Many ask how can we resist the rising tide of nationalism and populism around the world? Is resistance possible when extremists pre-empt condemnation of their failures, by blaming enemies within and without? Theresa May this week declared war on Brussels and prominent Leave supporters on social media have started blaming Remainers for Brexit failures to come.
Let us start by acknowledging the difficulties. Liberal internationalism suffered a heavy defeat with the election of Trump in the USA. It sustained a serious blow by the Brexit vote. These are things we cannot change. Enough people have revolted against social liberalism that mandated political correctness and acceptance of others as equals. People resent women, foreigners, other races, religions. They always have and they probably always will. They also strongly resent being told they are inferior and wrong, even though these behaviours are inferior and wrong. Enough people had enough of elites that supposedly operate in the pursuit of own interests. Enough people feel threatened by things outside their control shaping their lives.
All this we knew. What we did not appreciate was the political establishment's ability to co-opt this rebellion for its own purposes. So, how does one fight back against this irreversible (it seems) lurch to the right, towards populism, towards a darkness with echoes of the 1930s? After Trump's victory I no longer believe this descent can be halted. Greece elected ignorant self-serving populists in an act of rebellion against 'foreign occupiers'. The British chose to throw themselves off a cliff in the hope of something new. The Americans elected perhaps the least appropriate person to ever run for the Presidency.
What does one do then? The answer is capturing and controlling the narrative of the extremists' failure. What is so dangerous about this global phenomenon is not the fact that the extremes are taking power, it is how they will use their failures to create a narrative that leads inexorably to conflict. Let us take the example of Brexit. The idea of Brexit is based on a series of un-achievable dreams. During the EU Referendum we failed to convince the majority of voters that wishing for a unicorn does not create one. Our task post-referendum is to convince people that the unicorn did not appear because it does not exist, not because we Remainers did not join in wishing for one. There is no upside to Brexit and no silver lining, at least not for the people who voted Leave.
What is important is how a narrative explaining this failure develops. A careful, fact-based, relentless effort needs to be made to demonstrate that the failure of Brexit is due to incompetent government, unrealistic aims, incoherent promises and contradictory policy goals. This needs to be homed-in on a daily basis for weeks, for months, for years. It may not prevent (and will not prevent) Brexit from happening, but it will lay the blame squarely where it belongs: at the hands of those who argued for Leave and carried it out. Failing to control the narrative will lead to a surging nationalist right placing the blame at the hands of "Remoaners", pro-EU traitors, evil vindictive Europeans, bribed or bamboozled foreigners, Enemies-of-the-People Judges. Failing to demonstrate, carefully and thoroughly that the Brexit government is responsible for the disruption that is to follow will lead to an entrenchment of the worse aspects of Leave: The racism, the anger, the violence. It will lead to violent conflict.
A similar process operates in the US. The Trump Presidency will spectacularly sink under the weight of its incompatible, incoherent, un-achievable promises. Who gets the blame for the failure will determine the nature of US politics and the shape of the world for generations to come. Failed governments, bad policies, rotten ideologies crumble and fall. Look at Soviet Communism if you need any examples. Trump's rotten politics should not take 70 years to disintegrate. They should not outlast his first term.
The job of Democrats, of progressives, of liberals in the USA and the world is to highlight, publicize and fact-check day in and day out the failures of the Trump regime. It will be difficult in this supposedly post-fact, post-rationality, expert-hating political environment, but people are not that blind to the reality around them. Blaming others only works for a little while and regimes based on lies burn out fast. Hitler came to power in 1933 and would not have lasted till 1945 were it not for the war. America is not Nazi Germany. When Trump fails, it will be obvious. When Brexit fails it will be impossible to hide. The task is to control the narrative and prevent the extremists from spinning it as the fault of 'wreckers' and traitors within.