Some among us follow US politics closely. Some of us are avid readers of American history. But unlike those British pundits who hold a Masters in the subject (hello Owen Jones), we don’t claim the expertise to comment on American events, or believe we have original or helpful opinions to share on them. For this reason, one of the few rules we’ve stuck to since launching this site in 2015 is that we don’t do America.
But that’s not a maxim many British commentators live by (regardless of their postgraduate qualifications) and Lion & Unicorn does do British commentators. Hence this post, which is not a response to this week’s events in Washington, but a response to the response – British responses specifically.
The sight of a mob storming the United States Capitol, carrying the Confederate flag into the heart of American democracy, was, plainly put, scary. So too reports of improvised bombs, vandalism and looting. Above all, there was the shock – albeit devoid of surprise – that, to quote Republican Representative Liz Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick: ‘There’s no question the president formed the mob, the president incited the mob, the president addressed the mob. He lit the flame.’
Struggle as we might to describe actually-existing US democracy as a ‘shining city on a hill’, the myth of America has been so successfully exported that the death throes of Donald Trump’s presidency are nonetheless unnerving. British observers are right to talk of a wannabe coup, however incompetent and vague its execution. They are correct in laying the blame at Trump’s door, in regarding him as malign and dangerous, and in hoping that he will be swiftly impeached, or somehow removed under the 25th Amendment to the US Constitution. And there is truth in the view that all of this was predictable: if the writing wasn’t on the wall, it had certainly been on Twitter.
Even before the rioting, this week boded ill for the future. The attempt by some high-profile Republican ‘lawmakers’ to delay the certification of last November’s election may have been a cynical attempt to woo Trump’s base ahead of the next Republican presidential primaries, but it fed a dangerous stab-in-the-back myth. Who knows how Trump’s lie that the election was ‘stolen’ will further poison America in the years to come, or at what cost to the rest of the world?
Who indeed? We don’t, and nor any other British onlookers. But many have been quick to draw lessons for politics at home, or simply to turn America’s turmoil into a proxy skirmish in their own cherished political wars.
The gotchas were obvious and fast in coming. Photographs of Theresa May and Boris Johnson meeting the president in their official capacity as prime minister were tweeted as evidence of personal enthusiasm for Trump himself. Stopwatches were set to see how slow cabinet members would be to repudiate him, with Priti Patel deemed ‘a Trump fellow-traveller’ for stopping short of direct condemnation in an interview on Sky News. (She later told BBC Breakfast that ‘His comments directly led to the violence and so far he’s failed to condemn that violence, and that is completely wrong.’)
There were also reminders of how some senior Tories had crossed the line from constructive to chummy, with many sharing that photograph of then backbench MP Michael Gove making like Nigel Farage and posing thumbs-up with President-elect Trump in January 2017 when interviewing him for The Times.
Others brought up past comments by Johnson. ‘If Trump can fix North Korea and the Iran nuclear deal then I don’t see why he’s any less of a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize than Barack Obama,’ said the then foreign secretary while on a trip to the US, seeking to convince the administration not to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal. Or there was his private comment ‘I am increasingly admiring of Donald Trump’, a not obviously serious remark made in reference to the president’s negotiating style. Such statements, it is claimed, are proof of sycophancy, if not common cause, on Johnson’s part. The government was on the wrong side of history.
Which rather implied that there must be a right side of history. And where there’s a right side, there’s one person you can be sure of finding there. ‘Remember when people slated my Dad for leading protests against this fascist instead of attending a state banquet with him?’ tweeted Tommy Corbyn. ‘Funny that.’ Laura Alvarez put it more simply: ‘As always #CorbynWasRight’. Within hours of the rioting in Washington, that hashtag was trending on Twitter.
Apart from the delightful symmetry of the Great Leader’s children and his third wife acting as his cheerleaders, the state banquet for Trump in 2019 was not quite so simple a symbol. Jeremy Corbyn was invited, as a matter of form, and – equally a matter of form – he declined, explaining that he wanted to spend more time with his protestors. He did request a meeting with the president, but this was rejected, with Trump describing him as ‘somewhat of a negative force’.
At the time Corbyn’s critics questioned why he had snubbed the American president but not Xi Jinping of China, during whose 2015 state visit Corbyn did attend the banquet. The fact that Corbyn had used a meeting with President Xi to raise human rights abuses in China went unmentioned by his detractors, of course. Much as those lauding his refusal to meet Trump now fail to see the irony in venerating a politician who invited members of the IRA to Westminster just weeks after the Provos’ attempt to murder the prime minister, and who accepted £20,000 for his appearances on the Iranian state television network Press TV.
More seriously, Corbynites aren’t really in a position to take the moral high ground against the Washington rioters. When Labour was defeated in the 2017 general election, the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, lost no time in describing Theresa May’s government as ‘illegitimate’ and calling for a million people ‘to get out on the streets’. Why? Well, because ‘We need people doing everything they can to ensure the election comes as early as possible.’
Across the political spectrum in Britain, there’s a failure to appreciate that foreign policy often involves shaking dirty hands. But worse than that is a sense that we should choose teams. Perhaps the phenomenon is seen in other countries too, but British politicians and commentators seem oddly keen to lionise or demonise foreign regimes and leaders, whether it be Trump, Hugo Chavez or Emmanuel Macron. And with that goes the assumption – an assumption with more than a whiff of Empire about it – that we understand the world and are in a strong position to judge.
The reality that foreign affairs are a murky, mucky, compromised business, in which the actors aren’t playing to British scripts, is easily forgotten.
In this instance, the waters are muddied further by the other great political shock of 2016: the result of the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union.
For some Remainers, the mob on Capitol Hill was a failed attempt to emulate the Brexiteers. ‘What is the success of the ERG/Tufton St agenda but a coup by another name?’ wondered A.C. Grayling. Meanwhile certain Leavers painted liberal outrage at Trump’s efforts to overturn a democratic election as simple hypocrisy. Paul Embery tweeted: ‘if you supported efforts to block the implementation of a democratic referendum in which 33.5m voted, you might want to show a little humility before screaming “Coup!”’. And Andrew Davies, former leader of the Welsh Tories, took Keir Starmer to task with: ‘I’m not sure you’re in the strongest position right now given you campaigned to overturn democracy and the will of the British people.’
The sense that democracy is in the eye of the beholder long predates the referendum, but the Brexit divide has heightened it, with both sides claiming the mantle of the true democrats. Lion & Unicorn has written before that ‘the referendum is a fixed point in British political history’. In our view, Brexiteers were right to insist the Leave vote be enacted. We regarded the Remainer hope that Brexit might be reversed through a second #PeoplesVote as dangerous, warning in 2018 that the ‘loss of trust in politics following No Brexit would dwarf the anger that followed the Iraq War or the expenses scandal’.
But however wrongheaded, the campaign for a second referendum was peaceful, lawful and democratic. Even more so, efforts in the courts and at Westminster to ensure Britain’s withdrawal from the EU was subject to parliamentary scrutiny. Leavers now comparing Trump’s demagoguery to MPs’ refusal to rubberstamp a Jacob Rees-Mogg Brexit might reflect on their own side’s ease with headlines such as ‘Enemies of the people’ (Daily Mail, 4 November 2016) and ‘Crush the saboteurs’ (Daily Mail, 19 April 2017), which came long before the launch of People’s Vote in April 2018.
Not that pro-Europeans haven’t also poisoned the well. ‘Post-truth’ explanations for the referendum result – the view that ‘the lies to the Right have it’, as we wrote in 2016 – have popularised the notion that a class of poorly educated ‘left behind’ voters were duped by ‘a toxic brew of “fake news” on social media, tabloid scare stories about immigration, and impossible pledges from power-hungry politicians’. In place of ‘losers’ consent’, the referendum result was treated with losers’ disdain.
Worse still, serious voices in the liberal media have encouraged the notion that British democracy has been ‘hacked’. Carole Cadwalladr’s investigation into the role played in the referendum by Cambridge Analytica and Facebook raised legitimate concerns about the acquisition and abuse of personal information. But talk of a ‘data-industrial complex’ in which democracy is for sale goes beyond the known facts. As she admits: ‘We still know very little about what the company actually did with the data.’ There is ‘no clear picture what Cambridge Analytica did for Trump. Or what it did in any of the dozens of elections worldwide it claimed to have worked on’. The question that’s largely gone unasked: Was it only Leave voters who lacked the ‘agency’ to resist social media brainwashing?
Cambridge Analytica’s links to both the Trump campaign and the Farage-led Leave.EU lent digital respectability to an already popular fear that Britain and America were in the grip of a joint project. It was Trump, in August 2016, who tweeted ‘They will soon be calling me MR. BREXIT!’ and Trump who said of Boris Johnson ‘They call him Britain Trump’, and despite otherwise believing him to be a narcissist and a liar, on this, at least, pro-European liberals were happy to take the Donald at his word.
In doing so they’ve joined their opponents in confusing Britain with America. Just as Farage, Rees-Mogg and others in the Leave camp cleaved to Trump, seeing Brexit as a vote for deregulated Atlanticism, Remainers saw it all as renascent imperialism. Neither appreciated the strong vein of anti-Americanism in the British electorate that disliked both Barack Obama’s intervention in the referendum and Trump’s bombast. Nor did they recognise that for much of the country the desire was not to be Global Britain, or a Great Power ‘punching above our weight’, but simply to be left alone to put our own affairs in order.
If we are to draw any lessons from this week’s events in Washington, it won’t be by proclaiming Corbyn’s purity, nor by denouncing British politicians as Trumpian collaborators.
What we saw on Capitol Hill was not a coup in any conventional form. It bore only superficial resemblance to the events of 23 February 1981, when two hundred Civil Guard officers, armed with submachine guns, entered Spain’s Congress of Deputies to interrupt a vote to elect the prime minister. That was an organised attempt to seize control of the levers of power. This was a flash mob in search of selfies.
Which is not intended to belittle the episode. Far from it. Trump’s protestors staged an extremely effective social media event. And in so doing, they were asserting the importance of a new set of levers. Coups in the last century tended to start with the capture of a radio or TV station, but why bother with traditional media, when the alternative is so much more effective? In this context, the expulsion of Trump from Twitter and Facebook may be the most significant response to Wednesday’s events.
When Bowie wrote ‘A little piece of you / The little peace in me / Will die (This is not a miracle) / For this is not America’ it was 1984, the height of the Cold War, and he was imagining a world uninspired by American ideals of liberty, democracy and the rule of law.
On Wednesday we saw a glimpse of that world. The mob failed to forestall the succession of Joe Biden, but it did interrupt the democratic process, albeit briefly. The whole affair was an example of the continuing struggle of western representative democracy to deal with the new demand for participation unleashed by the internet and social media. And that’s a conflict felt in Britain as much as it is in America.