Chasing Unicorns: Changing minds about Trump and Brexit

The Mexican migrant crisis currently engulfing the Trump administration has horrified many – including, it seems, the President’s own wife – and also made some feel hopeful.  According to quite a few liberal commentators this could / should be the moment that ‘good’ Republicans are shocked into seeing sense, realise they have to dump the Trump, and allow normal order to resume.

This, of course, is wishful thinking.  It ignores the degree of partisanship that now pollutes all aspects of US politics.  It disregards the fact that whilst many Republicans and others might be affected by scenes of children being separated from their parents, they agree with a lot of the Trump agenda, including his approach to immigration.  And worse, it assumes that voting for Trump is an aberration that can be corrected if only his misguided supporters would just wake up.  In short, that they will be cured by being bludgeoned with The Facts.

This same presumptuousness (some might say arrogance) has also been visible during the debate in this country about Brexit.  Even today the basic Remoaner position is that at some point enough Brexiteers will realise that leaving is too hard, too damaging and too ugly and will switch sides, creating a majority to remain – or at least to leave in name only.  Pragmatism will prevail.  We’ll get back to ‘normal’ and we will look back on this whole episode as some sort of weird dream.

Of course, as a good Ken Clarke Tory myself, I hope that both these things are true.  I do crave the softest of soft Brexits, or even that some way is found for us not to leave at all.  And I would be delighted if Trump was to fall.  Both of these things, from my liberal perspective, would be Good Things.  But I know too that if they happen they will create an even bigger problem than we have today.

The issue that ‘sensible’ people can’t quite get their heads around is that lots and lots of people voted for Brexit and for Trump not because they took leave of their senses, but for what they considered to be good reasons.  Yes, they were lied to (but so were all sides).  Yes, they probably didn’t engage with the policy detail or the socio-economic impact (ditto).  And yes, they often voted on the basis of emotion and their gut rather than cool rationality and their heads.  But it is impossible to avoid the stark fact that they voted that way and would probably do the same tomorrow.  Denying this democratic reality is ridiculous.

The fact is that no matter how passionately those who oppose Trump and want to Exit Brexit feel, no matter how much their friends and people who share their outlook agree, they have not persuaded and changed the minds of the other side, their ‘enemies’.  They haven’t found an emotional argument that counters the appeal of Trumpism or Brexit, and which resonates with the majority of people.  And most importantly, and also most depressingly, they haven’t understood what made people feel this way in the first place.

Quite a long time has passed since Trump was elected and we voted for Brexit but could anyone honestly say that the losing side in each case is any closer to understanding the real reasons why?  Sure, politicians can utter token words about immigration, and fall back on pop psychology about the feelings of white working class men, but ultimately it feels like few have them really have any idea.  Even fewer have set out a progressive alternative to populism that might appeal to Trumpites or Brexiteers, let alone stir the emotions and galvanise support.  Instead we are being offered more of the same: small, incremental changes when what is needed is a positive and refreshing overhaul.

In the absence of dramatic change, of a recognition by politicians that everything needs to shift and that they must set out a new and vigorous vision for the world, our choices are poor.  We can go through Brexit or several more years of Trump with all the damage that will do.  Or somehow both can be derailed, leaving a very sizeable group of angry, disenfranchised and frustrated citizens whose democratic rights have been trampled.  For the avoidance of doubt, the second outcome is worse than the first.  Now is the time for something different, starting with bothering to understand how we got here in the first place.

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