I’ve always resisted simple answers to historical questions, and indeed specifically warned readers against them in my books. History is complicated, muddled. Imperialism – for example – was not only a matter of capitalist exploitation, or racist arrogance, or misplaced humanitarianism; or even explicable in terms of motives like these. We need to broaden, sophisticate and contextualise our analysis of it, and of other great historical movements too. The effect of this may be to confuse our picture of all of them, making them more difficult to grasp, therefore; but – I’m sorry – that’s just how history is. Generalisation is the enemy of a true understanding of what has gone on around us in the past, and, by that same token, of what is going on around us today.
Which is why I’ve been particularly disturbed by the dramatic events that have taken place in the world, and especially in Britain and the USA, over the past five years; not only by the events themselves, shocking as they have been – especially the storming of the American Capitol on Wednesday – but also by the inference I’m beginning to draw from them: that there is a simple and common explanation for them all. I’m by no means the first person, of course, to spot the similarities between Trumpism and Brexit, the connexion being made all the more plain by certain tangible connexions: Rupert Murdoch in particular, spreading his venom on both sides of the Atlantic; Brexiters like Farage, Johnson, Rees-Mogg and Gove cosying up to Trump; and the influence of Right-wing propagandists and their new election-distorting technologies on elections in both countries. Just as the Republican Party in the USA has fallen to the Trumpists, so has Britain’s Tory Party now become effectively UKIP rediviva; both parties having abandoned any pretence of being ‘conservative’ in the old, literal meaning of the word, but instead falling to the radical reactionary (and of course you can be both) revolutionism of their new leaders. Commonalty, in view of the differences between our two nations, implies that there’s something big and simple behind both of them; which is the conclusion I’m coming to now.
Just look at the two ‘movements’ (if we can call them that). Each can be divided into ‘Chiefs’ and ‘Indians’. (Yes, I know ‘Indians’ is wrong, but you know what I mean, and I don’t imagine that, in this context, Native Americans are likely to take umbrage.) In both cases the ‘Indians’, who included nearly all those who stormed the Capitol and most of those who voted for Brexit, were lower ‘class’, ill-educated, ‘stupid’ if you like (it has to be said), and with genuine material and emotional grievances, albeit in both cases blamed on the wrong people and institutions, and attracting them to the wrong allies. They were also – especially in America’s case – distrustful of ‘government’, or the ‘elite’ – the ones who called them ‘stupid’ – for the same reasons, and of the ‘liberal media’; de-anchoring them from the usual sources of public information, and making them particularly vulnerable to ‘conspiracy theories’ that seemed to them to make more sense. That’s the ‘mob’.
Mobs can be harnessed to virtually any cause. (I could give you a dozen historical examples, beginning with the ‘jingo’ crowds that cheered on a British imperial war at the turn of the 20th century.) Which one stirs them into action depends partly on the circumstances of the time, but also on the skills and motivations of the ‘Chiefs’: that is, the relatively more educated, less stupid but also less honest and ethical part of society. Who these are depends on local conditions; in America’s case it was a great – or at least greatly-inflated – capitalist, which was apt for the leading commercial nation in the world; in Britain’s case the Chiefs wore Eton collars, which seems apposite there too. Both were notorious for their disregard for what for most people passed as ‘truth’ – this was hardly contested – and for their impatience with constitutional norms: Boris by illegally proroguing his Legislative branch, Donald’s people by trashing theirs. And – most important of all – both were supported (at least up to Wednesday) by the money power: other capitalists, who helped finance both. Their motives are not too hard to guess at. America’s capitalists appreciated Trump’s hand-outs; Britain’s (who included the powerful press ‘barons’) were anxious to prevent the EU getting its hands on their tax havens. Both of them put a principled gloss on it, usually anti-socialism (Biden a ‘socialist’?!); but greed was the bottom line.
So there we have it. A powerful and self-seeking elite of free-market anti-interventionist capitalists marshalling a simple-minded mob to demonstrate against their (the mob’s) own best interests, by playing to resentments that were understandable, but in no way the fault of the people and institutions their leaders blamed. That’s the ‘simple’ explanation, at one level. (It must have struck others, too.) The next level will require an analysis of what was really fuelling the mob’s resentments. If we can put the blame on the inevitable self-destructive end of late-stage capitalism it would make the explanation even tidier. But that will be too ‘Marxist’ for some; and maybe too simplistic for the historian who up to now has always warned his readers against this sort of thing.
Incidentally: proofs of my next book – Britain Before Brexit – will start arriving during this coming week, which means that I may be too busy for a while checking and indexing to be able to blog at length. The publication date is now set for 12 August, which seems to me to be unnecessarily late. I’d intended it to bear on the Brexit debate, which could be over by then; though I can see that going on and on. Ah well; I’m grateful to Bloomsbury for being willing to publish a book of old essays at all.