I did it after Brexit. I did it to my neighbour, to the man in the post office and the woman on the train. Was it you? Did you do this? Did you do it for those reasons? How do you really feel about a different accent, darker skin, a foreign sounding name? I silently questioned everyone around me, viewing them with suspicion and distaste, unable to swallow my seething resentment. I gave into the 'them and us' mentality that had been so brilliantly exploited by those who had succeeded in their campaign.
And now I find myself doing it again. I followed the US election results throughout the night with a growing sense of horror at what was unfolding. In the morning, my Facebook feed was overflowing with the same expressions of disbelief and dismay. Like-minded people talking to like-minded people in this liberal space, where ignoring views we dislike can be done at the tap of a screen. Why get into a messy, public and undignified online spat when we can simply hit block? The digital equivalent of getting up and walking away but with less fuss. When faced with this kind of political turmoil, we find comfort in solidarity and safety in numbers. But as a professional campaigner, I know that preaching to the already converted achieves precious little.
Rhetoric and ethics are inextricably bound together. Those who have a voice and a platform also have a responsibility. But rhetoric has become a largely pejorative term, despite its noble roots in antiquity. Aristotle owns the art of rhetoric but Trump has certainly mastered the art. Too frequently preceded by adjectives such as'empty' and 'meaningless', it's easy to forget that rhetoric has consequences. The drip, drip effect of subtle distaste for others, for the alien, for the inconvenient, has a devastating impact. When I teach students about rhetoric, I try to demonstrate how delivery, repetition and segmentation of audience are all part of how we persuade and convince others to see things our way. Those in positions of power understand this better than most. Words can be weapons with grave consequences.
It may seem incomprehensible that on 20 January 2017, President Trump will be handed the keys to the Oval Office but comprehend it we must because it will happen. There is an inordinate amount of chilling rhetoric to analyse from Trump's successful campaign and it will be analysed and studied in the months and years to come. This analysis, reflection and assessment has already begun and for those of us who do not support Trump, this evaluation process is essential. Lessons must be learned in order to move forward. And from this analysis, the next stage of a campaign strategy must grow. The organisation and mobilisation must start. In professional campaigning circles, disengagement with the political process has been, in recent years, a major concern. But now people are engaged and exercised, emboldened and they are raising the roof. USA Today reported that voter turnout was up 4.7% with a record 46 million votes cast before Election Day. And voter turnout in the EU referendum was 72.2%. There are other, significant challenges that campaigners must now face.
The lessons of the EU referendum campaign should still be fresh in our minds. While the conflation of these two, political issues from different sides of the Atlantic might not sit easily with some, they are undoubtedly linked. Anyone still questioning this need only be reminded of Nigel Farage's prominent role in Trump's campaign, the frequent references to Brexit and the hope that this seismic shift inspired in many who already felt sidelined. The referendum result was all too prescient. We should turn our attention to France next. We should remember this tweet from Marine Le Pen's most senior strategist, Florian Philippot, responding positively to Trump's victory: "Their world is collapsing. Ours is being built." Them and us. Divide and conquer.
But let's not be so quick to blame others for what we now face. We all had a part to play and now we must all speak up. There has been much discussion of Trump's new approach to political rhetoric, of his plain speaking and of his unique appeal. This is post-truth politics and campaigners must find another way, a new way of engaging and persuading. It's too early to tell what shape this will take but every person who cares about human rights must be part of it. Start by challenging hatred and prejudice wherever you find it. Look beyond your community, beyond issues that affect you and your family and beyond the comfort of those who already agree with you. Find ways of reaching out to others who approach things from a different perspective and engage in difficult conversations, don't shut them down. Don't feel despondent and don't give up. The old adage 'never discuss religion or politics in polite company' has never seemed more irrelevant or irresponsible. We need to talk about Trump and we need to start new conversations. I refuse to believe it's too late.
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