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Trump, Syria, Strong Leaders and Simple Stories

22/12/2015 11:14 GMT | Updated 21/12/2016 10:12 GMT

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The key to Donald Trump's appeal is that he presents himself as a strong leader with simple, bold (hoo boy, they're bold!) solutions to complex problems. Too many immigrants? Build a wall. Frightened of terrorists? Close the door to Muslims. He offers Americans the comforting notion that these issues are not really so complex after all, if you only know what you're doing, and thus gives some people exactly what they want: someone to take the burden off their shoulders, to reassure and absolve them, to take control and sort things out. Childlike, his supporters look up to their parent for all the answers. The fact that his answers are not only ill-defined and wildly unworkable but also often offensive, and the irony that he, the supposed parent figure, frequently resembles nothing so much as an angry toddler, are apparently lost on them, so seduced are they by the simplicity of his black-and-white, leave-it-to-me narrative.

But while the rest of us are busy laughing at the Trump supporters, perhaps we should pause to consider whether we ourselves are immune to the temptations of a strong leader or a simple story. While we may aspire to formulate independent opinions on issues of public importance, aren't we also sometimes prone to reductionism, to retreating to our political comfort zones, to trusting relatively blindly in the leaders whose general outlooks we share?

On the whole, I feel quite disengaged from British politics nowadays, having lived in the US for more than eight years, but in the run-up to the 2nd December House of Commons vote on extending airstrikes against Daesh (ISIS) into Syria, I was struck by the strident tone of what I was reading on my left-leaning Facebook feed and elsewhere, words that suggested the decision facing MPs was as stark as could be: wage war or keep the peace, kill innocents or spare them. Inspired to dig deeper, I sat down and read the entire transcript of the Parliamentary debate - yes, all eleven hours of it (though, unlike the Speaker of the House, who was congratulated at one point for the strength of his bladder, I'll confess I did take the odd comfort break).

By the time I finally reached the end, one thing at least was clear: the decision was not simple. Contrary to what I'd been reading, it was far from a choice between death and life: yes, bombing always risks innocent lives (though the level of risk was much contested in the debate, given the available technology and nature of the targets), but Daesh are already killing and abusing innocents in the most horrific ways, as are Assad's forces and other groups. Every way you slice it, there's suffering and death. The question - the much more complicated question - is how to minimise it, in the short and longer term.

The anti-bombing lobby claimed that targeting Daesh in Syria would make British citizens less safe by angering Daesh and inspiring more Muslims to radicalise. Those in favour of the bombing argued that Britain could not get any higher on Daesh's hit list and that military action was urgently needed to restrict their recruitment capabilities and forestall further overseas attacks.

Ultimately, the key disagreement seemed to be about timing: it was pretty clear that some airstrikes would be needed, with or without Britain's involvement, as part of a multi-faceted strategy to combat Daesh. The anti lobby argued that the other facets of this strategy were not yet far enough advanced to capitalise on any gains made by air; the pro lobby countered that progress was indeed being made, and claimed that ground operations and other efforts would become even more challenging further down the line if Daesh were not quickly contained.

Very occasionally, a political question arises that is genuinely simple: I find it hard, for example, to make a good devil's advocate case against gay marriage or in favour of free access to guns. But the vast majority of important public questions are not like that. They're complex and difficult, and very often depressing or scary or both. It is so much easier, practically and psychologically, to paint our world in black and white, to claim that the right answers are obvious and call our opponents immoral or insane, than to face up to the true, dismaying messiness of most things. But it is neither responsible nor honest.

I worry that the way the media is evolving strengthens the temptation for us to buy into oversimplified stories. The internet and social media call us to sink back into our siloes, only hearing what we want to hear, only talking to those with whom we already broadly agree. To be responsible citizens, we must resist this temptation, and actively challenge ourselves to seek out counter-arguments and subject our first intuitions to sincere stress-tests.

The full version of this article is available at www.alicebellreeves. com

Photo by iprimages: https://www.flickr.com/photos/iprphoto/