There are many similarities between the Brexit vote and Trump’s win. The reliance for victory on white voters without a college education, fear of immigration, globalisation being blamed for mine and factory closures, hostility towards data-based arguments, the breakdown of the distinction between ‘belief’ and ‘conclusion’, the internet’s power to sort the grain of pleasing lies from the chaff of displeasing facts, the sense of there being a systematic programme of rules and interventions devised by a small, remote, powerful elite that polices everyday speech, destroys symbols of tradition, ignores or patronises ‘real’, ‘ordinary’ people, and has contempt for popular narratives of how the nation came to be.
Watching the US election results come in was like a rerun of referendum night in Britain in June: the same demented focus on previous models that bore little relation to the different voter coalitions called into being by the unique circumstances of the vote, the same distracting references to bookies’ odds and stock market gyrations, the same inertia of technical analysis droning on even as the blood began to drain from the pundits’ faces, the same – cynical? – hints of defeat from the ultimately victorious camp while the polls were still open, the same sense that for all the talking headery and data crunching, the overwhelming misapprehension going into the evening was that the thing which had never happened before just could not happen because it had never happened before.
There was one other important similarity. It is too early to tell whether it will carry over from Britain to the US, because it continues to this day, long after the vote. It was striking before and after the Brexit referendum that almost all those who wanted to stay in the European Union (I was one) have found it much easier to denounce the Leavers than to praise the supposed object of our political desires, the EU. In the same way, Clinton voters seem to find it much easier to find reasons to hate Trump than to love Clinton. Goodness knows, finding reasons to hate Trump was never going to be hard, but why was it so hard to pin a like on Clinton? Why so hard to speak passionately and specifically for Europe, as opposed to denigrating those who were against it? With Brexit and with the Trumpiad, for most people, the positivity around the alternatives seems to boil down to a single ‘nice to have’. It’s nice to have a passport that allows you to live and work anywhere in the EU; it would have been nice to have a woman in the White House. That’s it.
In Britain, the Leave camp has been bitter in victory. I suspect the Trump camp, as its tiny billionaire head detaches from its massive electoral body, will be the same. Winning a vote can never be enough when you also want to be made happy and for the losers to shut up. The Remain camp has been bitter in defeat, as the Democrat camp will be, both towards the Leavers/Trumpites, and among themselves. Excoriation of Trump/Farage, Sean Hannity/Paul Dacre, Clintonites/Blairites, Sanders/Corbyn, is supplemented by I-told-you-so head-shaking over the collapse of the pound and Wall Street freakouts. This is all fine and natural. But the other side is missing.
Will there be mass marches in favour of free trade down the avenues of America’s great cities? Surprise me. Will there be sit-ins and confrontations with riot police by angry Clintonites demanding a judicious tweaking of the federal tax code and a modest programme of college debt relief? I’d bet against it. The intensity of the rage of Britain’s pro-Europeans on Twitter, the wildness of their hopes that Brexit might still somehow be cancelled or tamed, is only matched by our lack of action on the streets in support of what we felt so devastated to be deprived of.
I still feel it. I still feel more disgusted, angry and ashamed about the other side winning than I do about my side losing. My champions were fading and insubstantial even before they fought. It saddens me more that America just elected its own id than that in doing so it destroyed the Hillary Clinton project. I will be thrown deeper into despair by the coronation of President Le Pen than into mourning for any of her opponents. It is no longer enough to be offered something to vote for, something to tweet about, an object of loathing. It is never enough to call a march with a whiteboard for a banner. Am I too jaded to hope, in politics, for something real – something, not someone – to yearn for, and not just something to hate?