From Disbelief to Determination: Getting Over Brexit and Trump

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Photo by Matt Brown

Jessica Sofizade

If I could sum up 2016 with one question, it would be: “How did this happen?”

My question is one which has been on the minds of many others these past several months. It is probably clear that, amongst other things, I am referring to both the British vote to leave the European Union and – as if that was not bad enough – the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. I have realised, however, that asking this question is itself the very root of the problem, and the reason for both Brexit and Trump. But let me begin with the initial responses to these events. 

On November 9th, I asked my American friend, “How would you feel if you met a Trump supporter? Would you be angry?”

I asked myself the same question after Brexit. How would I react if I spoke with someone who contributed their vote to the British exit of the EU, and therefore to the unwelcome change in my own status, “stripping me” of my EU citizenship? Would I shout, pouring out my frustrations and objections? Would I refuse to engage with them, or alternatively, would I accept that their views were equally valid?

In the immediate aftermath of the referendum, I was in a stage of disbelief. I could not believe that this had happened, and I was convinced that something would change the outcome. I thought, only 51.9% of the vote was pro-leave? That’s not enough of a majority for such a tremendous decision. I, along with millions of others, signed a petition for a second referendum, in the hope that this huge mistake could be rectified.

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Photo by David Holt

I now see that I was, in a sense, grieving. I was grieving for a loss of citizenship, of identity, of a belief system that I thought was solid and shared by those around me. I more or less experienced the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The first four stages combined into one challenging period of time. Not only did I deny the result, but I was angry at those who voted leave, and the ignorance that I blamed for their decision. I started to bargain with myself, thinking that even if we really had to leave (not in the near future, I hoped), perhaps we could still keep our rights as EU citizens? Most of all, I was depressed by the whole situation, and again asked myself, how did this happen?

So when, you may wonder, did I arrive at acceptance? It is an ongoing process. However, it is a process that has a normative element to it – I should accept the Brexit decision, as well as the election of Trump. This does not in any way mean that I need to agree with these decisions, but rather that they must be accepted as legitimate outcomes, even if they came as a shock to such a large part of the population. This leads back to the main question that I have been asking myself for months: “How did this happen?” The question in itself demonstrates the problem at hand: there were enormous rifts silently bubbling under the surface of our society of which many were apparently unaware. Why were these results such a shock for so many of us? Was it the fault of the polls?

A consequence of both Brexit and Trump’s election has been the unveiling of problems which many had misjudged or were even unaware of. There are divisions in Western demographics which were severely underestimated. In the UK, many of these have now become abundantly clear: the old and the young, those with university degrees and those without, the countryside and the cities. The reasons for such diverging voting patterns are diverse and debateable. Slavoj Žižek has argued that Trump supporters have arisen from a desire for change which comes from a deep-rooted dissatisfaction in the current system, a system which was not challenged by Clinton’s candidacy. This reading could analogously be extended to the case of Brexit.  Another argument is that the blindness towards divisions in populations could be due to “the Facebook bubble” which has arisen in the age of social media. Others say that Brexit was due to a misleading (or just outright untruthful) media campaign, or biased media representation.

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Map of the UK showing the urban and rural voting divide. Image by Mirrorme22

A recurrent theme in these explanations is a lack of communication between different sectors of society. This is where I feel that change is needed: accepting the surprising outcomes of Brexit and the US elections (even if we do not agree with them) will enable us to begin a dialogue in which we should try to understand each other’s views. The dialogue I am advocating could be with friends and family, or on a larger scale, through organisations which are calling for public participation in critical discourse regarding current affairs, such as DIEM25.

We cannot remain in denial; there will be no fruitful discussion whilst those of us who feel we have lost something are still in the first four stages of grieving. The fact that we can even ask ourselves “how did this happen?” illustrates the lack of communication and understanding between different sections of our society, and this is precisely what we now need to work to change. We need to get over our 2016 blues and move on.

Jessica Sofizade was born in London, UK, and did her undergraduate degree in Philosophy. She has studied in the UK, Canada, France and The Netherlands, and will soon move to The Czech Republic for her 2nd semester in the Euroculture programme.

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Europe at a Crossroads: The Rise of the Right and Post-Truth Politics

 

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The EU is having a hard time. Photo by MOs810

Ben Krasa

Europe is at a crossroads and the coming months will determine its stability for the foreseeable future. The unforeseen victories for Brexit, Donald Trump and the rise in populism makes us question how there is such momentum behind these campaigns. Therefore, the leaders who have grabbed headlines over the two years must be examined in order to understand how they have shaken the world.

“Post-truth” was awarded by Oxford Dictionary as the word of the year. Defined as “appeals to emotion disconnected from the details of policy, and by the repeated assertion of talking points to which factual rebuttals are ignored”, it has led to escalation of support for populist leaders and a growing support of their beliefs. With anti-migrant and anti-Muslim sentiment rising in Europe, there is an obvious shift in mentality as opposed to previous years, which mainly rests on the shoulders of the post-truth rhetoric. Various populist campaigns stemmed from post-truth and used emotion to escalate fear and incite hatred in various nations. Donald Trump’s stinging remarks about Mexicans and Muslims have been accompanied by a spike in hate crimes post-election, likewise in post-Brexit Britain. The leaders rely on fear and stirring emotion, rather than sense or logic, in order to gain a large following. In a pre-Brexit world, no one would have given Farage a chance, or have thought that Trump would claim the victory across the pond, nor that Le Pen may have influence in the French Presidential election.  However, the Brexit campaign spurred Trump to follow the same rhetoric and yielded a similar result. Post-truth tactics and hate rhetoric have grabbed Europe by the throat and won’t let go, so much so that talk of the demise of the European Union has begun to bubble up in public discourse.

Frauke Petry, Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen are disturbing the political establishment of liberal Europe.

Throughout Europe, there is a growing urgency to discard the base of what has been guiding the political norm for the last decades. Moderate politics has typically dominated politics but we are witnessing a change in European sentiment. As elections in France, Germany and The Netherlands loom, Europe’s future could potentially be vastly different within a year. Marine Le Pen is making noise in France with a rhetoric that highlights the use of post-truth in politics, with much focus on the fear that a foreign ‘other’ will steal your job and earn more than you. This kind of rhetoric is hardly new, but as of late it has begun to feature more prominently in political discourse. Just last week, Geert Wilders was once again convicted of hate speech and also wants to ban all mosques in the Netherlands, is leading the most popular party in the country. He also relies on the tactic of post-truth and the manipulation of citizens’ emotions to gain popularity, rather than on logic and clear policy goals. Before the recent rerun of the Austrian Presidential election, a Holocaust survivor spoke out and pleaded with the public not to vote for the far-right candidate, Norbert Hofer, because the consequences petrified her and reminded her of pre-World War II Austria. This is a clear signal that surely it is time to think about which direction current politics is taking.

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Farage campaigned for Trump’s presidential bid.

Nigel Farage’s Brexit quoted as a stand up against the establishment and Donald Trump being carried as the ideal ‘anti-establishment’ candidate in the U.S. election. But for me it is difficult to confirm that they are truly ‘anti-establishment’. Trump resides in a Manhattan apartment “decorated in 24K gold and marble” and has a net worth of 3.2 billion dollars. It is hard to imagine why people labelled him anti-establishment despite having more in common with Hillary Clinton than many people would like to think. Prior to the election, he rubbed shoulders with the Clintons, their daughters are friends, and he had even donated money to the Clinton Foundation and to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. It would be foolish to think that Trump is anything but the ‘established’. Moreover, Nigel Farage who officially resigned as UKIP leader, but still receives 84,000 pounds salary as an MEP, immediately denied the NHS their supposedly ‘guaranteed’ 350 million pounds after the Brexit result. Since the Brexit campaign, he has stuck to Trump, like a remora fish on a shark. Pictures recently circulated of him at one of Trump’s parties in London. How are these men seen as anti-establishment since they reap so much from the establishment? Granted, there is disenchantment with politics, but those leading the opposition do not know more than those already in government. One just has to look at Farage’s disappearance act or Boris Johnson’s reaction post-Brexit. Just this week, a Tory aide was photographed with a notepad with Brexit plans which included “What’s the model? Have cake and eat it”.

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Green Candidate, Alexander van der Bellen, won the Austrian presidential election, twice. Photo by Ailura.

However, maybe not all is lost. In the recent Austrian Presidential election, the Green Party won the vote by a bigger margin than the original election in May. Moreover, in the Richmond Park by-election in London, the Lib Dem candidate unseated the Tory, Zac Goldsmith. This may just be a symbolic victory for the left, yet, it may be the penny dropping in people’s minds that unity and harmony will undoubtedly be more beneficial than discord. However, with papers and polls indicating that populism is here to stay, the more centred people must surely find a way to stop the post-truth tactic and potential destabilization and disintegration of the European Union.  

Ben recently graduated from Leiden University with a masters’ degree in International Relations. From Ireland, Ben graduated from University College Cork with a BA in Spanish and History and is currently interning in The Hague.

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Post-Truth Politics: Europe’s Next Integration Challenge

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UKIP posters contained many claims of dubious legitimacy.

Amar Shakil

As a British student studying and living in continental Europe, Brexit has affected me in the sense that I ,like many others, don’t know how much of an impact it will have on my life abroad. As a remain voter, I, like many, scoffed in disbelief, unable to comprehend politicians spouting lies and falsehoods and more importantly why most people chose to believe it. Post-truth politics is a useful concept in understanding why the discourse in the Brexit campaign developed as it did, and why the result is what it is. Post-truth politics is a political culture in which political debate is disconnected from comprehensive policy, and is instead driven and framed by emotion and rhetoric rather than reason and evidence, with factual rebuttals ignored.

Brexit and the election of Donald Trump are the consequence of the success of post-truth politics, and signify its threat for further integration of the European Union. Despite Europe’s ability to overcome times of crisis to further European integration, (as the response to Brexit has shown with discussions over further European defence cooperation,) Brexit nonetheless shows that the emergence of post-truth politics is a threat to the European project.

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Nigel Farage, head of UKIP has been accused of fomenting racism through deceitful claims regarding migrants in the UK. Here he stands with an infamous billboard, described as “nazi propaganda” by George Osborne.

Social media and the 24-hour news cycle have been the catalyst behind the emergence of post-truth politics. If we’re honest most of us are guilty of selectively choosing news sources that we agree with or those which best speak to our views, hence we live in our little social media bubble in which we share views and opinions with people who already have the same opinions. People instinctively accept information to which they are exposed to‘, and selectively choose information to support those views while resisting perceived falsehoods. The ubiquitous nature of social media, and news media facilitates the ease with which people can seek out news sources which conform to and strengthen, their beliefs, while at the same time driving partisan divide and shutting out contradictory information. This played out in the UK referendum campaign, with a key talking point being Turkey’s potential membership of the EU, playing on the fear of millions more migrants entering the UK. Though proven false as Turkey can only become a Member with the agreement of all EU Member States, this claim was successful in framing the narrative of the campaign to the wider issue of immigration, which drove the Brexit campaign. Another example is the rejection of research based evidence by experts on the implications of a Brexit. This shows, as one conservatoce put it: People in this country have had enough of experts’. Attempts to challenge these claims and falsehoods were dismissed as project fear, which makes it difficult to engage in open debate as people become increasingly entrenched in their views.

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Michael Gove, Conservative Politician, claimed that British people were done with experts. Photo by Policy Exchange.

Post-truth politics shows the importance of feelings and emotions. Facts and statistics may show the socio-economic benefit of the UK remaining a member of the EU, but as Brexit shows, people still feel left behind. There are big regional inequalities. Certain regions are just not seeing the supposed economic benefits of EU membership . Post-truth politics plays on these emotions, engaging and mobilising voters who feel left behind by offering them a vision of a better, more prosperous society, outside of the EU. Post-truth politics builds on discontent and economic inequalities, with the EU used as a scapegoat.  These feelings of dissatisfaction are not exclusive to the UK, thinking otherwise would feed into the narrative of an ‘out of touch’ bureaucratic eleite, feeding into a post-truth narrative that will foster further anti-EU sentiment.

Populism is on the rise in Europe, with post-truth politics and populism in an almost perfect symbiosis, fostering the idea that: Facts are negative. Facts are pessimistic. Facts are unpatriotic’. This can be seen in the rise of populist parties in central and eastern Europe, highlighting the difficulty in furthering integration when the EU can be framed as a threat to hard won national sovereignty. Post-truth politics reinforces this and makes it difficult for the EU to confront misinformation. The EU needs to come to terms with this rather than dismiss it. Brexit, Donald Trump and populist governments in Europe highlight the potential challenges in future attempts at European integration in the age of post-truth politics where populist rhetoric are easily dispersed and spread through social and news media.  It makes it difficult to address the increasing shift towards nationalism, as facts and reason become redundant making it difficult to engage citizens and integrate further.

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Another UKIP poster making a exaggerated claim.

Brexit is a warning that the EU must address its existing faults and weaknesses, it must take a step back and acknowledge the shift in the political discourse towards post-truth politics. Social media is a key driver in the emergence of Post-truth politics and is key in giving greater voice to Euroscepticism and populism. In the age of post-truth politics, facts and reason are not enough to engage and mobilise voters and signifies the need for the EU to engage citizens through a bottom-up approach, in constructing a positive image for the Union and engaging those who feel left behind.

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Five terrifying takeaways from the British Conservative Party Conference: Notes from a Lonely Island #3

Buckle in for more Brexit misery

Emily Burt

There were a few weeks where it looked as though the Brexit dust was settling. The markets had remained surprisingly robust, defying immediate post-referendum expectations, and aside from Labour party infighting, the political landscape was relatively calm. Then the Conservative party conference arrived, to crush our dreams. Here are five moments of fresh misery the government delivered to the UK electorate:

A Hard Brexit will begin March 2017, with the UK potentially exiting the European Union by 2019

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British Conservative Party Conference, Birmingham

Finally we have a date – Theresa May has announced that she will trigger Article 50 in the Spring of 2017, which means that once negotiations begin we could be looking at a UK exit from the European Union by March of 2019. Her announcement sent sterling into a freefall, plunging the pound to a 31-year low, signifying that the markets, along with a significant chunk of the British public, had been secretly hoping that Brexit did not actually mean Brexit. Continue reading “Five terrifying takeaways from the British Conservative Party Conference: Notes from a Lonely Island #3”

Notes from a lonely island #1: Missing – £350 million

On the day Nigel Farage attempted to drown Bob Geldof with a water cannon, I genuinely believed I was witnessing one of the most baffling moments of British history. The months since have only shown how wrong I was. Welcome to Brexit Britain – the weirdest and loneliest island in the world.

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As politicians abandon their promises, disillusion is the new lifeblood of Brexit Britain

Summer is over and the back-to-school feeling rife in the UK, as MPs are recalled to parliament and forced to confront the reality of Britain’s shock decision to exit the European Union. While Theresa May dons her largest shoulderpads and heads across the channel to perform damage limitation, at home the cross-party Vote Leave campaign have reformed, in the manner of 80s cult phenomenon The Thing, into a new pressure group called Change Britain. Continue reading “Notes from a lonely island #1: Missing – £350 million”