Trump and Brexit: counter-revolution

by George Hatjoullis

Revolutions invariably bring about counter-revolutions. The outcome depends upon which prevails. Trump and Brexit can be seen as a counter-revolution. It is certainly true that widening income inequality is an important contributing factor. The EU, and the ‘American Dream’ may well have been beneficial but if the benefits are not ‘fairly’ distributed it is to be expected that the losers will react. However, income inequality cannot explain the overwhelming support for Trump and Brexit from my generation, the over 60s. In the words of Harold Macmillan, we have never had it so good. Something deeper and more fundamental is involved here.

The UK  and the US have changed dramatically in the last 60 odd years. Immigration was an issue throughout this period. This is not new. The EU removed the illusion of control and this may have unsettled some in the UK further. In the US immigration has continued apace, legal and illegal. However, it may not be simply numbers that has been the unsettling element but permitted attitudes. Racially offensive attitudes were widely tolerated in the 1950s and 1960s. They are absolutely not tolerated today. The sudden jump in explicit racial intolerance following the referendum result suggests that many associated the EU with this ‘political correctness’ and now feel free to display attitudes quite common in the 1950s and 1960s (and indeed 1970s). For some ‘Taking the country back’ seems to mean taking back the right to be explicitly racially offensive. Trump and his supporters have displayed a similar desire.

The much derided ‘political correctness’ does not pertain solely to race or culture or even religion. It goes much deeper. The role of women in society has changed over this period and this has affected the prevailing relationship between men and women and the permitted attitudes towards women. The pace of change has been quite unsettling for the older generation, possibly even for some older women. Some men have managed to adjust better than others but overall there is a grumbling discomfort. The willingness of white women to vote for Trump has been nothing short of astonishing.

Race and gender have been difficult adjustments for my generation but what may have proved the last straw is the change in attitudes to sexuality. Homosexuality has, finally, not only been legalised but recognised as a natural state. Men kiss men and women kiss women, in the street. For the young this is unremarkable. Same sex marriage is now normal and same-sex couples bring up children. For much of my generation this is jarring. Now we also have this huge debate on transgender which is upsetting even the feminist movement.

All these changes are, in my opinion, for the better. The 1950s and 1960s were repressed and unhealthy. Women and immigrants were second class citizens and homosexuality was often conflated with pedophilia. Getting pregnant before marriage was the worst sin for a girl and wanting to keep a child could get the girl committed to a mental institute. These were not enlightened years and thankfully they have gone…well almost gone.

The direction and ultimate goal of the revolution is unquestionably good. The speed however has left many trailing unhappily in its wake. The Trump and the EU referendum gave these people a chance to strike back. And they did, blaming the EU and the US establishment for ‘political correctness’. If you speak to over 60s Leave voters (and Trump supporters of any age) you will discern attitudes to race, gender, sexuality, law (death penalty), recreational drugs (usually whilst having a fag and a pint) that are not ‘politically correct’. The volume has also gone up since the referendum. They feel emboldened and empowered.

It is easy to be contemptuous and the attitudes are deserving of contempt. But do not lose sight of the speed at which things have changed. It has all happened in one lifetime; mine, and I am still alive. This is very fast in the great scheme of things. If things change too quickly reaction is to be expected and sometimes the reactionaries succeed in halting, and even reversing, change. Trump and Brexit are just that; reactions to the pace of change.