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The Power of Russian Troll Factory Memes

For far too long the chattering classes (political pundits, journalists, academics) blathered on and on about how Brexit was variously a protest against globalization, a protest against the elites (whoever they’re supposed to be, as they’re always conveniently undefined) and all manner of other clever ideas.

The problem was that none of these chatterers bothered to talk to people who supported Brexit.

I did. I’ve talked to a lot of Brexiteers and I’ve read a lot of the things they post online.

Here’s what we see when we look at what really motivates Brexiteers:

They cling to simple-minded sound-bites such as “taking back control.” When you ask any Brexiteer what this means, they have no idea. What can it mean in a globalized world in which no country, not even one as powerful as the USA, can make its own rules and expect others to obey? If the UK can’t get what it wants as part of the West’s largest trading bloc (500 million people) how can it expect to get what it wants as a small, isolated, 7th-ranking economy with its credibility in tatters? No idea. Just keep chanting “Brexit Means Brexit!”

Here are some classic reasons people voted for Brexit:

From a Welshman in Cardiff: “I voted for Brexit because I’m tired of the English coming to Wales and buying holiday homes here.”

From a woman in Birmingham: “We’ve got too many coloreds here.”

From a man in a seaside town: “It’s all them languages and all that foreign muck they eat.”

From a woman in a small town in the north of England: “We used to be great, we ruled the world. It’s about time we got it all back again.”

In other words, Brexit is a nostalgic fantasy rather than a coherent reality-based decision. Brexit-promoting politicians, after being astonished that so many people were actually stupid enough to vote for their lies, scrambled to pretend Brexit was really about freeing the UK from the shackles of Brussels so it could become a great trading nation once again.

The problem with this fairy-tale, of course, was that the EU made a lot of UK trade possible. Furthermore, if the EU prevents trade, how is it that Germany at the heart of the EU is one of the great exporting nations of the world?

Theresa May, the UK’s hapless and dull-witted former Prime Minister, took a team of business people and bureaucrats to India shortly after becoming PM in order to capitalize on the UK’s relationship with its largest former colony. The result: zero.

The same has been true of every other sotto voce attempt at finding magical new trade agreements. Today only Boris Johnson continues to pretend that a wonderful world of new trade opportunities awaits, mysteriously overlooked by every former British government and every British business over the last fifty years.

In the real world of course, all credible analysis shows the UK economy post-Brexit nose-diving into a deep recession, acute shortages of basic goods, hundreds of thousands of jobs being lost, and nothing with which to replace them. The joke that Trump will wave a magic wand and create a US-UK trade deal isn’t even credible among the Brexiteers who’ve commandeered Ten Downing Street, though ordinary Brexiteers in the street will believe whatever they’re told — which is, of course, what led the UK into this mess in the first place.

Brexiteers can be counted on to hark back to wonderfully mad readings of history that glamorize the UK’s past. They endlessly babble on about Magna Carta and how Britain won World War II all on its own. They believe the EU enslaves the UK and that the British military would be subsumed into a European army run by Angela Merkel. They don’t really understand much about trade or jobs but they don’t like people speaking foreign languages. Brexiteers would very much like to pretend the entire world comprises their damp little island and nothing more.

Brexiteers live in the same kind of fantasy-land that Trump supporters live in. It’s a land full of invented nonsense, false facts, a grotesque misreading of history, and more than anything else an overwhelming desire to retreat into a nostalgic past that in reality never existed. Brexiteers, just like Trump supporters, are on average older and less educated and less healthy and far less informed than those who voted to remain in the EU.

This makes them perfect dupes for Russian troll factory memes. Nearly every Brexiteer will repeat mindlessly the notion that voting for Brexit is the same as a sports team winning a competition. The winner is the winner, you don’t replay the match because you didn’t like the result.

The facts that (a) Brexit is of far greater consequence than any trivial sports event, and (b) every single Brexit claim was a lie, so the referendum was invalid, are beyond the grasp of Brexiteers. It’s just easier to shout “lose gracefully!” than to attempt to think about any of the real issues.

The capacity of Brexiteers for coping with reality is limited, which is why the appeal of simple-minded nonsense is so strong. The nonsense is presented in simple words, easy-to-remember memes (many of which originated in Russian troll factories), and is always emotional rather than intellectual.

In a complex inter-connected world, we cannot expect the less intellectually adequate to deal with issues beyond their grasp. It is no different from taking a Brexiteer off the street and asking them to derive the equations for frame-dragging in General Relativity or show how the Dirac equation is so central to quantum field theory. Our pretense that everyone is equal and everyone should have a say is what has led the world to Brexit, Trump, Bolsonaro, Babic, Orban, and all the other blustering lying buffoons who are destroying our civilization.

There’s no way to prevent the horrors to come. We have fetishized representative democracy to the point where almost everyone imagines it to be a suitable form of governance despite all evidence to the contrary. Just as everyone believed without question in the divine right of kings for thousand of years, so we believe in a fairy-tale too. Furthermore, as we humans fear loss far more than we value gain, there’s no way to tell hundreds of millions of people that they need to demonstrate minimum competence before being granted the right to vote. Although we require people to pass tests for nearly every right these days it’s impossible to imagine any scenario in which we apply this basic principle to voting.

So we will watch as our civilization tears itself apart. We will watch as civil wars and nation-nation wars become once again the norm. We, our children, and perhaps our grand-children too, will endure horrors that were entirely unnecessary. Hundreds of millions of lives will be blighted forever.

But perhaps, just perhaps, after all the pain and slaughter and mindless noise and violence that is to come, a few intelligent people will stand amid the ruin and say to themselves, “let’s not do that again.”

Those people will need better ideas than one person one vote, just as the thirteen colonies of North America needed a better idea than kings and queens. Perhaps, just perhaps, out of the ruin to come a far more adequate approach to governance will emerge: an approach that explicitly recognizes our many cognitive and behavioral limitations as a species and creates structures to mitigate them.

We would not recognize such a world, but it surely couldn’t be any more incompetent and disastrous than the one we’ve fashioned for ourselves today through our blind unquestioning belief in an approach to governance that over and over again has shown itself to be utterly unfit for purpose.

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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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