‘The British people have had enough of experts!‘
Thus spake Micheal Gove, lately of the Cabinet, now reviled as a ‘traitor’ against his fellow fabricator, our current Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson. N.B. How is it that no mud sticks to Johnson, who was at least as culpable as Gove in deceiving the British public and, given his noted lack of any principle other than self-advancement, might be said to be more so? Neither man has oft been knowingly encumbered by mere fact.
The Demagogue’s Handbook, item four – having found your disgruntled audience, identified their deepest fears and provided a solution – making them feel powerful by attacking the ‘other’ – you need to shore up your position against attack.
In doing so there is one over-riding imperative – don’t let facts get in the way!
Annoying, pesky facts, which might puncture your appeal or your proposed solution. How can you deal with them?
First, question and decry everything that isn’t in your favour and flood the market with misinformation. If the general public cannot find the facts, or, if, when they find them they find some opposite, apparent ‘fact’ and lots of others too, then what are they to believe? Reasoned choices become more difficult.
Second, slander and insult the people who dare to state the facts. Decry their office, turn their very expertise into a badge of ‘elitism’. Hence Gove’s remark and Johnson’s habitual insulting of the London Assembly members who disagreed with him. Not for today’s demagogue the old tobacco companies’ trick of buying your own experts. Why bother? Just rubbish them all. **
Third, threaten your opponents. Bullies bully because it often works. This is most in evidence in the US right now, at Trump rallies, when the candidate encourages the calls to ‘Put her in jail’ ( Hillary Clinton ) and that is the mildest of the calls. Let us not forget his oblique reference to people with guns. This so soon after the death of Jo Cox and in a country in which political assassination is not unknown.
Incidentally, organisations like Factcheck.org and the Pulitzer prize-winning Politifact have singled out Trump as exceptional in deception. In 2015 Politifact named his statements ‘Lie of the Year’ finding that 76% of his statements reviewed by them were ‘Mostly False’, ‘False’ or ‘Pants on Fire’.
So how can he retain support? I think that part of answer to this question lies in the entrenched nature of American politics. People only talk with people who broadly share their opinions, every one else is the enemy, battle lines are drawn. The internet facilitates this, dissenting voices are drowned out. So Trump supporters just assume that Politifact is an enemy and it lies. Their own opinions are what is important to them.
I fear a similar division in the UK; between town and country, for example, or Remains and Leavers. An old friend of mine was quite ready, recently, to defend the proposition that ‘most’ people in a rural county, which voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU, were racist. Yet he couldn’t possibly base that opinion on fact. At best he and his wider circle might know a few hundred people living in that county ( population 1m+ ) and he couldn’t cite any evidence other than the Brexit vote. But that was his belief and he was sticking to it.
Thus any true political debate is impossible. Opinion is what becomes important, not fact. Everyone is indeed entitled to an opinion. But not all opinions are equal – it depends how far they are underpinned by factual evidence. This is troubling for us all, but especially for any ‘other’ who happens to have been identified ( and that could, of course, be any of us ).
There will be a whole crop of politics books out soon, just in time for the conference season, from the memoirs of Nick Clegg and Ken Clarke and a biography of Johnson to a number of Brexit campaign focussed volumes. I wonder if they will address these points?
The two I am most interested in reading are, however, Mark Thompson’s ‘Enough Said; What’s Gone Wrong with the Language of Politics‘ and John Norberg’s ‘Progress; Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future‘. The former has been widely reviewed the latter less so. In it Norberg points out that the U.S.A is still the richest and, despite all its flaws, most democratic of places on the planet, where the rule of law holds sway. America is ‘great’, it doesn’t need to be ‘made’ great again – one of Trump’s slogans is ‘Making America Great Again’. Pessimism feeds populism.
**Note to demagogues, this might not be a useful tactic if seriously injured in a car crash and needing a doctor.
See Micheal Gove’s interview here. Watch out for more from The Demagogue’s Handbook.
If you enjoyed reading this article you might also enjoy Britain is Free! The Demagogue’s Dictionary The Weekend After Democracy Democracy II Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself Picking Over the Brexit Bones