Mindless Populism: Brexit, Trump, Bolsonaro, & Co

How pandering to the ignorant and foolish always ends in disaster.

Back in the Spring of 2016 a slender majority of British voters opted for a vague promise and a barrel-full of infantile lies. An IPSOS/MORI poll of thousands of Brexit voters revealed that they were on average much older, much less educated, and much more ignorant than those who voted to remain in the European Union. Most Brexit voters seemed to imagine that leaving the European Union would mean a return of the British Empire, Spitfires flying over the White Cliffs of Dover, and being able to buy exclusively British-manufactured products in the shops.

In other words, Brexit voters ignored reality in favor of a childish nostalgic fantasy. They were running away and hiding under the bed, unable to face up to real life.

Nearly four years later, the UK is poised to leave the EU on 31st January and crash out entirely on January 1st 2021 when the eleven-month transition period is over. The current UK government, led by a Trump-wannabe called Boris Johnson, has already passed legislation ensuring the worst possible outcome, namely: a “hard” Brexit after which little trading will occur with the EU.

Now, even a very slow-witted and ignorant Brit might begin to wonder if this outcome is really such a good idea. After all, 47% of British trade goes to Europe and if even a mere 10% evaporates then the UK economy will crash into a very deep recession that will take at least a decade to ameliorate. Millions of jobs will be lost.

Brexiteers, however, believe none of these things will happen. They can’t explain why these inevitable things aren’t inevitable; they merely chant “project fear” and “get over it, we won” and equally mindless mouthings. As the British position has been incoherent from the very beginning, and based entirely on lies, it’s not surprising that Brexit will be the biggest disaster for the UK since World War II. But no matter how disastrous the outcome, no one will learn anything at all. When millions of jobs vanish and the UK Pound collapses, Brexiteers will simply blame everything on Europe.

Now that he’s won an overwhelming Parliamentary majority, Britain’s Trump manqué is continuing to follow the usual formula: pander to the ignorant and foolish. His Tory Party slashed spending on UK police forces, so now it’s time to borrow money to add another 20,000 police to the strength. Meanwhile the courts and the prisons are already falling apart; more convictions will simply overwhelm the present system entirely. But as courts and prisons aren’t so potent a populist slogan, no money is being thrown at them.

Johnson is also keen to subsidize catastrophically loss-making companies such as the failed airline Flybee, because once again this is a popular thing to do. Yet it will cost the taxpayer huge sums, all to “save” a handful of jobs. Temporarily. And there are plenty of other populist projects that will require huge borrowing in order to fund. This borrowing will further put pressure on the UK economy and of course represents an enormous burden on future taxpayers.

Meanwhile quiet negotiations are beginning with US companies and members of the Trump Administration to secure a “great and comprehensive” trade deal. The fact the UK has zero leverage means that the UK must give a lot in order to receive a few crumbs. The fact these crumbs will be presented as a “huge win” means the average Brexit voter won’t grasp for an instant the enormous cost. The UK has already sold its most technologically advanced defense company to the USA in return for a modest sum that’s much-needed to bolster the UK’s leaky finances. It’s easy to see that more British assets will go to the USA at knock-down prices and that despite all denials to the contrary the Tory Party will permit US healthcare organizations to take over substantial parts of the British National Health Service.

Johnson will simply dress this up and present his version in simple words so that even this betrayal of perhaps the most sacrosanct British icon will be swallowed by Brexiteers as a great victory.

In short, once we’re committed to stupidity, we are excellent at justifying all manner of subsequent folly. Reality has almost no purchase on the tiny human ape-brain.

Yet Brexit is merely one symptom of the mindless populism that has swept the world. In the USA Trump is the prime example: an infantile moron unsuited even to run a hotdog stall, supported by repellent flabby old white men, many of whom are closet homosexuals who pretend to embrace the evangelical movement that so reliably votes for them regardless of their actual behavior. Trump’s tax cut for billionaires will be paid for by everyone under the age of 40, and likely by their children in turn.

In the Philippines Duterte is praised by the simple-minded for sending paramilitary thugs into the streets where they shoot random victims with total impunity, while extorting bribes and kickbacks from terrified business owners. In the Czech Republic Babiş used the Trump Playbook to great effect, becoming President despite having no qualification for the role whatsoever. In Poland the neofascist PiS rules supreme while in Germany the AfD has put overt fascists into the Bundestag for the first time since the fall of Hitler’s Reich. In Brazil Bolsonaro thinks it is “smart and stable” to burn down the Amazon rainforest, and in Turkey Erdogan has promoted himself to Sultan on the back of religious extremism. In India, the world’s largest supposed democracy, Modi has like Babiş copied Trump slavishly, using religionism and nationalism to secure his own personal ascendency while wrecking the Indian economy and victimizing tens of millions of Muslims.

Wherever we look the picture is bleak. It is apparent that our sophisticated inter-connected societies have vastly outstripped the capacity of the individual citizen to grasp even a miniscule fraction of reality. It’s impossible not to remember the earnest anti-globalization protesters clutching their lattes (all dependent entirely on global trade) while wearing jeans (made in Bangladesh) and wearing Nikes (make in China or VietNam) while organizing via their cellphones (made in Taiwan or in China). It’s probable that not a single protester was even vaguely aware of the contradictions inherent in their empty posturing.

The hard fact is that the very basis of the way we seek to govern ourselves is utterly flawed. Therefore it is not surprising that all around the world people are seeing how governments are unfit for purpose. The trouble is, few have undertaken the necessary analysis to understand why we’ve reached this point. In the USA many people pretend that electing someone else to the White House will change everything. In the UK many people have simply shut their eyes and ears and are hoping desperately that the tide won’t sweep over them and carry them off to oblivion. Elsewhere people are resigned to bleakness and fear and horror.

We’ve reached this stage in civilizational collapse because we’ve failed to adapt our approaches to governance to keep up with the reality of the world we live in.

In other words: democracy is killing us.

Most people think democracy is a “good” system because, well, that’s what they’ve been told. And hey, it’s probably better than Kings, right? But the reality is that representative democracy is an awful system. It gave us World War II, the VietNam war, Baby Bush, Trump, a succession of inept European governments, Putin, Erdogan, and so many other avoidable failures. Today its failures are even more catastrophic than before because our modern technologies amplify our follies and increase the velocity of the resultant harms. Democracies have no way to cope with denuding and poisoning the oceans, heating the planet, and creating a never-ending avalanche of semi-toxic waste.

It’s striking that in nearly every aspect of modern life we understand that we require a demonstration of competence before being permitted a specific privilege. We can’t just jump into a car and declare that we’re the “smartest and stablest” and “greatest genius” drivers the world has ever seen; we have to pass a driving test. Who’d wish to consult a dentist who’s had no training and whose perpetual blunders are passed off as “great” victories? Which one of us would feel comfortable riding in an airplane piloted by the person who was able to convince a majority of other passengers that they’ll be a “great” pilot despite knowing nothing whatsoever about flying?

Yet when it comes to standing for election, or voting for candidates, we expect nothing at all.

And that’s why we get Brexit and Trump and all the other mindless absurdities of today.

Of course we can’t reform democracy. People hate having things taken away from them, and today everyone imagines they have a “right” to vote and a “right” to stand for election. We’ll have to pass through decades and perhaps centuries of horror until everything is in ruins. But then, just perhaps, a few people may begin to consider how best to rebuild. Let’s hope they are wise enough not to repeat our blind mistake but instead recognize that complex problems require those intelligent enough to devise appropriate solutions, not mindless blustering incompetents whose only skill is their ability to gull those who are even more mindless and ignorant than they are themselves.

If they begin to think along these lines then there is some hope for the distant future. Sadly, there’s no hope for the immediate future, and bleak times lie just ahead.

Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.

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