By: Anastasia Beck
The year 2016 was most certainly memorable, from the first British astronaut – Major Tim Peake – and his ascent into space to the colourful Rio Olympics. But the two events that overshadowed the many highlights of 2016 were the unexpected vote to leave the European Union by the British people and the unprecedented election of Donald J. Trump. For many observers, Brexit and the rise of Trump signalled a transition in Western politics to that of ‘post-truthism’. In fact, the word ‘post-truth’ became the Oxford Dictionaries ‘Word of the Year’ in 2016 and was defined as ‘an adjective defined as relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.’ The real question remains as to why post-truthism has emerged so powerfully into both mainstream political and media narratives and how the likes of Trump and former-UKIP leader Nigel Farage have utilised it to their advantage.
Post-truthism in 2016 arrived in the form of the rhetoric espoused by Trump in the USA and the Leave campaign in Britain. In the UK, assertions were made that £350 million in government funds were being sent by Britain to the European Union every week. Once Britain departed from the EU through Leave, these funds would be available for agencies like the NHS. Alongside this, it was claimed that Britain would have no veto on Turkey’s accession to the EU. Across the Atlantic, similar populist claims were being made by Trump regarding the possible fakery of Obama’s birth certificate, the assertion that Muslims in New Jersey cheered the tragedy of 9/11, and that the Mexican government purposefully sent their worst immigrants to America. All of these statements have one thing in common and that is that they are all fabrications – meant to incite fear, hatred and emotions that would captivate the population. Many experts and so-called ‘fact-checkers’ deemed these claims untrue. According to one fact-checking agency, 78% of all Trump’s campaign statements were false. So how did the Trump and Farage get away with it and unpredictably go on to claim victory?
Post-truthism emanates from a deep mistrust of politicians and political elites. Throughout the Western world, there appears to be disillusionment towards these institutions and experts who, for example, had once stated that the euro would improve our lives and that Saddam Hussein certainly possessed weapons of mass destruction. The average person views this powerful elite minority as pushing their own interests above those of the masses and manipulating popular demands for their own benefit. The discontent and dissatisfaction towards Hillary Clinton displayed in the US election is a clear example. To many, she epitomised the establishment, something that not only Trump supporters despised, but also swathes of the American populace as well. Furthermore, we see economic marginalisation as another trigger of ‘post-truthism’.
We also see economic marginalisation as another trigger of post-truthism. Throughout the 80s, both the USA and the UK witnessed a weakening of the labor unions and the gradual dissolution of the industrial workplace. In the 21st century, many of these old industrial areas where economic hardship persists feel let down by the progressive forces of globalisation. Trump tapped into such overarching economic concerns, as a result of which any extravagant comments he made were not considered in a measured manner. It is difficult for people to listen to Washington talk about the benefits of globalisation when they have not felt those benefits.
Interestingly, the feeling of being left behind by the forces of globalisation often brings about nostalgia. We see this with slogans such as ‘Make American Great Again’ and the many social media posts of Brexiters longing for a lost England. There is a level of perceived patriotism here, and one of the reasons why Trump and Farage are able to get away with being dishonest is when someone tries to refute them, they are labelled as unpatriotic and putting the country down. Trump and the Leave campaign often resorts to patriotism and calls to ‘rally around the flag’ as a means to garner support.
Further, a big propeller of post-truthism’ last year was social media. Few politicians can boast of reaching out to a mass audience in a short space of time, but throughout history, certain demagogue-like leaders who have achieved this: Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin come to mind. Trump’s use of social media like Twitter has most certainly helped him reach a wider audience. Worryingly, this has meant that his aforementioned conspiracy theories and scaremongering have also reached many people. If information is predominately acquired from social media and the web, it is unlikely that official sources such as academics and newspapers will be listened to or trusted.
In a nutshell, post-truthism ultimately implies that emotions trump facts. If people distrust the establishment and suffer economic hardships – which they believe has not been alleviated by politicians – they will seek a change. In 2016, that change arrived in the form of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, regardless of questionable claims made by both parties. Any outlandish immigration policies or sexist jibes would always be outweighed by the possibility of economic upward mobility and the opportunity to wave goodbye to the political elites and the establishment. The interesting question now is: how has ‘post-truthism’ affected Western political discourse and in what direction is it ultimately heading for?
Anastasia Beck (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a postgraduate student studying Intelligence and International Security in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London (KCL). Anastasia’s research interests include counter-radicalization, the role of intelligence in both peace and conflict, and the impacts of migration, both at the macro- and micro-levels.
 Crouch. C, Post Democracy, (Polity Press: 2004)
Image source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-37934790
Anastasia Beck is a postgraduate student studying Intelligence and International Security in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London (KCL). Anastasia’s research areas include counter-radicalization, the role of intelligence in both peace and conflict, and open-source intelligence.