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10th November 2016

The US Election result exposes our ignorance

The “surprised” reaction to President-elect Donald Trump’s victory says a great deal about the enclaves of opinion that many students reside in

It seems that many people woke up on Wednesday with the foggy headache and the sickly unease of a post-election hangover, regardless of whether you stayed for the self-medicating and drinking, or tried to sleep through the storm. Waking to the news of a Trump presidency made a grey Manchester that bit greyer. There was a post-Brexit type heaviness; an atmosphere of mourning.

Throughout the day following the election, there emerged an expected slew of articles about how the world will end, how Americans are all preparing to run for the Canadian border, and the suggestion that Queen Elizabeth will reclaim sovereignty of the US. Facebook. If it looked anything like my feed, it was riddled with disbelief, outrage, disappointment,  and comparisons to the day Hitler won a majority in the German Reichstag, amongst other predictable responses.

It was a day of knowing looks, unfortunate grimaces, and the difficulty of starting a conversation with the unavoidable whiff of President-elect Donald Trump in the air. The topic of the result seemed to act as a suction machine to all other conversation. Once you start down that path it’s difficult to talk about anything else. Everyone felt like they had to say something, despite there not being an awful lot to say, apart from: what the Trump just happened?

If you thought we were clear of a Donald-dominated media, you share in the misguided idealism of a Bernie Sanders voter. Whilst this election cycle — which arguably began as long ago as March 2015, with the first candidacy announcements — is over, the speculation is only just beginning. Now that we have somewhat recovered from the shock, the internet is flooded with both ‘end of the world’ doomsdayers and the ‘don’t panic’ camp.

What the surprise victories of the US election and Brexit show is that our societies are not what we thought they were. Many of us believed that a Trump victory or leaving the EU were impossible because everyone we knew voted against them, or would have. And by “everyone” I mean the people we know on Facebook, the friends we have, other students in the mostly left-leaning liberal university bubble. To come into contact with a Brexiter or Trump supporter are relative novelties at university.

These protest votes for political ‘outsiders’ is largely to do with the phenomenon of globalisation. Many of us students have the resources and time to travel and study abroad. For us, globalisation means opportunity, now and in the future. But in truth, large swathes of Britain and America feel disenfranchised by this process.

Take Boston in Lincolnshire, England, as an example. This borough voted 75.6% for ‘Leave’ in June and has the highest population of Eastern Europeans outside of London. It was reported in the New Statesmen that white British residents in the town feel unwelcome due to the density of Polish, Latvian, and Lithuanian shops and restaurants. To them, open borders and immigration isn’t Erasmus grants and Full Moon beach parties on your gap year travels through Thailand; rather, it means not recognising your own home town and the languages being spoken around you.

In the same way, white working-class Americans (who constitute the bulk of Trump’s supporters) feel displaced in a global economic system in which jobs move abroad and the competition of international markets drive down labour costs. In the post-industrial Mid-West, there is a feeling that the world is moving on and leaving America behind.

On this point, in a recent Guardian piece, Thomas Frank argued that economic concerns were more important than racist motivations, and that, unfortunately, many people have formed their own simplistic ideas of what Trump supporters think. The illogic of fringe bigots makes a better 30 second slab in your news feed than the economic anxiety of a blue-collar worker.

We do ourselves a disservice by so easily writing off supporters of populist movements as racist. In doing so, there is a risk of ignoring the rest of their concerns. Bigoted attitudes are not limited to the ageing relatives who talk fondly of a pre-EU Britain; nor are they confined to that Facebook friend who shares Britain First posts while everyone else is bashing out Mic and Vice pieces. Many of us have withdrawn into our own internet enclaves and dismissed the views of a large social group. Now, we pay the price for our ideological blind-spots.

There are a myriad of reasons for Tuesday’s result, which other commentators probably understand better and can express more concisely than I have here. As I see it, one of the greatest lessons to be learned is that there is a great deal of ignorance to the range of opinions within our societies. In the wake of Brexit, Alexander Betts gave a TEDtalk in which he observed that the vote to leave the EU, “suggested that people like me who think of ourselves as inclusive, open, and tolerant, perhaps don’t know our own countries and societies nearly as well as we like to believe.”

In any case, we now face the inundation of predictions and guesswork about what all of this means for the US, for us in the UK, and for the wider world. In the meantime, life goes on. Mr Trump, the initial joker candidate and now-President-elect, will continue to be part of it.


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