Liberals must accept responsibility for creating both Trump and Brexit

Conservatives in the US and the UK have taken advantage of the fires of public opinion to win elections. But, writes Ben White, it was often liberals who started the fires in the first place

Supporters of the Vote Leave campaign in the UK cheer in the run-up to the referendum. Both the Brexit campaign and Donald Trump managed to skillfully mobilise a base of committed supporters. Luke MacGregor / Bloomberg
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There are dark clouds gathering across England. The tabloid press attacks the judiciary as “enemies of the people”. The prime minister berates “activist left-wing human rights lawyers” for pursuing legal cases against British soldiers accused of war crimes. Right-wing demagogues contrast the “political elite” with “the will of the people”.

The storm clouds were blown in by Brexit, and a Leave campaign peppered with exhortations to “Make Britain great again!” and declarations that “We want our country back!” When, in the minds of those sloganising, was Britain last “great”? The normally unspoken reply is when Britain ruled half the world.

And from whom are the British taking back the country? European bureaucrats, maybe, but they can only inflame the passions so much. Instead, the talk was of how so many towns have “changed” over the years and how streets “look different”. This was classic dog-whistle politics, a combination of nostalgia for empire and common or garden racism.

At the same time, the surge in racist violence and abuse after the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom is now being mirrored in the United States, after Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election.

Sixty million Americans voted for a man whose campaign included unashamed racism and misogyny. Whether Trump voters were attracted by the bigotry, or whether the hateful rhetoric was something they could overlook, will not make much difference to the black college students added to a “lynching” group on social media, nor to the Muslim women assaulted in the streets.

But for liberals to know how to fight this rising tide, they first have to acknowledge their responsibility. Because it was liberals who created the conditions which made both Brexit and Mr Trump possible.

If the Brexit and Trump phenomena were the accelerants on the smouldering coals, it was the war on terror and a poisoned debate about immigration that lit the spark – and liberals were often the ones holding the matches.

Go back several years to the 2000s and listen the political language. Those who first insisted on talking about “Muslim extremists” were from the right, but their words were echoed back by liberals who did not want to look out of touch with voters. Those like the Labour MP Jack Straw, who, in 2006, declared that “wearing the full veil” was “bound to make better, positive relations between the two communities more difficult”.

Or listen to the liberals who singled out the British Muslim community as having a “problem with radicalisation”. While the discredited and disturbing UK government’s counterterrorism Prevent strategy has been passed into law by the Conservative party, it was devised and designed under Labour.

The same applies in the US. Mr Trump’s pick as national security adviser, Michael Flynn, is now notorious for having declared that “fear of Muslims is rational”. But who said of Muslims: “They’re violent. They threaten us, and they are threatening. They bring that desert stuff to our world.” That was a popular US TV host called Bill Maher in 2010, who is considered a liberal.

Then there were those who dehumanised the people of Afghanistan and Iraq so that their fatalities were not even worth counting, and applauded drone attacks on nameless combat-age men. The invasion of Iraq took place under the Labour Party in the UK. In the US, it was a Republican president who invaded Afghanistan and Iraq and started drone strikes – but it was Barack Obama who happily continued them.

According to new figures collated by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Mr Obama authorised 541 drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia in the past eight years – countries where the US is not at war. These strikes killed nearly 5,000 people, including as many as 745 civilians. This is the apparatus of high-tech, unaccountable killing that Mr Trump now inherits.

Remember, as reported in May 2012 by The New York Times, that Mr Obama “embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent”.

From this chilling act of dehumanisation and disregard for international humanitarian law, it is a short walk to Mr Trump’s apparent desire to “take out [the terrorists’] families”.

We can only understand how we got here – the Brexit campaign, emboldened racists and so on – by examining the role played by the liberals and social democrats who, as they steered a ship towards the iceberg, played dog-whistle politics and legitimised a politics of fear and bigotry that is now sinking their own vessels.

The specific reasons for the Brexit vote are varied – David Cameron’s political gamble, the role of right-wing media outlets, false promises made by the Leave camp and so on. The specific reasons for why Mr Trump won are also varied: the effect of strict voter ID laws, county-specific dynamics and the particularities of the electoral college system.

But a forensic examination of why these events unfolded as they did is not the same conversation as why Trump-ism, or UKIP-ism, is thriving. That conversation is about racism and culture wars, white resentment and the perception of eroded privilege – but it is also about the failure of liberals and social democrats to offer a convincing economic alternative to neoliberalism.

There is also a difference between working out why right-wing populism is on the march and thinking through how it can be defeated. That Britain voted to leave the European Union, and that Mr Trump is now US president, are, at least in part, due to racism. For liberals, this has to be confronted and fought, but not normalised. Those who argue that liberals in either country should appeal to or seek to pacify racists or racism are advocating what is a terrible strategy and a moral disgrace. At the same time, there must be an economic alternative to a neoliberal and austerity-shaped status quo that has excluded, alienated and disillusioned many millions. In the UK, a third of voters did not vote in the 2015 election. In this month’s US election, more than 40 per cent did not. Any alternative must energise them.

This, then, is the task for the left and liberals in the US and UK. The right wing is on the march. As the news came of Mr Trump’s victory, the most senior strategist to Marine Le Pen, of France’s far-right National Front party, Florian Philippot, said: “Their world is collapsing. Ours is being built.” This is the far right’s version of the anti-globalisation slogan “Another world is possible”.

Charting a course out of this storm is only possible by liberals acknowledging their role in how they got there: the complicity in and concessions to racism and an unflinching embrace of neoliberal economics and austerity-lite.

What is needed is a genuine left-wing alternative – a compelling story, an emphasis on economic equality and new means of political representation. More of the same simply won’t do.

It was the pandering to the racism of the right by liberals that helped bring the UK and US to this point – now they must commit to the fight.

Ben White is a journalist and the author of Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner's Guide

On Twitter: @benabyad