“Some past presidential candidates – including Barack Obama – have travelled abroad seeking opportunities to look statesmanlike. Trump may the first to break from the campaign trail to make a sales pitch for his investments in the leisure industry. Although not packaged primarily as a political event, Tump’s Scottish visit nevertheless served to highlight four key features of his candidacy.
…His past bad behaviour means clouds of anger and hostility will follow wherever he goes; his business record is a trail of overblown promises followed by disappointment and recrimination; his ignorance of the world combines with his brash manner to make him an endlessly productive generator of crass and provocative verbal missteps; and when it comes to campaign discipline, he simply does what he likes, when he likes, without regard for how it will affect others, or even common sense about how it will affect himself.”
So everyone with institutional power wants one thing, but there’s been a referendum saying to do the opposite. If Britain were a different sort of country I feel pretty confident there’d be a coup around now. I guess its absence is something to celebrate? Is letting the electorate make shitty, self-destructive decisions the acid test for respecting democracy? Maybe.
I’m of the view that ‘democracy’ is one virtue among several (including multiple centres of power; liberal rights; religious tolerance) important to a good and functioning society, not a trump card that beats everything. There are lots of things 51% of the electorate would approve of that we shouldn’t do. I’m sure I don’t need to list examples; your imagination can do the work.
Our institutions are designed to provide accountability to the population while acknowledging that informed representatives are better placed to make decisions on specific complex issues than voters. It would have been completely legitimate for parliament to remain in the EU and not ask the public directly for an opinion on the issue. But is it ‘democratic’ to ask them first and *then* not do it? That I rather doubt.
Finding a way to overturn this result is, basically, looking for a way to circumvent majority will democratically expressed in the most direct form (in as much as those concepts have practical meaning). Sure, the electorate was poorly informed and focused on the things we’d prefer they didn’t. But those aren’t soluble problems. When it comes to referendums that’s a feature, not a bug.
Don’t misunderstand me: perhaps given the importance of this issue, finding a way to short-circuit the result via parliamentary side-step or the farce of a second referendum is the right thing to do nevertheless. Maybe it’s because we correctly intuit that the majority one day may not be the majority the next. Or maybe it’s because we believe that sometimes, in a crunch, there are more important things than majoritarianism and the popular will. But if that’s what we’re saying, let’s be honest with ourselves about it, not dress it up. We’re saying there should be limits on the role of the general populace in making decisions, because we don’t think they’re equipped to make them right.
As both right and left have been very keen to point out, the European Union is a liberal project, in the broad sense of the word. I think it would be healthy if those of us who favour it, and grieve this result, accept that what’s been offended against here is our liberalism, not our democracy. And that perhaps, though the two overlap more often than not, when they conflict the former is more important to us than the latter. I for one think I’m ok with that.
Wow. Well I doubt I’ll see many days bigger than this in UK politics. Like so many votes in referendums – which are almost always a terrible idea – the vote has been based in large part on grievance, stoked by populist campaigns offering disingenuously soothing visions of the future available if the public would follow their lead. It’s also been about identity: a great many Leave voters, even low information ones, didn’t go into this blind – when pressed by the media, pollsters or focus group leaders about the economic costs, and forced to acknowledge their reality, many fell back to a position that basically said “doesn’t matter; identity and immigration concerns trump those, as does kicking the ‘establishment'” One can share or reject (as I do) that worldview, but it is a choice, and it’s proven to have more appeal than anyone expected.
What worries me most as of today is that so many of the reassurances Leave voters have been given about what it means either don’t reflect the real policy intentions of our likely post-Brexit leaders, or aren’t within the realm of what could possibly be delivered even if they tried. There is a nostalgia-flavoured Utopianism running right through the world of national community and economic security promised by Leave. Not having expected to win, I doubt those who will now take charge have the first idea how to go about meeting the expectations they have raised. In many regards I doubt it is possible. And Utopian visions curdled into fury at perceived betrayal can be among the most dangerous forces in politics. We’re already half way there.
The fan-fiction writer in me wants to imagine a world in which an early election is forced, the electorate surprises everyone by plumping for Labour, and the Lexit fantasy of a left-wing govt free of all EU constraint is elected. If only because then everyone will have had a taste of unintended consequences and been acquainted with the danger of romanticising the electorate’s impulses. But I rather doubt that or anything like it is coming. Instead I think we shall see further movement to the right in government, failure to deliver on most of what Leave voters believed they were promised, and another cycle of escalating popular discontent and demagoguery. All against the backdrop of at the very least harmful economic instability, at worst a painful recession.
Unless the Conservatives blink, decide this was all much more fun in theory than now it’s their circus to run, and try to find a way of diverting the snowball now more than half way down the mountain before the Leaving is actually done. In which case all bets are off. In fact, what am I saying?: All bets are off already. Good luck out there, people. I’m quite certain we’ll be needing it.
Those who’ve been wondering when Donald Trump would switch from the wild bombast of his primary campaign to the sober mode traditionally demanded by a general election now have their answer: never.
The dreadful gun massacre at the Pulse club in Orlando, Florida on June 12 presented Trump with as clear an opportunity as he will ever have to rise above his well-earned reputation for bigotry and divisiveness and to find the presidential voice more becoming of a major party nominee.
Instead, he opted to double down on the traits that most terrify those who regard the prospect of his presidency as a threat to national security.
This is not hyperbole. To get a full sense of just how unmoored Trump is, let’s just cast our minds back to September 2001, when George W. Bush was called upon to govern in the aftermath of the worst terrorist attack on American soil in history.
9/11 put conflict with terrorists citing extreme Islam as their ideology at the centre of US security policy, but on one rhetorical point, Bush kept his feet on the ground: Muslims as a group should never be conflated with the tiny sliver engaged in violent extremism. Moderate Muslims, which is to say, the overwhelming majority of Muslims, both in the US and overseas, must be treated as crucial allies.
In his remarks after Orlando, Donald Trump took this standard of discourse, set light to it and stamped on it.
First, he appeared on Twitter, his favoured medium for rash, unreflective pronouncements, to claim the attack as evidence of his correctness in having called for more aggressive policies and to thank all those he claimed had congratulated him for his prescience.
In interviews and most of all in a speech in the hours that followed, he reiterated his pledge to impose a total ban on Muslims entering the US. He blamed “political correctness” for allowing such attacks to happen. He highlighted the decision to allow the Orlando shooter’s Afghan parents to enter America as the root cause of the threat.
He warned Muslim Americans of “consequences” unless they co-operate with “us” by turning over the terrorist sympathisers in their midst, suggesting that they “know where they are”. He asserted (inaccurately) that refugees and asylum seekers were admitted to the US without background checks, and that his opponent Hillary Clinton favoured admitting hundreds of thousands more Muslim incomers on this basis.
Combined with Trump’s longstanding promises to intensify the bombing of Islamic State-held territory (which could only be done by knowingly bombing civilians), to return to waterboarding and other torture, and to kill terrorists’ families, and one could not design a platform better designed to alienate Muslims worldwide.
It is no exaggeration to say that implementation of Trump’s platform is exactly the Islamic State’s hope: to present Muslims with a binary choice between itself and an irreconcilably hostile West.
Highway to Hell
Trump’s post-Orlando performance has sent a new wave of horror through those senior Republicans who find themselves manacled to him for the rest of the campaign.
Even in the week before the massacre, senior party figures such as Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had publicly rebuked their presidential nominee for suggesting that federal judge Gonzalo Curiel could not fairly adjudicate in a case against one of Trump’s businesses because he was “Mexican” and therefore biased against him (Curiel is from Indiana). Ryan, who had said he will vote for Trump only days before, said this fit the “textbook definition of a racist comment”.
Now these most reluctant supporters find themselves obliged to say whether they endorse their candidate’s litany of falsehoods regarding Muslim immigration or his plan to abruptly terminate it. Ryan has publicly said that he does not.
There is an argument that Trump is simply the predictable apex of a trajectory the Republican Party has been on for some time. For years its candidates across the country have appealed to their voters’ fear of the threat presented by non-white “others” as a way of mobilising support and attacking opponents.
But Trump is far more frightening than any recent Republican candidate of note. He has not stayed within the rules of the insidious dog-whistle playbook; he has expanded them dramatically, both with the explicitness of his appeals and the extremism of his actual proposals.
His persona seems not to be a calculated act, a front behind which lies a cool and balanced actor with rational plans. On the contrary, his intellectual incoherence and erratic emotionalism appear to be his most genuine features.
Perhaps Trump could have shown a new, restrained and responsible self in his response to Orlando, and simply chose not to – or maybe he is actually incapable of modulation and reflection. Perhaps he simply doesn’t have another face to show the world. What we can now be sure of is that he isn’t going to change.
He is a new departure for modern America: a European-style ethno-nationalist populist of a kind largely alien to either the conservative or liberal camps of American politics. His election would represent a turn away from much of what has hitherto made the US exceptional, and towards the dark side.
[A repost of my piece on The Conversation last week]
If Trump was not her opponent, Clinton’s high negative ratings might be a fatal liability. But Trump has taken unpopularity and political vulnerability to strange new frontiers – and there are so many angles from which she might attack him that the real challenge will be to prioritise only one.
Over the course of his primary campaign (not to mention his life), Trump has said so many crass and offensive things about women, racial minorities, immigrants, and Muslims that it is possible to compose brutal attack ads consisting of nothing but his own words. He has almost no chance of winning among those groups, meaning he must run up a huge victory among white male voters to stand a chance. This in turn leaves a tiny margin for error, and a non-trivial chance that his campaign could end in electoral disaster.
Another option is to undermine Trump’s claims to wealth and business success. Much of his appeal depends on his image as a self-made, deal-making billionaire, but that image is now fraying badly thanks to stories of Trump’s poor investments, bankruptcies and ethically dubious ventures (exhibit A: Trump University, now the subject of legal action).
His refusal to release his tax returns has led many informed commentators to speculate that Trump’s wealth may be far less than he has claimed, something that could drastically erode his appeal even to his fans.
No doubt these attacks will feature as the campaign proceeds – but in recent days, Clinton seems to have settled on a core strategy.
In a widely lauded foreign policy speech in San Diego, she derided Trump as “temperamentally unfit to hold an office that requires knowledge, stability and immense responsibility”. His ideas, she said, “aren’t just different – they are dangerously incoherent. They’re not even really ideas – just a series of bizarre rants, personal feuds, and outright lies”. And then the biggest punch: “This is not someone who should ever have the nuclear codes.”
There’s plenty of ammunition here. Deeply ignorant about foreign policy and apparently disinclined to study further, Trump has made wild, inarticulate statements on a number of issues, including how he would handle crucial security challenges in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
And while it may amuse some voters to see Trump trampling the norms of “political correctness” at home, even they might pause for thought before giving someone so volatile the power to put their families’ lives at risk. This is the most powerful argument against him; expect to hear it a lot.