Brendan O’Neill

Who are ‘the people’ in these new political times?

Who are 'the people' in these new political times?
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During the massive, impressive Women’s March in London on Saturday, in which thousands of noisy women, men and children stuck it to Trump, the organisers tweeted the following: ‘We are the people.’ Wait — it’s okay to say ‘the people’ again?

Since Trump’s victory in November, and even more so after the Brexit Revolt in June, anyone who used the phrase ‘the people’ risked being branded a useful idiot of hard-right demagoguery. ‘Do you know who else spoke of “the people”?’, left-liberals would inquire, accusingly. ‘THE NAZIS.’ Brexiteers and Trumpeters ‘roar that they represent “the people”,' said Andrew Rawnsley in the Observer, as part of ‘their endeavour to silence any dissent’. ‘The people’ is a fantasy category, academics insisted.

Yet now it seems it’s cool again to talk about the people. ‘We are the people, hear our voice,' said the London wing of the Women’s March. So 17.4 million Brexiteers are not the people, but 80,000 marchers against Trump are? The 62 million who voted for Trump, including vast numbers of women, are not the people, yet crowds of anti-Trumpites squeezed into Trafalgar Square are?

This clash of wildly different views of ‘the people’ raises an intriguing question about the post-2016 era: who are the rebels? The people who voted for Brexit or the people who oppose it, whom Tony Blair recently described as ‘insurgents’? The people who voted for Trump — whose main aim was to ‘shake things up’, according to a new survey — or the people who oppose Trump and who describe themselves as ‘the resistance’? Everyone wants to be ‘the people’ against The Man — who has greater claim to that title?

My money is on the former. It’s the masses who voted for Brexit or rejected Hillary who represent a kind of resistance, while the reaction against these votes, the sometimes shrill denunciation of ‘low-information voters’ who screwed everything up, speaks to a profoundly conservative urge to preserve the old establishment.

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against the Women’s March. It was great to see so many people on the streets. But I think their Sixties-style clamour and the words they use — resistance, rebellion — disguise the fact that they’re actually raging against change and would love to prop up the old politics. I mean, Hillary, arguably the most establishment figure on Earth, tweeted effusively about the march. That’s not a good sign, guys. It at least suggests your talk of rebellion is overcooked.

Political language has been thrown into utter disarray by recent events. Old political terms appear to have lost all meaning. The people who voted against the EU are described as ‘populist authoritarians’ while those who support it are called ‘liberals’. This makes no sense: it’s authoritarian to reject a vast, Byzantine system of bureaucracy and liberal to embrace it?

The women who attended the Women’s March were congratulated for ‘making their voice heard’, which they certainly did. Yet such terminology was never used about the millions of women who voted for Trump. In fact, some feminists wrote those women off as suffering from ‘internalised misogyny’. Under the weird new political language, the term ‘women’s voice’ refers to ‘some women’s voices’. Post-2016, the word ‘women’ has become exclusive rather than inclusive: it really means ‘women with respectable views’. It erases the other women.

I think the leftists agitating against Brexit and panicking about Trump need to be honest with themselves. They want to defend the status quo from the gruff anger of the public. They want the EU, the embodiment of intra-elite deal-making, to carry on, and they would prefer it if Hillary, the personification of establishment, were overseeing the world. Here’s an important political word: dissent. It means ‘not to assent… to think differently’. Who does that apply to better: those who defied the warnings of the mainstream political set, global institutions and pretty much every celebrity on Earth in order to say 'No' to the EU and 'Yes' to Trump, or those who’ve spent the past few months pleading for the EU’s survival and mourning Hillary’s loss? I think we know.

This is the bizarreness of political language post-2016: the millions who rejected European bureaucracy and American politics-as-normal are branded conservative and fearful, while the right-on taking to the courts, the streets and the media to say ‘Save the EU’ and ‘We want Hillary’ flatter themselves with the language of resistance and revolt. Let’s get language back into proportion with reality. The uncomfortable fact is this: the women who voted for Trump deserve the title of dissenter far more than the women who marched against him on Saturday.