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Populism, Complex Emotions and President-Elect Trump

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Guest opulisost by Dr. Gavin Sullivan, Centre for Research in Psychology, Behaviour & Achievement

Many commentators on Donald Trump’s surprise win for the Republicans have focused on similarities between the outcome in the 2016 United States election and Brexit. Both Nigel Farage and Donald Trump defied the polls and political experts who predicted victories, respectively, for the Remain campaign and Hilary Clinton. Populist anger about Westminster and Europe was touted as the reason why UK voters in the EU Referendum turned out in higher numbers than the 2015 General Election to vote to leave the EU. Similarly in the US, anger amongst white men in particular about the political elites who had failed them was identified as the basis for Trump’s shocking victory.

Differences between Brexit and the election of Donald Trump

But beyond these similarities there are important differences. In the UK, people tend to follow their previous political parties and this appears to be based on identification with a given political party and, in some cases, on family and class-based traditions. The willingness of voters to express their dissatisfaction with the European Union in European elections contrasts with a more conservative approach to political choices in general elections. Ford and Goodwin (2014) argued that this dual approach to voting in national and European elections explains the United Kingdom Independence Party’s (UKIP) success in the later and failure in the former. The recent developments in the United States, however, are far more profound because they resemble a pattern of populist voting in the UK which is reserved solely for EU elections and the recent referendum. This style of voting in a general election in the US is unprecedented and appears to be an abandonment of previous voting allegiances in support of a candidate who has positioned himself, like Nigel Farage, as an alternative to established political elites.

The complex emotions and identity considerations of populism

It is not wrong to emphasise the importance of a growing anger, resentment and dissastifaction with politicians and their perceived inability to control immigration and address growing societal inequalities. While anger is a strong predictor that people will engage in collective political actions such as voting or protesting, it is important that social psychologists do not make the same mistakes as British and American pollsters. There are clearly many more emotions in play than anger (as analysis of US pre-election tweets makes abundantly clear). In our research on the 2015 election, UKIP voters indicated that the felt as much hope as they did fear or anger about the likely election victor. Fast forward to before the EU referendum and many of the 19 participants in our interview study revealed their potential delight at what then appeared to be the unlikely prospect of leaving the EU.

The truly momentous change in american politics is that the Brexit result seems to have inspired people to create new political emotions such as “hopeful nihilism”. The increasingly carnivalistic and ugly nature of both the Brexit and US election political campaigns has also created new forms of flexible and complex hybrid emotional identity politics. This is not quite the same as the emotional “choppiness” that researching twitter used to predict Hilary Clinton’s defeat. If the next election in the UK is mostly a referendum on the terms of Brexit then we might expect the emotions underpinning the division between Leave and Remain to be reproduced. But the US election result has shown that political commitments and identities are unlikely to hold if people feel that their concerns are not being addressed. There are quite valid concerns that frustration with traditional politics may result in voters in France, for instance, siding with politicians who are prepared to say what has previously been unspeakable and to make promises that appeal strongly and predominantly to disaffected white voters with limited solidarity for migrants, refugees and “others”.

This may very well be their downfall because the kind of gleeful support for a candidate who makes divisive and inflammatory statements may have an authenticity that some people without faith in politics can relate to, but if their economic circumstance and communities decline further the backlash may be against those populist leaders. In this regard, our three wave study of English voters before the election, one month and then six months after the outcome found when focusing on times 2 and 3 in the lead-up to the referendum that solidarity with English people and an English identity (from a choice of British, English or English and British) were statistically significant in predicting a vote to Leave. British identity and solidarity with Europeans were statistically significant in predicting a vote to Remain. This may not be surprising to many, but measures of class (called the subjective social status scale), left or right political affiliation, identification with the political party voted for, and trust in government were not significant predictors of intended referendum voting. Our results suggest that identity and solidarity were more important factors which might reflect a kind of inequality of wellbeing which has been found to be higher in areas (i.e., local authorities) that had higher percentages of leave votes.

It is, of course, important not to read too much into broad aggregate analyses of why areas rather than individuals voted to Leave or Remain in the EU. The reasons people voted to Leave the EU reflect the areas they live in, their own experiences and life prospects as well their engagement with widely circulating discourses such as blaming the EU for a wide range of everyday problems. Ultimately, one problem for Remain voters was that too many of the undecided voters became sick of politicians and many experts trying to give reasons for staying in the EU based on economic arguments, figures, policies and abstract cosmopolitan ideals. An even more unpalatable truth is that the English leave voters in our sample demonstrated a trend to have less solidarity also with their English compatriots (i.e., the difference approached statistical significance). This is not a strong sign that people were really committed to “looking after our own first” before others such as refugees from Syria.

Feelings of disappointment in those voters on the losing side can be profound, fuelling a sense that the world has changed in some fundamental, irreversible sense. A calm response from a leader such as Barack Obama to note that “the sun will come up tomorrow” clearly responds to the sense of a world transformed for the worse. The swiftly deployed rhetoric of healing is clearly designed to undermine some of the more emotional divisions that talk of clear winners and losers is likely to generate. But it is not reasonable to allow talk of healing to become a norm which means that the relevant “losers” can no longer protest or vehemently demand that their fears about a new regime will not be realised. Getting personally angry with figures like Farage or Trump also distracts from the need to engage with the people who felt that these leaders spoke to them in ways that others would not. When we spoke with UKIP voters, many expressed anger and frustration about the Tories, Labour, and Europe but also about Farage himself and they were also pleased to have been listened to and to have had the opportunity to express sentiments that they recognized could be seen as racist, prejudiced, bitter and occasionally extreme.  These are the very people that one day would need to be swayed back to more progressive political projects and to be encouraged to be as critical of populists as they are of career politicians.

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Coventry University