Brexit and Trump: The result of cynicism taking control

Opinion pieces attempting to explain why people voted for Trump or Brexit have become a cliché in the progressive media. But no matter how many soul-searching articles I’ve read on the subject, none of them address one important question. Whether our condemnation of mainstream politicians has gone too far, and if it led to these troubling outcomes.

Now I’m not saying that people shouldn’t be sceptical of politicians – of course they should. As an American and British dual citizen, I can think of many times that my representatives have let me down: the expenses scandal; deadlock in congress; continuing wealth inequality and public sector cuts all being good examples. And sometimes politicians do live up to their stereotype. Sometimes they lie; sometimes they cheat; sometimes they break their promises.

But a lot of the time they don’t. Many great achievements have come out of politics: the NHS; gay marriage; economic growth; basic welfare. These are all things which help millions of people, and which were pushed through by politicians for no personal gain. Whatever their faults, I just don’t believe the cliché that most politicians are power-hungry mercenaries who have no deeply-held beliefs. No one has ever given me a reasonable explanation for why people would subject themselves to a job which involves constant scrutiny, long hours and frequent public condemnation – apart from the fact that most of them really do care about creating change. But condemnation of the political class has become so widespread and automatic, that many people ignore the examples of politicians fighting for what they believe in, and fixate on cases of their dishonesty. 

Hillary Clinton is the clearest example of this. She was so widely depicted as a pantomime villain, that even many progressives conceded that she was a crook who ran to be President for cynical reasons. But is this really reasonable? Whatever her faults, Clinton is a woman who dedicated her entire life to causes such as free healthcare, women’s rights and wealth re-distribution. Yet when I argue that there is even the slightest sincerity behind her character, I’m usually told that I’m being naïve.

Let’s contrast this with Donald Trump. He encompasses all of the downsides which people attribute to “typical politicians”. He is egotistical, ideologically flexible and uncaring. And yet – maddeningly and paradoxically – he is often forgiven for these faults precisely because he is seen as an “anti-politician”. It’s almost as if people are willing to look past any number of terrible attributes in a political candidate, as long as they don’t present themselves like a typical politician.

Anyone would agree that we shouldn’t blindly trust whatever the political class tells us. But now we seem to be doing the opposite – blindly disbelieving whatever the political class tell us. And that doesn’t sit well with me either. Cynicism about anyone who resembles an establishment politician has become so out of hand, that even the tidal wave of reasonable warnings they gave us about Brexit and Trump were ultimately ignored.

There were many factors which led to the votes for Trump and Brexit. I wouldn’t want to simplify such a multi-layered phenomenon into one simple explanation. But if we continue to allow the entire political class to be sweepingly condemned as cold-hearted cynics, then it shouldn’t be surprising when people ignore their advice.

It feels like progressive commentators have found ourselves in a dystopian state of the boy who cried wolf. “Politicians are liars, politicians are liars, politicians are liars,” we’ve been shouting for years. “But not when they talk about Brexit and Trump. Then you have to trust them.”

* Ben is a Councillor in Sutton, and the Vice Chair of the Environment & Transport Committee at Sutton Council. He has been a member of the party since the 2015 election, and used to work for the Sutton Liberal Democrats as a volunteer organiser. Ben now works for a charity promoting the greater use of Restorative Justice in the criminal justice system.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • I don’t think the spectacle that is the house of commons does politicians any favours.
    The proposed refurbishment of Westminster would have been a golden opportunity to do things differently and see how MP’s and people felt about it.

  • Michael Cole 16th Feb '17 - 4:27pm

    If the Democrats had put up a credible candidate there is no way that Trump would have been elected. There is no getting away from it – and here I disagree with Ben Andrew – that Hillary was a very poor candidate; she comes across (to me) as a shallow phoney, in contrast to Obama.

    A great, prosperous, well-educated country full of talented, intelligent people with a population of over 300 million and the best they could come up with is these two.

    The electoral college is ‘first-past-the -post’ in spades, but I doubt if the Americans will reform it; they regard their constitution as sacrosanct. Moreover, it seems that you have to be a multi-millionaire to even stand in the primaries.

    So it is little wonder that they have been landed with such a President.

  • David Evans 16th Feb '17 - 4:27pm

    As we all know, there was a party that offered hope rather than despair in the run up to the 2010 election. “A new way of doing politics” and “An end to broken promises.”

    Unfortunately our leaders promptly threw away the opportunity, refused to change tack for five years and destroyed any chance there was of a permanent breakthrough for Liberal Democracy. I’m afraid there are many people who are cynical about politicians, and its not just those who voted for Brexit.

  • @David: I’m not suggesting that it is just Brexiteers who are cynics about politics – the overwhelming majority of people are.

    I just think that it has become an unreasonable and reactionary level of cynicism, with people bending over backwards to find the most cynical possible interpretation of everything that mainstream politicians do. Politics is such a hard industry, with so many competing forces influencing your actions. I think that your depiction of what happened after 2010 is a tad simplistic

  • Trump and Brexit are different things . Brexit happened because a lot of Brits just don’t rate the EU and it has been building since the late 1970s. Trump is an American thing and really his victory is as much down to election cycles as anything else, it being rare for a party to be in office for more than two terms in the US. The only thing really linking them is that they both came as a bit of a shock to sections of The British commentariat who suffer from a slightly delusional belief that America is either a bigger version of Britain or we’re a smaller version of America.

  • David Evans 17th Feb '17 - 2:16am


    You may think my analysis a tad simplistic, but the disaster of the coalition years was that it undermined a lot of the trust we had spent decades building up across the country. Just look at the by-election results today: Green gain from UKIP, Bollington First win, Residents gain from us in Uttlesford etc. There always were a few of those, but in the past we would have swept up most of them with our “We work for you” message. Now we have to start from scratch in the fight for those votes with all those other groups, and although we are more successful than most, it is a whole lot tougher than it used to be. We have to persuade many people to trust us from scratch. In the past that was a given and the battle was often simply over whether we could win.

    All in all we are nowhere near where those activists who worked their socks off over the past fifty or so years had got us to in 2010, and many people are indeed very cynical about us.

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