Boris Johnson has learned very well from his hero, Donald Trump.
If the populist right-wing leader of a ‘democratic’ country contradicts himself repeatedly, breaks his promises, has a scurrilous personal life, makes deeply offensive and totally insensitive remarks about anything and anybody, and even tells bare-faced lies, he can get away with it. That’s provided he’s got the right-wing press totally on his side; they attack and smear his opponents with unsubstantiated half-truths and even outright lies, and its journalists avoid taxing the leader and his close political allies with probing questions. Even when the leader’s opponents are succeeding in exposing the corruption of the leader and his cronies.
It also helps a great deal, if you have organisations like Cambridge Analytica and lots of Russian bots manipulating social media on your behalf.
Daniel Dale at CNN is just one analyst who has delved into what he terms Trump’s “bombardment of lies — Trump’s unceasing campaign to convince people of things that aren’t true.” He goes on to write:-
“Trump made more than 2,700 false claims this year . (We’re still calculating the final total.) Some of them were innocent slips, some of them little exaggerations. But a large number of them were whoppers: deliberate, significant attempts to deceive and manipulate. The breadth of the dishonesty was as striking as the frequency. Trump was inaccurate this year about every conceivable topic, from his dealings with Ukraine to the size of his crowds to, literally, the time of day.”
In the immediate run-up to the December general election the Daily Mirror’s Nicola Bartlett & Dan Bloom documented 60 major lies Boris Johnson had told since becoming Tory leader – including: “One of the reasons we’re having this election is because we have a Queen’s speech that was blocked by parliament” – when, in fact, the Queen’s Speech was one of the few votes that Johnson had won as prime minister.
Back in August Channel 4 News editor Dorothy Byrne had publicly asked the question: “…what do we do when a known liar becomes our prime minister?” – and she gave permission for Channel 4 News not to shy away from calling Johnson a liar. (As reported by The Guardian’s Ben Quinn & Heather Stewart.)
So, the question is: how do they get away with it – the deceits and the falsehoods…and on an ongoing basis? Certainly, an overly-biased right-wing media can go a long way in protecting the leader and his cronies – the BBC has come in for severe criticism for what was perceived as pro-Tory/pro-Brexit bias in its general election coverage. Eg: according to The Spectator’s Sarah Manavis, the BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, falsely claimed on Twitter that a Labour activist had punched a Tory aide at a hospital in Leeds. Then she equated Johnson lying about the Irish backstop to Jeremy Corbyn lying about watching the Queen’s Speech on Christmas Day.
However, as unacceptable words and behaviour by the leaders seem to become more prevalent with each passing week – and do eventually get exposed by the less ‘friendly’ elements in the much smaller and less powerful centralist and left-wing media – the tacit acceptance of these behaviours by their millions of followers cannot be explained just by an overly-supportive right-wing media.
Something else is going on.
Exploited against your own interests
Just how far the followers of the leaders are being exploited was brought home to me by a photo of 2 Trump supporters at a rally in 2018. The t-shirts bore the legend: ‘I’d rather be a Russian than a Democrat’.
That right-wing Americans could possibly think positively of being taken over by the country they had considered the ‘enemy’ since the end of World War II – apart from those few years when Russia briefly made the G7 into the G8 – is a real indicator of just how powerfully people can be manipulated. On Vox Zack Beauchamp says of the photo: “These men… are a perfect encapsulation of the way Donald Trump has transformed the Republican Party in his image — abandoning its traditional positions on issues ranging from Russia to trade in favour of Trump’s positions on these issues.”
Boris Johnson is learning from Trump: we can see him remaking the Conservative Party in his image. Tory MPs like Dominic Grieve, Heidi Allen and Anna Soubry sacrificed their careers to oppose a no-deal Brexit. Even Theresa May baulked at it. Now it’s back on the table and most likely the outcome of Johnson’s Brexit strategy. What the Government’s own figures showed would shave around 9% off the UK economy is now considered acceptable by the Cabinet.
What is simply amazing is how much the policies leaders like Trump and Johnson enact are actually against the interests of their voters. Trump’s ‘tariff war’ with China has led to significant losses amongst the Mid-Westeren grain growers while cuts to social security benefits and psychiatric care have reportedly led to many more military veterans becoming homeless (Lenyon Whitaker, Metro, 2018).
The new immigration policy unveiled by Johnson’s government on 19 February will almost certainly mean a decrease in low-skilled Eastern European whites in the UK and an increase in ‘foreign’ upper middle class blacks and Asians (doctors, scientists, IT whizzes, etc).
If, as is often mooted, racism was a major factor in both the 2016 referendum and the 2019 general election results, then fewer whites and more blacks and Asians will hardly be what was voted for!
According to home secretary Priti Patel, to replace all the low-skilled Eastern Europeans, British businesses may have to recruit from the 8 million ‘economically inactive’ potential workers in the UK (BBC News, 2020a). However, Sky News’ Greg Heffer notes, of the 8.4 million people identified as ‘economically inactive’ aged 16-64 by the Office for National Statistics at the end of last year, 2.6m are students, 2.08m are long-term sick, 1.89m are looking after homes or family members, and 1.12m are already retired. Moreover, when those classed as economically inactive are asked whether they do or don’t want a job, only 1.87m say they do.
Presumably those who are sick but too poor to live on reduced benefits and those who supposedly retired but are too poor to live on either a reduced or postponed pension will have to take up the slack…?
That would seem like a ruthless but very clever ruse to cope with the reduced tax takes from individuals and smaller businesses Brexit will almost certainly lead to, while having less need to spend on the welfare state because the old and the sick are either working or dying.
How do they do it?
In the first place there has to be an appeal to the tribalism of the PURPLE vMEME. Trump played on this generally with his ‘Make America great again’ and ‘America first’ slogans, setting the interests of the United States as separate from a hostile world which had demeaned and reduced the United States.
Trump played the PURPLE tribalism card more specifically in his tirades against Mexicans – rapists, murderers and drugs gangs. For a white majority already a little nervous about demographic trends indicating whites might not be the largest ethnic group by 2050, with Californian signage increasingly in Spanish as well as English, fears amongst many were aroused.
Appeals by the Leave campaigns in the 2016 referendum were less overtly racist but resentment of ‘foreigners’ and those of different ethnicity and culture came increasingly to the surface – and finally immigration became THE issue with Nigel Farage’s Breaking Point poster implying a million (Muslim, brown-skinned) Syrians were coming to invade the UK, thanks to the European Union.
It may be very politically incorrect to acknowledge that there it is natural for people thinking in PURPLE to be discriminatory against those who are ‘not of our tribe’ and someone being of a different ethnicity is a very clear indicator that person is ‘not of our tribe’. See Is Racism Natural…? It’s the refusal of GREEN, in governments and in academia over the past half-century, to contemplate such political incorrectness as having validity in its context, that has, in part at least, set up the vulnerabilities of the white working classes to Trumpian-style exploitation.
In 2016, in both the US and the UK, there were substantial pockets of unemployed working class whites in impoverished neighbourhoods with little prospect of social and/or financial improvement. For what little work there was, they perceived themselves to be in competition – in the US with blacks and Hispanics; in the UK with Asians and Eastern Europeans. All the while stirred up by the moral panics (joblessness, Islamic terrorism, etc) the right-wing media created and the ‘folk devils’ (Asians, Hispanics, etc) they blamed for the moral panics.
These people are the ‘left-behind’, their jobs sacrificed to the New International Division of Labour that globalisation produces. Resentful, bitter, alienated, hopeless, they have little understanding of the GREEN acceptance of others and their equality purveyed by intellectual left-wingers and academics. The politically-correct insistence on acceptance of others, regardless of colour of skin, religion and culture, only makes them dig deeper into their tribalism and be ever more resentful of ‘others’ – those who are different from the majority.
By being politically incorrect, Trump, Farage and Johnson have spoken the language of the ’left behind’ and connected with them. Not necessarily with any serious intention of making their lives any better – the people who bankroll RED-led demagogues like Trump, Farage and Johnson are, after all, the very people who drive and profit from globalisation. See How the Plutocrats are waging War on the Bureaucrats
As Richard Petty & John Cacioppo’s Elaboration Likelihood Model (1981) shows, the RED-led demagogues – the cult personalities – are more likely to appeal to those who process via the ‘peripheral route’ – those Susan Fiske & Shelley Taylor (1991) term cognitive misers. In Gravesian terms, these people will tend to be dominated by the PURPLE and RED vMEMES in their vMEME stacks. Literacy is not a strong point in PURPLE motivations while RED wants to get to the point now and has little patience for complex arguments. Thus, Trumpian-type simplistic appeals on the peripheral route are much likely to be effective with such people.
BLUE and the more complex vMEMES tend to prefer the ‘central route’ and consider the issues, pros and cons, at length and in detail. In 2016 and 2019 the Remainers’ financial and economic experts largely spoke to this group. As Jonathan Haidt (with Bruce L Gibb) explains in What makes People vote Republican?, it’s why the Democrats so often lose.
As Theodore Adorno et al (1951) noted, the poor often remain disengaged from politics until an extremist but charismatic leader offers them ‘magical’ solutions to their problems – based on blind obedience to the leader and their values, and scapegoating minorities and those who are different.
- Build a wall to keep the Mexicans out!
- Leave the EU to stop immigration!
How do they keep on doing it?
To those who analyse via Petty & Cacioppo’s central route, it is usually clear that the magical solutions aren’t going to produce the desired outcomes.
So how come, reality doesn’t come bursting in on those in Detroit who still live in poverty with no prospect of jobs 3.5 years after Trump came to power or those in the closed car assembly plants in England’s North-East whose jobs have gone because of Brexit before Brexit even happened…?
Firstly, there is the issue of ego investment – how much of yourself do you put into your decision to support the leader – and how much of your self-esteem is tied up in the that decision. Social Judgement Theory (Muzafer Sherif & Carl Hovland, 1961; Muzafer Sherif & Carolyn Wood Sherif, 1968) shows that the stronger your ego investment in a leader and his policies, the more you will resist opposing views – what Sherif calls the ‘Latitude of Rejection’. Don Beck has taken this idea further with the Assimilation-Contrast Effect (ACE) (Don Beck & Ken Wilber, 2000; Beck, 2002), showing how the extremists (RED/BLUE) see even the moderates on their own side (BLUE/ORANGE/GREEN) as somehow betraying the cause.
If the moderates fail to get a grip, this, of course, can lead to extreme polarisation of the sides. Monica Bourgeau (2019) postulates that the moderate majority become ‘exhausted’ by the relentless propaganda and end up tacitly supporting the extremists on their side because that is presented as the only option. The in-group/out-group effect, as outlined in Henri Tajfel & John Turner’s Social Identification Theory (1979) then comes into effect: the virtues of your in-group are extolled and its flaws ignored while every possible ‘bad’ thing about the outgroup is believed. Alan Abramowitz & Steven Webster (2015) say this causes outright demonisation of the ‘other side’ and voting for your own side – no matter how extreme – simply because they are not the other side.
When this is in place, does this mean the Freudian defence mechanism of denial then kicks in so that the followers, via subconscious processes, actually cannot recognise the flaws and self-aggrandisement of the leaders or the harm their policies will inflict on their voters? In Integrated SocioPsychology terms, incoming memes are automatically filtered out because they are at such odds with the schemas held with very strong ego investment. This may explain why radicals of all persuasions are so resistant to evidence.
Breaking the hold of polarisation and extremism
I am not going to offer ‘magical’ solutions. Addressing these issues really requires what Beck (2011) calls ‘brain syndicates’ – forums of 2nd Tier thinkers who can collectively shape a deeper understanding of the issues and begin to formulate potential answers.
One thing that should be clear, though, is that the ‘other side’ putting up equal extremists in opposition will lead either to defeat or civil war. (The American and Spanish civil wars are stark and bloody reminders of what can happen when extremist leaders on both sides cannot back down in the slightest to find any form of common ground and the democratic system collapses under the strain.)
In UK politics, when the extremist Tory Margaret Thatcher was in power, Labour put up the equally extremist Michael Foot. Largely thanks to the sway of the right-wing media in this country, Thatcher was able to dispatch Foot with relative ease in 1983. Last year Jeremy Corbyn was portrayed as very hard-left in the right wing media and led Labour to its worst defeat since the 1930s.
The ‘other side’ putting up an equally extremist politician appears not to be the answer. In which case, Democrats perhaps should think again about Bernie Sanders. A principled extremist – however sincere and ‘nice’ he appears to be – may not be what a polarised electorate can be convinced by.
A great example of a moderate winning a landslide election that makes Boris Johnson’s majority look relatively small is Tony Blair in 1997. Denigrated in retrospect by hard-line socialists and undoubtedly his career blighted by the mistakes of the Iraq War and an increase in child poverty, he nevertheless moved Labour’s discourse closer to the centre ground for the best part of a generation. He even openly adopted some Tory policies – eg: Conservative chancellor Ken Clarke’s fiscal rules. Blair’s victory encapsulates the message of ACE: by focusing on the centre ground and convincing the opposite side’s moderates that you and they can work together on that ground, you may isolate the extremists.