I count a pretty senior UKIP person as a friend. Yet whenever I tell that to some liberal lefty pro-EU contacts of mine they are repulsed and perplexed. They assume the person in question must be a Paul Nuttall or Roger Helmer, someone so hopelessly dim, racist or inconsistent that they cannot imagine how I could spend time in that person’s presence.
Actually it is rather different.
The person I know is one of the sharpest, cleverest political operators I have encountered. In terms of political outcomes I think he is wrong about pretty much everything, but it all starts from a difference of ideology – small state militarist (him) versus redistributionist social liberal environmentalist (me), but he is masterful at getting what he wants and he communicates it very well, and for that I give him grudging respect.
Others on the Leave campaign (who I don’t know personally) strike me as similar – Dominic ‘accuracy is for snake oil pussies’ Cummings might ooze gruesomeness from every pore, but he is sharp, dangerous, and highly confident, and was central to the Leave campaign – have a read of this from him on campaign technology. The same could be said of Matthew Elliot, the boss of Vote Leave. Somehow Daniel Hannan MEP is ridiculous, denying the grubby reality of the Leave campaign, but at another level his fierce focus on getting Britain out of the EU, no compromises, is sharp – because the attacks do not stick to him. Compare them to the aloof entitlement of Craig Oliver in his Politico interview, or Daniel Korski’s account of dysfunction around David Cameron during the referendum.
This is not dissimilar to the reactions to Trump in the USA. At first glance the President-elect looks like a boorish moron. Why did the people of the United States vote for someone like him? He’s a misogynist racist who gropes pussies and can’t string a coherent sentence together in an interview! Eugh, repugnant, steer clear!
Well one reason for Trump’s success, among many, seems to be that Trump’s team was sharper in its online marketing than Clinton’s was. The Swiss website Das Magazin carried a fascinating piece about Trump’s use of Cambridge Analytica to profile voters (a summary of similar ideas in English from NYT here) – and that could have helped in the Rust Belt that essentially won it for Trump. Google’s algorithm has been gamed in the USA (and indeed in Austria).
As Susan Glasser, quoted in this excellent FT piece says, “Trump as well as his Democratic adversaries have the same tools to create, produce, distribute, amplify, or distort news as the news industry itself“, and Ken Doctor, quoted in the same piece: “Clearly he [Trump] and Kushner have a grip on how to use social media that others do not. He understands that nuance in communication is overrated, especially in politics. ‘Build a wall’ is twelve characters.”
In both the Brexit and Trump cases the discussion is so slippery, so hard to grasp. Last week I likened Brexit to splashing around in a tank of shit; Peter Kellner called it The Great Fog of Brexit in an excellent piece yesterday. Yet in the era of social media, and even with multipliers in the mainstream media like Julia Hartley Brewer in the UK or Fox News in the USA, it is actually hard to get a large part of the population to the same basic understanding of what is actually going on. Trying to reason with people, to try to appeal to impartiality or the greater good, or to even seek consistency, is next to impossible – as Hugo Rifkind argues in The Spectator. Boing Boing’s exposé of Trump’s news consumption put the most powerful politician at the centre of, in their words, “an echo-chamber’s echo-chamber.” To put it another way we are no longer fighting on the same political field, but instead trying to draw the lines and the boundaries of our field – and making sure as many people as possible stand within it.
Whatever the mainstream may hope, neither Brexit nor Trump are going to collapse into a heap of their own contradictions – even if those contradictions look obvious to people with a view of the whole picture. The populists will themselves make sure they are not positioned to be blamed (as Nesrine Malik correctly points out), and even if Brexit fails or Trump is impeached, the bundle of emotion and anger than drove both of them will rise once more in the form of other political protest movements. The hydra cannot be slain.
So where does all of that leave us as 2016 draws to a close?
6 months on from the referendum, Brexit is no closer to being delivered and the public mood is edgy. In the USA Trump’s transition is very bumpy. And with elections in Netherlands, France and Germany on the horizon in 2017 I remain nervous. As I live in Berlin it is the German election that is closest to me, and the German reactions to Brexit and Trump worry me. Assuming all will be well as Merkel is running again and AfD is at 10-15% in the polls is highly complacent.
Germany is not immune to fake news (see Kate Connolly about the Lisa F story, or Stefan Niggemeier about attacks in Freiburg), and the German reactions to the Das Magazin piece I mention above are horribly wide of the mark. That algorithms are so important is a left wing conspiracy screamed Meedia, while the online campaign boss of my party, the Grüne, tells me to keep calm about the issue (and tweets that it was Trump’s rhetoric that won it for him – well, could it not be a combination of both?), while others use the regular German excuses – a lack of resources, and data protection concerns. Meanwhile the Federal Chancellery is warning of cyber attacks and influence from Russia in the election campaign, and the Left’s candidate is appearing on Russia Today, bemoaning a lack of media pluralism.
Drawing this all together it strikes me that the political mainstream has been blinded by the awful uncouth unpleasantness of Trump and Brexit, and continues to be blinded by everyone from Le Pen to Wilders and Petry, and hence has ignored that behind the scenes there are sharp people who pull the strings for those campaigns – not least when it comes to online communications (the whole way from fake news via masterful use of Twitter through to online marketing). Trying to attribute the success of these populist insurgencies to one factor or another spectacularly misses the point. Their target is relentless – to win – and they experiment and push the boundaries of what is possible across the board until they do.
When, I wonder, will mainstream political strategists start to realise they have been out-thought, and start to plot a response?