Eighteen months ago few foresaw that Donald Trump would become the Republican Party’s nominee for the Presidency of the United States of America. Similarly, as little as three months ago bookmakers were giving long odds on a vote by the British electorate to leave the European Union. How could the commentariat and the bookies have been so wrong.
A simplistic, persuasive, but incomplete analysis says that people are disenchanted with “professional” politicians who lack authenticity and therefore fail to connect with “real” people and that this true on both sides of the Atlantic. This is clearly a generalisation., but for it to gain traction and credibility there needs to be another ingredient. Something has changed about our expectations of politicians and this may be linked to the way we now receive information. New communications media have exposed an ever wider range of activities to instant reporting. Applications such as Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp and Instagram provide endless opportunities for individuals to report on their everyday lives with an immediacy which may invite comment, but which is untroubled by analysis and which focusses almost exclusively on how we feel.. We have become accustomed to the idea that our feelings are important and this has had implications for what used to be called serious political debate. It is all very well for the chatterati to take a superior tone, as happened during the “Brexit” referendum or to dismiss Trump as all soundbites and no content, but this is to miss the point. “Serious” political debate has become the province of “them” lecturing “us”not viewed as communication but patronising condescension by an elite who always know better.
The result has been the development of a parallel discourse which appeals on a feeling level. Facts are no longer important as these may challenge the way we feel about things. The old put down “Don’t let the facts get in the way of the argument” is not seen as critical comment on sloppy thinking and weak analysis, but a criticism of those who are perceived to be less well informed and therefore who are not entitled to hold an opinion, no matter how they feel. Hardly surprising then people from a wide range of backgrounds feel left behind, left out, disenfranchised and insulted.
It is this constituency that Trump speaks to. He is able to speak to their feelings of fear, apprehension and disenchantment with an elite who they perceive to be corrupted and self-serving. When Trump speaks of building a wall, the reality of a wall is arguably of less importance than the message that fortress America will make it safe to be in America, to live in America. When he speaks of the 2nd amendment, the idea that having a gun makes you safe resonates with feelings of fear, not the reality that having an huge number of guns in circulation is more likely to increase your risk of being shot. When Trump speaks of making “America great again” you could be forgiven for thinking he was talking about a failing state not the most powerful and successful country in the world, the world’s pre-eminent superpower. But none of this matters if what you are doing is speaking to feelings and not facts. Trump wants to make you feel better about being American and therefore feel better about being yourself. He validates your feelings, legitimises your opinions and by being vague and imprecise in what he is offering provides a canvas on which people can project their hopes and nullify their fears. There are clear parallels with Farage and “Taking back control”, “wanting our country back” and the triumphalist “Independence Day”, all of which contain an emotional appeal to feelings.
It does not matter that all these points were contestable and again you could be forgiven for thinking that a sovereign state had fallen under the suzerainty of a foreign power. The concept of pooled sovereignty for mutual advantage required too much explanation and could not easily be reduced to a soundbite and therefore was seen as a clever lawyerly trick designed to fool the people. The technocratic nature of much of the work of the EU is inherently complex and boring as Jaques Delors commented “No one can fall in love with the single market.”
If there is a similarity between Trump and the “Brexit” vote it is that an appeal to feelings will always resonate more strongly than an appeal to reason. In a world where how we feel is more important than what we think, we appear to be moving towards a political world where successful politicians are those who engage with our hearts not our heads. Political discourse based on an elites talking to each other and deciding for the rest of us based on facts and critical analysis may be coming to an end. We may see instead a new age of populism emerging in which our feelings are picked up and reflected back to us in ways that legitimise our feelings and give us reassurance instead of challenging our perceptions. The future of politics may well be Trumpism.