LAST WEEK I began working on a very earnest story about the rotten state of politics in the West. With Trump, Brexit, the Front National, and Alternative für Deutschland dominating headlines in their respective countries, there is plenty that has and can be written about the far-right co-option of political discourse; there is no shortage of vitriol to be dissected and discussed. This week, however, I saw something bizarre, something that made me pause: on Hillary Clinton’s official campaign website there is an article explaining Donald Trump’s patronage of the far-right via his and his supporters’ use of Pepe, the green frog that emerged as one of 4chan’s most emblematic memes. That’s right, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are both meme users. How has the political conversation in the United States reached this trough? To a large degree it is the fault of Trump himself: his insults and mudslinging has empowered a disenfranchised white working class tired of the establishment that Clinton represents.
We’re fortunate that politics hasn’t quite reached such a low ebb in this country – the United Kingdom is a meme-free zone. Nonetheless, both Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn are symptoms of that same discontent that created Trump. Many Labour members, and the majority of the Parliamentary party are increasingly exasperated by Corbyn’s sustained popularity, but it will continue (until the Tories slaughter him in 2020) unless the fundamental problems that have created his movement are addressed.
Brexit was essentially a reaction against an establishment deemed to have failed the working class; they identified the wrong enemy.
To some degree, the United Kingdom already had a solution: the Liberal Democrats, a progressive, reformist political party, were a genuine force in favour of electoral reform, including instituting a proportional voting system and an elected House of Lords. Of course, over the last 18 months the country has shot itself in the foot, first by gutting the Lib Dems to ensure at least five years of unfettered Tory government, and then by dragging us down a path to Brexit. Both were essentially a reaction against an establishment deemed to have failed the working class, and both identified the wrong enemy. The restraining effect of the Lib Dems became evident as soon as Theresa May’s new government decided to raise tuition fees by £250 a year, with further increases inevitable. Soon enough we will long for the prelapsarian days of the coalition.
The EU is used as a scapegoat in France and Germany, as well as the UK. It is bloated, bureaucratic, and supranational, making it an easy stand-in for the nebulous, spectral establishment. The Front National is polling favourably in France: Marine Le Pen’s nationalist, Islamophobic party could sweep into power next year, potentially leaving both the EU and NATO, which, as discussed in our last blog, has implications for Russia. It’s a dangerous, populist ideology that is in reality little different from the open racism of her father – it has simply been disguised by a thin veneer of respectability. Alternative für Deutschland, which could potentially find itself in coalition by the end of 2017, feeds in the fires of anti-immigrant sentiment, something particularly dangerous in a country at the heart of the European project. Uncertain times lie ahead for the European Union. It can’t continue in its current form, but no-one on the continent is yet prepared to start the process of reform. The Germans and French can’t be seen to give up on the EU – Germany, which all but controls the ECB, has a particular interest in seeing the single currency survive in order to maintain its position of authority on the continent.
Trump can continue to be met by ridicule so long as he invites it by insulting babies and using racist Internet memes.
There are broad similarities between the rise of the right-wing in Europe and in the United States. Donald Trump, however, is a very different beast to Marine Le Pen and Frauke Petry, and this is why Pepe has become an acceptable part of American politics, but not in Europe. Populist? Yes. Demagogic? Certainly. But Donald Trump, unlike the European right, has no interest in actually running the country. He is a bumbling, bigoted buffoon who spews out catchphrases and rambling run-on sentences with no real interest in executing his policies. If he were to win the election (an increasingly likely event), he would likely devolve power to his vice-president Mike Pence and to various White House apparatchiks; he would never build his wall, ban Muslim immigrants, or torture the families of terrorists. Even if he didn’t lose interest in these policies, then Congress would make sure they never saw the light of day. His movement, too, has a somewhat different character, attracting right-wing pseudo-intellectuals like Breitbart’s Stephen Bannon and professional rabble-rouser Milo Yiannopoulos as well as the disillusioned working class. He is dangerous, but he is simply pandering to his supporters. His aim is to win, not to lead. Nonetheless, he needs to be discredited by offering the disenchanted working class who support him a real and tangible alternative. Memes are not the answer to Trump, but he can continue to be met by ridicule so long as he invites it by insulting babies and using racist Internet memes.
Alternative für Deutschland and the Front National, are, on the other hand, aspiring parties of government. Marine Le Pen may find herself in the Elysée Palace next year, and from there she would seek to end immigration, leave NATO and the EU and align France with Russia. What makes her far more dangerous than Trump is that she wants to enact real change. Rather than simply vomiting catchphrases and buzzwords, AfD and the FN are legitimising hatred and fuelling divisions in European society. They are a direct threat to European unity and freedom, to the millions of helpless refugees pouring into the continent, to already-marginalised ethnic and religious minorities. Pepe is not welcome here. The European right is very different to Trump, and any attempt to bring memes into the conversation would be met by derision, would simply distract from the issue, and make a mockery of the supporters of the right and the very real issues for which they are in search of a solution.
The problems Britain will face as a result of the misguided vote to leave the European Union may pale in comparison to those presented by AfD and the Front National. We have always thought ourselves more sober and reserved then our European neighbours, and, if the French and Germans aren’t careful, we’ll be right. The United States appears at first glance to be flirting with disaster in the form of Donald Trump, but in reality, a hypothetical President Trump is unlikely to do anything dangerous – if he does anything at all. It’s clear that politics needs fixing on both sides of the Atlantic, but Pepe is not the answer.
Picture credit: Donald Trump by Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0)