There's an idiocy about current political exchange that crowds out rational thinking

Written by Mandy Rhodes on 4 November 2018 in Comment

In Scotland, we have seen how binary debate has become, where any argument can be reconfigured into how you voted in the independence referendum

Image credit: David Anderson

There is an idiocy about current political exchange that allows core issues to be diverted into a ‘them and us’ which is then overlaid by an intellectual coarseness that crowds out rational thinking and frustrates real scrutiny.

And with social media as the clearinghouse for hateful diatribe and odious opinion, we now have an echo chamber where bigotry feeds off falsity, mistruth and sheer fiction, polarising debate as it leaks its poison into the mainstream and emboldens the fringes.

At the extreme is the President of the United States. Trump, and his late-night Twitter account, acts as a lightning rod for legitimising abhorrent views that would normally be kept behind closed, if not padded, doors.

And unforgivably, in a week where two African-Americans were gunned down in Kentucky, when pipe bombs were sent to prominent liberals, and 11 members of a Pittsburgh synagogue were slaughtered as they worshipped, Trump simply used the human tragedy as his rally-call ahead of the mid-term elections.

Never mind the facts about immigration or that Trump was asked to stay away from the scene of the Jewish massacre but barged in anyway, attracting scores of protesters and allowing a place of mourning to degenerate into a clambake.

The man is a boor. A divider. He provokes hate. He demands attention. And he lies.

Trump doesn’t want to govern all Americans, how could he, he hates so many; the liberals, the immigrants, the feminists, the disabled, the so-called illegals. He mocks, he panders, and he plays to the lowest common denominator.

And yet, he is the elected president and this week democracy will likely cement his position even further.

His views are shared by many – he endorses a certain perception of the world – and he represents something that we should all fear – the growth of debate grounded in division and a bombast that fetes ignorance and ignores truth.

You only need to look at his language about the so-called migrant caravan – a convoy of asylum seekers including many women and children heading towards Mexico or the US border from Honduras. “This is an invasion of our Country and our Military is waiting for you!”

Trump’s words are a chilling echo of Robert Bowers who complained about immigrant ‘invaders’ before turning his guns on the people inside the synagogue. Trump didn’t make Bowers pull the trigger, he didn’t create the ‘haters’, but tone matters, truth matters, and he is an enabler of hate and an espouser of lies.

But there is no comfort in looking at Trump’s divided America disdainfully or sneering at the duplicity of a campaign that allowed for the election of a far-right, racist, misogynistic, homophobe, dubbed ‘the Thing’, as president of Brazil. We can’t believe it couldn’t happen here, when to an extent, it already has.

In Scotland, we have seen how binary debate has become, where any argument can be reconfigured into how you voted in the independence referendum and where any manner of misdemeanours or downright deceits can be excused away by which side you are on.

And in Brexit, we had a mendacious Leave campaign that revealed, if we didn’t already know, how far reasoned policy debate had shrunk. And how lies can win.

And if all ‘haters’ need is to believe that something is true, even when it isn’t, then all politicians have to do to attract popular support is to invite people to imagine what could be true – and then allow that falsehood to feast on their fears.

It’s not just Trump and his inflammatory tweeting or even Sajid Javid, the UK Home Secretary, and the son of an immigrant at that, in highlighting the ethnicity of child abusers. It’s not even the PM asserting that austerity is over, when quite clearly it is not.

When Michelle Ballantyne, the Scottish Conservative MSP, said it wasn’t fair that people on benefits could have as many children as they liked when hard-working people could not, she fostered that same divisiveness.

Britain isn’t awash with scores of large feckless families who have planned their kids around a lucrative benefit tally. In fact, most people in receipt of tax credits are working – they’re just still poor. The number of families with more than two children is actually falling and crucially, shit happens: people die, get divorced, they are ill, lose their job, and often these things happen after they have had their children.

Ballantyne’s argument was predicated on the falsity that you have your children, you claim benefits and nothing in life ever changes. It’s wrong and it’s ‘Trumpolitics’.

And that’s why it was right to attack what she said. She may have been clumsy, but, she is an elected politician, a spokesperson on welfare. She should know better and she has a responsibility to get things right.

But worse, she fed into a populism that also means the real debate about the obscenity of a government policy, penalising a child because of the order it was born in, was lost. The continuation of the two-child cap depends on the promotion of a myth. And even the ‘rape clause’ is a deflection from where the real debate should be.

And similarly, last week, an SNP blogger was suspended from the party for expressing what others described as anti-Semitic views in a piece in which he, quite legitimately given his political affiliations, explored the role of the Labour Party and more specifically the GMB in the equal-pay debacle engulfing Glasgow City Council.

To me, what he said wasn’t anti-Semitic, but it takes a special kind of fool to throw in a reference to Hitler in the same article where you are discussing a prominent trade unionist, Rhea Wolfson, who also happens to be Jewish. And in the subsequent row his point was lost.

There is a responsibility on all of us to think about language but also, not be so blinded by partisan politics that our worldview becomes so narrow that we ignore context.

Hours after the synagogue massacre, Trump was the headline act at a Republican rally in Illinois – why would a mass shooting change his plans for the day –  where he indicated, given the circumstances, he wouldn’t use his usual hard-hitting lines.

“If you don’t mind, I’m going to tone it down, just a little bit,” he said. “Is that OK?”

As one, the crowd shouted back: “No.”

And my heart sank just a little bit further.

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