The moment has nearly arrived – after being subjected to months of ruthless campaigning and media furor, the US will finally choose their next president.
For us on this side of the pond, it’s invariably been a source of entertainment. Entertainment because how can reports on a campaign entirely devoid of facts, figures or policies be taken seriously. Between adjective-filled columns, the meticulous analysis of the use of gesticulations and interruptions during their debates and the mudslinging accusations of fraud, deception and other skeletons in the cupboard, the policy lines have been tough to make out. We all know American politics is about image and budget, not manifestos and political arguments – this one is no different. And it’s not for us to decide anyway so we can like and share Trump jokes on Twitter as easily as we will be able to forget him again when this all passes.
Scotland voted to stay & plan on a second referendum, you tiny fingered, Cheeto-faced, ferret wearing shitgibbon. https://t.co/iKyEIxf8ej
— Hamfisted Bun Vendor (@MetalOllie) June 24, 2016
That is until it dawns on us that for a number of reasons now is not the time for jokes. Firstly, we can’t afford to be on our high horse – if we learnt nothing from the UK referendum it’s that post-fact politics is as much a British reality now as it is an American one (awkwardly for Leave.eu campaign, that £350 million extra cash for the NHS bus banner just won’t seem to go away…).
It should also tell us that binary decisions are blunt political tools – as with our Brexit debate when the options are only two totally opposing ones, nuance and balance are difficult to come by. Issues become conflated (suddenly EU freedom of movement and a Syrian refugee crisis were one blurry issue Brexit was going to make go away) and everyone must choose a side. And it also taught us not to be too complacent about the result. In the early hours of June 23rd as I was sat in the Millbank tower watching the Leave campaign supporters chink their champagne glasses with Mr.Farage himself as the votes rolled in, it marked something of a new era ushering in. Though not one to be celebrating.
And finally, while the circus that is the US campaign has trundled on seemingly relentlessly, it has been hard to picture either of the protagonists actually taking up office. Ron Mendel, Senior Lecturer in International Relations and Politics at the University of Northampton warned exactly this – whatever the outcome, there was no certainty what the aftermath could be. In the same way Brexit has opened up a pandora’s box of festering issues in British society, so has Trump’s campaign unleashed a sinister underbelly in the US:
“Ku Klux Klan members are planning to stand outside polling stations checking Latino and African American citizens are legitimate voters – that is tantamount to intimidation. It’s these forces that have been tapped into and unleashed. If Trump wins, they are legitimised, if not they will be angry. And if Clinton wins she will have trouble governing.”
Through a campaign built around tapping into a strata of society who have variously been described as “left behind”, “disenfranchised” by the political system or excluded from the global economy, Trump’s campaign, as Farage’s particular brand of Leave EU propaganda has emboldened, fired up and in some cases instigated movements of people hungry for change that look likely to remain well after Theresa May does or does not invoke Article 50 or the 45th President takes office in Washington.
But the sentiment amongst the populace seems to be one of ambivalence – despite the political mayhem there is something electric in the air. In itself, the status quo being questioned needn’t be a bad thing and arguably is well overdue since the global financial crisis. The number of people now engaged and actively discussing and participating in politics from all stratas of society is unprecedented.
The problem comes when this increased interest is hijacked by populism, by empty movements that scapegoat rather than interrogate, that simplify rather than elucidate. As many others commentators have pointed out, many a dictator has come to power off the back of dissatisfaction from those suffering in financial recessions. The bottom line? Whatever the outcome tomorrow night, lessons certainly need to be learned from the inflammatory politics of late on either side of the Atlantic. There’s a dissatisfaction brewing – but if we act now we can harness this energy and desire for change to bring about a positive reboot of our societies. As they say: don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. In this case, don’t discard democracy because you don’t like the ruling party.