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How the Brexit Referendum was Trumped: Personality, Protest and Patriotism

July 20, 2016 • GLOBAL ECONOMY, CRITICAL ANALYSIS, World Politics, Editor’s Choice, Americas, Special Focus on Brexit, Unprotected Post

By Glyn Atwal and Douglas Bryson 

In this article, the authors contend the electioneering style of what they label “Trumpism” was distinctly manifested and a vital factor for the unanticipated success of the recent Brexit campaign.

The strategies and tactics of political campaigning win or lose elections. However, it is also the style of political campaigning that is quintessential to a campaign’s execution and result. The tone and method of political campaigns convey meaning to the electorate consisting of busy people with busy lives that often are informed and satiated by sound bites and video clips. Campaign managers seek not only to capture, but also to resonate with the electorate’s collective mind-set. We contend that the success of the Leave Campaign in the recent UK referendum has compelling parallels with the method deployed by the Brand Trump campaign which has been successful in bringing Mr. Donald Trump to almost certain victory for the Republican nomination in the approaching national convention.

The electioneering style of what we label “Trumpism” was distinctly manifested and a vital factor for the unanticipated success of the recent Brexit campaign. A combination of personality, protest and patriotism seems now to be delineating the battleground of election campaigns. Political campaigning appears to be entering new terrain, challenging traditional campaigning principles and has far wider ranging implications for political campaigning, not only in the US and the UK, but also in Europe.

 

Personality

Brand Trump has instant recognition. There is no ambiguity that Mr. Donald Trump seeks to position himself as an outsider who is set to take on and shake up the Washington political establishment. He makes no apologies for polarising public opinion. Like the Brexit question, Trumpism requires voters to decide between “in” or “out” – it is binary politics. In fact, this is a hallmark of the political character of Donald Trump. In the UK, the Leave campaign was headed by a “larger than life” personality and maverick politician, Mr. Boris Johnson. It was populism married to the successful personification of Mr. Johnson that helped to give the Leave campaign an unforgettable face, and created an angry voice on the national stage, far beyond Mr. Johnson’s usual stomping ground of London.

Like the Brexit question, Trumpism requires voters to decide between “in” or “out” – it is binary politics.

The Remain campaign also had known personalities, but the less than inspiring Prime Minister David Cameron was seen as part of the establishment – the privileged political class; furthermore, the uncharismatic Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, even managed to fail to galvanise support within his own political party ranks. To top things off, the Remain campaign failed miserably in selling the view that Brussels was anything more than the intangible, distant, out of touch foreign bureaucratic apparatus that served only to sap the strength from a struggling British economy.

The EU referendum was essentially the “Boris Johnson Circus” and the media loved it. Many voters were distracted by this spectacle and have since publically voiced their concerns about not taking into account the full gravity of what Brexit means, above all for the youth and future of the UK. Yet, it seems the dice have been cast, and the Johnson Circus is the reason. Now the rhetoric includes “with a stiff upper lip, England shall prevail”.

 

Protest

Trumpism has been successful in targeting dissatisfied Republicans, specifically those who are coincidentally predominantly white, older, working-class voters. It is essentially an anti-establishment protest vote which alleviates their anger and frustration regarding everything they believe is wrong about how Washington has and continues to fail to represent their interests. The substantive details of any realistic future policy changes remain in a vacuous space. It is the brutal simplicity of Trump’s repetitive hollow rhetoric that seems able to gather voters to rush to vent a desire for change, change for change’s sake, without knowing what this change actually entails: as Brand Trump represents itself, vote for change (i.e. Brand Trump) or vote for the status quo.

Disenfranchised voters were asked to voice their protest in a vote based less on objectivity, and mainly on negativity, without a reality check on the ramifications for a post-Brexit UK, and apparently with no regard at all to the viability of the UK as an entity in the case of a Brexit occurring.

The Leave campaign was not different. Many Leave voters are residents of the former industrial heartlands of northern England and Wales, not only economically but also culturally distant from the vibrant dynamism of London, and even further from decisions taken in Brussels. In an era of economic austerity, they were searching for reasons for why they felt they were being left behind. Mr. Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), cleverly used the UK referendum as an opportunistic outlet for voters to vent their anger and “damn the consequences”, and as in the US, it turned into a binary choice in the face of immeasurably complex issues. Disenfranchised voters were asked to voice their protest in a vote based less on objectivity, and mainly on negativity, without a reality check on the ramifications for a post-Brexit UK, and apparently with no regard at all to the viability of the UK as an entity in the case of a Brexit occurring.

 

Patriotism

Patriotism is a feature of every political campaign across the US, and increasingly elsewhere. It is a basic, powerful vehicle to evoke strong and positive emotional reactions. However, Trumpism embodies the notion of representing national self-interest more intensely than any recent US presidential candidate nominee. Trump’s campaign slogan, Make America Great Again sends an unrealistic romantic message of the possibility of turning back time to return to the glory days of a past America, and putting American interests first. When those glory days were exactly, and when American interests were not placed first, is left to interpretation by individual voters.

The boundaries between patriotism, nationalism and xenophobia are laid on quicksand that risks quickly ends up swallowing voters into previously irrational places that include contemplations of concepts such as exclusion, “us” vs. “them”, dislike or even worse. Donald Trump’s verbal attacks against Mexicans and Muslims have attempted to shift thinking on a mass scale and to paint members of these groups as being unpatriotic and un-American. The Brexit campaign followed a similar path which was unashamedly antagonistic. Boris Johnson argued that the EU has the same goal as Adolf Hitler in trying to create a political super-state in Europe, “Napoleon, Hitler, various people tried this out, and it ends tragically. The EU is an attempt to do this by different methods.”

The rise of populist personalities such as Donald Trump in the US, Marine Le Pen in France, and Norbert Hofer in Austria, suggests that the methods of political campaigning are regressing from previous modern campaigns that looked forwards and faced a plethora of no-so-pretty realities.

Nigel Firage of UKIP, revealed a poster showing a queue of migrants and refugees with the slogan, “Breaking point: the EU has failed us all.” The Leave campaign on the subject of immigration was described by London Mayor Sadiq Khan as “Project Hate”, but it was the continuous calls to “take back control” that played on the powerful negative passions of a threatened national identity.

There is a risk that populist binary Trumpist campaigns are not only defining political agendas, but winning real power without real debate. The rise of populist personalities such as Donald Trump in the US, Marine Le Pen in France, and Norbert Hofer in Austria, suggests that the methods of political campaigning are regressing from previous modern campaigns that looked forwards and faced a plethora of no-so-pretty realities. Hard issues still matter, but they get lost in the binary thinking and nationalism exemplified by the Brexit referendum.

It must be stated that the UK risks stepping closer to creating a full-fledged binary political system, the likes of which have not been seen in more than half a century. However, although the Brexit campaign has effectively been Trumped, we should do well to remember that it was just an “advisory” referendum. Cameron’s resignation as Prime Minister means the UK may have a second chance to vote for or against Brexit.

At the time of this writing, he has yet to trigger Article 50 and may not do so. Who would want to go down in history as having pushed the button and destroying the Union, or even worse, should that become Unions. Cameron may be leaving it to his successor to do the dirty work, or perhaps anticipating the present political disarray sparks a general election, thus once again putting Brexit on the table.

Under a more objective, less emotional, public examination, if it becomes the central campaign issue of a general election, it may in fact be rejected by the populace. If this is to become the case, the UK may cease to allow Trumpism rule its political, social, economic and cultural future.

Featured image courtesy of: Reuters

About the Authors

glynatwal-webGlyn Atwal is Associate Professor of Marketing at Burgundy School of Business, an international Graduate School of the French network of Grandes Ecoles. His teaching, research, and consultancy expertise focuses on brand management. Prior to academia, Glyn worked for Saatchi & Saatchi, Young & Rubicam, and Publicis.

douglasbryson-webDouglas Bryson is Professor (Titulaire 1) at the ESC Rennes School Business, France. His expertise focuses on consumer behaviour, international brand management, and research methods & data analysis. Prior to switching to academia, Douglas worked for the Department of National Defence, Maritime Command, in Canada.

 

 

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