reduced political content to bite-sized chucks. If you can’t say what you mean in 280 characters than forget it. It has meant that the old debating chamber of politics has been replaced with easily accessible and direct engagements with voters through a controversial tweet. The old long-winded and detailed speech has been hijacked by populists with one pithy tweet on social media.
The damage that rewards the cult of the celebrity politician is considerable. Their activities discredit established political parties, dumb down our discourse, do not provide well thought-out, long-term solutions and simply provide an X Factor-style reality TV for political demagogues.
These political hucksters have sought to destroy established political machinery and have replaced it with something much worse: nothingness – except simplistic messages that lead to dangerous decision-making by voters. Their pitch to a nation is for a new way of politics. But all that’s left is a tailor-made, grotesque farce of the emperor’s new clothes.