My theory of everything (that’s gone wrong in the world)
From Trump to Brexit to the Covid “resistance”, a binding narrative thread runs through the world’s lurch into dangerous nonsense, argues columnist Paul Kirkley.
Is that it, then? Is it over? Is it safe to come out?
For a giddy moment last month, I honestly thought it might be. With Joe Biden bound for the White House and Dominic Cummings leaving Downing Street with his tail between his legs and his possessions in a cardboard box, I dared to hope that maybe the great populist fire that has raged through public life in recent years might finally be burning itself out.
But no. Far from delivering a stinging repudiation of Trumpism, the presidential election actually saw the narcissist-in-chief increase his support – by around 10 million votes. That’s 73.5 million people who looked at everything this human wrecking ball has done over the past four years and said: “Yep. He’s the guy for me.”
Perhaps even more worryingly, around 70 per cent of Republican voters claim to believe Trump’s wild, fantastical claims about the election being stolen, and were happy to fall in line behind him – even as, like some Mugabe-style autocrat, he tried to take a match to the very notion of democracy, while refusing to allow the incoming administration access to vital public health information during the worst pandemic in living memory.
Clearly, then, this genie isn’t going back in the bottle any time soon. But as Trump and Cummings exit (for now at least) centre stage, and Brexit stumbles into its predictably shambolic and humiliating endgame, it does feel like a useful watershed moment in which to pause, reflect and take stock of the angry, febrile, dangerous few years we’ve all just lived through. As, indeed, does the increasingly hostile culture war over the coronavirus – a flashpoint that has its source in the same poisoned wellspring that brought us Trump, Boris and Brexit.
So with apologies to Albert Einstein, and Prof Stephen Hawking, late of this parish, I’m going to attempt to come up with nothing less than a grand, unifying Theory Of Everything in a bid to explain – to myself, as much as anyone – What The Hell Just Happened. No pressure, then.
The first thing to say about populism is that it’s stupidly easy. The clue is in the name. It is literally just telling people what they want to hear, regardless of whether it fits the facts or not.
It is the triumph of simple lies – and catchy slogans that appeal to the heart, not the head – over complicated truths. It is the reason why rustbelt America put its faith in an inherited billionaire kleptocrat promising to ‘make America great again’.
And it is the reason why Dominic Cummings persuaded large parts of the English working classes (my tribe) to turn on the EU – an institution that has put a great deal more energy into regenerating left-behind communities than our national governments have over recent decades – based on the flimsy and nonsensical notion of ‘taking back control’. As a coup de grâce, Cummings then somehow persuaded these people that the answer to their woes lay with the very party that had overseen the wholesale dismantling of their once proud manufacturing communities. How? By writing some simple, emotive lies on Facebook, and down the side of a bus.
Are the people who fell for this stupid? No, but many of them are guilty of shocking naivety. Fake news is insidious, and all-pervasive, and we are all going to have to be a lot more vigilant in future. We live in a post-truth age of unreason, fuelled by social media algorithms and echo chambers designed to reinforce our biases and prejudices, in which objective reality is just another point of view.
As the writer Robert Harris so astutely put it recently: “Things that should have been liberating about the internet and social media – interconnectedness and bringing us all together – are in fact driving us apart. We should have reached the epitome of the age of reason, of us being able to sit anywhere with our phones and have access to the world’s knowledge. We should be moving into a new era of enlightenment, and what do we find? Conspiracy theories and cranks. We’ve moved into a new age of irrationality. We are punch-drunk with it.”
Covid-19 has brought this age of irrationality into the sharpest and most devastating of reliefs. After an early truce, in which we seemed to rediscover a shared purpose, and rallied to a common cause, the coronavirus pandemic has only accelerated the angry culture wars.
It is the ultimate demonstration of what happens when personal beliefs run smack bang into the brick wall of reality. For the arch libertarians of the Tory right and The Daily Telegraph, Covid is less a public health emergency than another point of ideological principle. They hope to wish away a global pandemic because it doesn’t chime with their dogmatic philosophy of individual freedom, just as complicated post- Brexit trade and tariff arrangements aren’t really a problem because... well, we’re Britain, aren’t we? Isn’t that enough?
It’s an exercise in trying to bend reality to your political will, even when reality shows no sign of budging, and the bodies keep piling up.
Because, of course, nobody wants a lockdown. Nobody wants to wear those uncomfortable masks. But we do it because we’re grown-ups, and we recognise that being a grown-up means not always doing exactly as we please. Heaven only knows how these snowflakes would have managed during the Second World War (‘The nanny state can’t make me dig for victory!’).
In a way, this is just the political wing of the modern myth of self-actualisation: that cruel lie peddled by everyone from Olympians to X Factor judges that if you want something enough, all you have to do is believe; that if you close your eyes and wish upon a star, then Covid and climate change will go away and Brexit will be a huge success. It is the triumph of hope over reason, of fantasy over fact.
Little wonder, then, that when we elect leaders on the basis of such airy-fairy wishful thinking and catchy slogans – leaders who are ideologically allergic to details, who know only how to burn, not build – that they make such a hash of the complicated, in-the-weeds business of government.
And because these leaders know their support is predicated on tribalism and gut instinct, as opposed to traditional factors like character and probity and a well-argued policy platform, then they feel emboldened to disregard the normal checks and balances of power. Which is why nothing – from corruption to bullying to the endless, bare-faced lying – is a resigning matter any more. We are witnessing the death of shame in public life.
The pandemic has also proved to be a red letter day for conspiracy theorists: those hard-of-thinking people who think the government just wants to control us, man, and are never happier than when talking excitedly of ‘big pharma’ and ‘the military-industrial complex’. Oh, and don’t forget Bill Gates. (Though how a man who can’t even stop my Windows 10 crashing every five minutes has managed to co-ordinate a pan-global health conspiracy, I’m not quite sure.)
Of course, it’s easy for a centrist dad like me to yearn wistfully for a return to ‘normal politics’. But populism – in all its stripes, from Corbyn on the left to Trump on the right – appeals to people for whom business as usual is total anathema. Business as usual, they argue, was what got us into this mess to begin with.
Do they have a point? Yes and no. Barack Obama said a few years ago that this is the greatest period in human history to be alive. And it’s true – most of us have been lucky to live through a time of unprecedented peace and prosperity: 60 years ago, half the world’s population lived in extreme poverty; today, the figure is closer to 10 per cent, while the number of people killed in conflicts has fallen by three-quarters over a similar period. Here’s a graphic...
So why aren’t we happier? Partly it’s because, into this void, newspaper barons have served up a succession of useful bogeymen, designed to make us angry at such devastating crimes against humanity as cycle lanes, fortnightly bin collections, ‘elf and safety’ gone mad and the phoney wars on Christmas and bendy bananas.
They have enthusiastically stoked the culture wars, somehow persuading huge numbers of people that, for example, having more black people in supermarket adverts or women on comedy panel shows means the White Man’s Struggle can now be reasonably compared to slavery. (Though, granted, the often self-parodic and increasingly illiberal ‘wokerati’ don’t always help themselves on that score.)
But that doesn’t mean people’s problems aren’t real. Over the past decade, in particular, Britons have seen their wages stagnate and their jobs become less secure, rents have skyrocketed, the housing ladder has been pulled up out of the reach of millions, and rising inequality has fuelled an explosion in homelessness, child poverty and hunger.
More holistically, the relentless push towards a ‘meritocratic society’ – in which, we are told, a good college education is the only thing standing between you and the sunlit uplands of social mobility – has left millions feeling left out of the party; robbed of dignity, respect and purpose. Because the message it sends to unskilled and semi-skilled workers – many of whom are doing the hardest, most important, but least rewarded jobs – is: sorry, but you’ve really only got yourselves to blame.
In this environment, perhaps it’s no huge surprise that so many people have grown mistrustful of Ivy League brains trusts and ‘so-called experts’.
Even more fundamentally, in an age in which it sometimes feels like identity politics has consumed all other forms of politics, many have simply decided that notions of community, queen and country – values, for want of a better word – are more important even than the financial wellbeing of the nation.
In other words: it’s no longer just the economy, stupid. What many people – especially those with no easy access to the levers of ‘self-improvement’ – yearn for is compelling storytelling: a simple, primal world of good and bad, black and white, them and us. The sort of story that careful, cautious, evidence-based technocracies struggle to deliver. Because that stuff doesn’t fit so easily on the side of a bus.
All these grievances – some real, some imagined, many willingly stoked by reckless lords of misrule like Nigel Farage and Steve Bannon – have fuelled a populist uprising that’s spawned a new generation of strongmen like Brazil’s Bolsonaro, Turkey’s Erdogan, India’s Modi and the three-ring circus of the Trump White House. And the latter’s removal from office to become some sort of heroic, King Across the Water resistance leader will surely only fuel the march of the alt.right – a dark and ominous threat in which comparisons to 1930s Europe no longer seem hysterical or alarmist.
Is there any obvious connective tissue between all these things? I think there is. And so, in addition to a grand, unifying Theory of Everything That’s Gone So Horribly Wrong in recent years, I also have a grand, unifying solution. Which is simply that it’s time we stopped listening to what we want to hear, and started listening to what the evidence tells us we need to hear.
I’m not holding my breath though.
Read Paul Kirkley’s column every month in the Cambridge Independent