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Welcome to Militant England

A few years ago Ukip was seen as the by-product of a Tory split. But now it appeals to disillusioned voters across the political spectrum and of all classes.

Seeing red: the flag of St George has become more than just the mark of football supporters. Photo: Magnum Photos

The Palm Bay estate in Cliftonville is a picture of English respectability in white paint and red brick. Detached bungalows with modest front lawns stretch inland from the Kentish coast in neat rows. It is not a wealthy area but it projects a doughty resistance to the decay that is visible elsewhere in Margate, the resort of which it is a suburb. These middle-class homes stand in prim Edwardian rebuke to the grimy Victorian terraces and crumbling Regency façades of the town centre.

Cliftonville worries about encroaching decline and has expressed that anxiety in recent county council elections by voting for the UK Independence Party. At a sedate meeting in a seafront hotel, an audience of mostly grey-haired and exclusively white-skinned residents listens politely to an address by a local Conservative MP, Laura Sandys. The most contentious issue to arise is housing – not the shortage that exercises Westminster policymakers, but the opposite. There is fear of construction developments and suspicion that refurbishment of derelict properties (of which Margate has a surfeit) will benefit undesirable newcomers.

“You can make the properties as nice as you like,” says a woman in her fifties. “The problem is the quality and calibre of people going in them.” Another resident explains afterwards, over tea and biscuits, that Margate has been overrun by “the dregs from London” – a category that captures immigrants, benefit claimants and drug addicts believed to have been dumped on the coast by councils in the capital.

Sandys is a popular MP but she is standing down at the next election. An opinion poll by Survation last year put Ukip in second place in her constituency, South Thanet, with 30 per cent of the vote – 5 points behind Labour. It is one of the seats that Nigel Farage is rumoured to be considering as an entry point to parliament in next year’s general election.

Like many coastal towns in eastern England, Margate has an immigrant population. There are Slovakian, Czech and Roma communities, although it would be a stretch to say they have drastically altered the complexion of the place. It is no inundation. Resentment here is about something more profound than fear of jobs being taken by outsiders or distaste at the sound of alien consonants in the bus queue. It expresses a feeling that all the important decisions are being made elsewhere; that someone in the capital has decided what kind of town this should be and that dissent is ignored or, worse, belittled as the mark of backward provinciality.

“People feel they’ve lost something,” Sandys tells me as we tour her constituency. “They may not be able to pinpoint what it is, but they don’t think they’re getting it back.”

A defining feature of Ukip’s presence in the area, according to Sandys, is the way it feeds on and fuels pessimism, especially among her older constituents. They have worked hard throughout their lives and find as they reach retirement that they are worse off than they expected to be. They cannot go on holiday or provide treats for their grandchildren. They struggle to heat their homes in winter. These indignities provoke shame and rage. Financial precariousness that was exposed by the Great Recession combines with longer-standing feelings of cultural disorientation to produce a dread of abandonment. Politics in Westminster is judged to be for the benefit of someone else – migrants, welfare recipients, bankers, Brussels bureaucrats.

This is how Farage has been able to position himself as the anti-politician threatening to storm the wicked bastion. In the second of his recent televised debates with Nick Clegg on European Union membership, the Ukip leader issued an extraordinary call to arms: “Come and join the people’s army. Let’s topple the establishment who got us into this mess.”

The rise of Ukip has been the most dynamic political element in the current parliament. Opinion polls show little exchange of voters between Labour and Conservative. Ed Miliband’s support was bolstered by left-leaning Liberal Democrats, but that defection happened almost immediately on Clegg’s decision to form a coalition with the Tories. Thanks to the perversities baked into our electoral system, Ukip’s surge could easily put Miliband in Downing Street, by taking votes from David Cameron in key marginal seats. For that reason, Labour is largely silent about the party that threatens to win the European parliamentary elections in May. “I’m not that interested in Nigel Farage,” Miliband said recently when asked about the Ukip leader. He should be.

Only a few years ago, Ukip was widely seen as a Tory schism – a secessionist republic of Little Englander reaction against Cameron’s efforts to modernise his party. That view no longer holds. While Ukip still takes more votes from the Tories than from anyone else, it plainly appeals to disillusionment from across the political spectrum, irrespective of class and region. Farage’s popularity is a symptom of something more potent. Little England is the retreat of the besieged; Ukip is animating a spirit of resistance.

“So many people don’t feel they have the power to change things,” says Sandys. “So they devolve their power to Nigel Farage.” The Ukip leader’s beer-swilling, cigarette-puffing indefatigability offers the vigour of defiance.

Farage makes no secret of his view that Ukip has already taken about as much support as it can expect to poach from the Tories before a general election and must now pick off disaffected voters in Labour’s heartlands. The nature of that pitch was summed up by Paul Nuttall, Ukip’s deputy leader, at last year’s party conference. “The Labour Party has abandoned its working-class roots,” Nuttall declaimed, in his broad Merseyside accent, to an auditorium packed with southern ex-Tories. “In the days of Clement Attlee, Labour MPs came from the mills, the mines, the factories. The Labour MPs today follow the same routes as Conservatives and the Lib Dems. They go to private school, they go to Oxbridge, they get a job in an MP’s office and they become an MP . . . [they wouldn’t] know a council estate if it fell out of the sky.”

The accusation is unfair but accuracy wasn’t the aim. Nuttall wants to reinforce a suspicion in many voters’ minds that Labour, under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, became a vehicle for slick career politicians who despised the party’s core supporters. At its more extreme end, that resentment mutates into a belief that New Labour pursued a policy of deliberate ethnic dilution and wage suppression, opening the borders in order to flood Britain with cheap workers.

Ukip has a credible claim to have supplanted the Tories as the main challenger to Labour in parts of the north. So far in this parliament, the party has come second to Labour in by-elections in South Shields, Middlesbrough, Rotherham, Barnsley and, in February this year, Wythenshawe and Sale East. Reporting on that most recent contest, I met people who would reel off a list of complaints that tally exactly with the issues on which Labour campaigns – job insecurity, zero-hours contracts, soaring energy bills, the “bedroom tax”, cuts to public services. They would then declare an intention not to vote at all, or to support Ukip. When people did say they planned to back Labour, the reason was most often ancestral loyalty. (“We’re all Labour round here.” “Always Labour.”)

Ed Miliband held the seat thanks to a strong local candidate with a ground operation that knew where Labour supporters lived and made sure they voted. The potential for a better-organised Ukip machine to win over areas that were once dominated by the traditional left is beyond doubt.

“If you look at the Labour Ukippers, some of them are the kind of people who might once have been shop stewards,” says John Denham MP, the former Labour cabinet minister who served as an adviser to Ed Miliband. “For them, trade unionism was a defensive thing economically, and a defensive thing in terms of ‘our people against the bosses’. Those people feel they’ve lost that power to fight against unwelcome change and defend their interests.”

This view is supported by Matthew Goodwin and Robert Ford, of the Universities of Nottingham and Manchester, respectively, whose study of Ukip’s rise, Revolt on the Right, was published in March. The book identifies the potency of the new anti-politics radicalism in social and demographic forces that have been building for generations. The authors chart the creeping monopolisation of centre-left politics by a middle-class, white-collar, university-educated elite whose lives are remote from the concerns of the old industrial working class. Civil liberties, environmentalism, feminism, racial equality and European integration became the emblems of moderate left opinion, when the most pressing matters for historically left-wing voters were low wages, a lack of social housing and job insecurity – all of which could be filtered through suspicion of immigrants.

During the boom years, the benefits of open borders and market liberalisation were obvious to a skilled, affluent and mobile elite. They were less clear to those at the sharp end of competition for work and housing (although everyone enjoyed budget holidays and cheap manufactured imports). In reality, there was less divergence of economic interest than there was cultural polarisation. The liberal determination to expunge prejudice from public discourse was interpreted as denial of permission to be cross about immigration. That feeling seems especially strong among older, low-skilled, white men, whom Goodwin and Ford characterise as feeling “left behind”: “Already disillusioned by the economic shifts that left them lagging behind other groups in society, these voters now feel their concerns about immigration and threats to national identity have been ignored or stigmatised as expressions of prejudice by an established political class that appears more sensitive to protecting migrant newcomers and ethnic minorities than listening to the concerns of economically struggling, white Britons.”

This anger extends beyond race. It includes a range of prohibitions, some real and some imaginary, imposed by faceless, arrogant officialdom. It covers the ban on smoking in public, “political correctness”, a “health and safety” regime that is caricatured as banning children’s play, “human rights” distorted to mean pampering convicted criminals and, of course, “Brussels”. This edifice of indignation was captured in a 2012 focus group of Ukip supporters conducted by Michael Ashcroft, the Conservative financier and former deputy party chairman. He typified their mood as follows: “They are pessimistic, even fearful, and they want someone and something to blame. They do not think mainstream politicians are willing or able to keep their promises or change things for the better. Ukip, with its single unifying theory of what is wrong and how to put it right, has obvious attractions for them . . . [They are] part of a greater dissatisfaction with the way they see things going in Britain: schools, they say, can’t hold Nativity plays or harvest festivals any more; you can’t fly a flag of St George any more; you can’t call Christmas Christmas any more; you won’t be promoted in the police force unless you’re from a minority; you can’t wear an England shirt on the bus; you won’t get social housing unless you’re an immigrant; you can’t speak up about these things because you’ll be called a racist; you can’t even smack your children.”

Mistrust of our national politicians is nothing new. Even in times of economic buoyancy, there is a curmudgeonly strain in British culture that thinks the country is going to the dogs. What seems different today is the tendency to see politics itself as not only disreputable but an organised conspiracy against decency.

That jaundiced view owes something to the parliamentary expenses scandal and a lot to the financial crisis. But its roots are deeper. Recession brought on a fever that was incubating during the boom. It flourished in the climate of political stagnation created by a hung parliament.

In coalition with the Lib Dems, David Cameron was able to cobble together an economic agenda but the two parties were too dissimilar to agree about the kind of society Britain should be. The new government had policies but no coherent set of shared values. Even without Nick Clegg complicating the picture, the Conservatives were divided between “modernisers”, who wanted the party to look and sound more like 21st-century Britain in all its polyglot diversity, and the “traditionalists”, who felt that Cameron was marching them into a dead end of faddish metropolitan liberalism.

That fault line describes the Tories’ ongoing confusion over Margaret Thatcher’s legacy. The Conservatism of the Eighties failed as a national project because it was socially and geographically divisive. The industries that Thatcherism treated as relics of a moribund economic order had sustained communities. Their collapse inoculated swaths of the population against voting Tory. Even in areas that benefited from Conservative rule, the doctrine that promoted competition and individual self-reliance as the motors of progress came to be associated with greed, selfishness and contempt for the poor.

Many Conservatives still struggle to see Thatcherism as anything other than a triumph. In this view, the country was saved from death by state suffocation. Yet even if that argument can be sustained as macroeconomic history, it fails as a story of national redemption because it lacks the unifying ingredient of collective participation. Twenty-four years after Thatcher’s downfall, the Tories still have not found a way to talk convincingly about solidarity.

The Conservative argument did succeed in forcing Labour to jettison its own language of class-based unity. Tony Blair’s victory in 1997 felt like a mass mobilisation but it was without foundations in shared identity. There was a pent-up appetite for change – any change – after 18 years of increasingly derelict Tory rule. New Labour’s courtship of the southern English middle classes reached people who, in the Eighties, would never have described themselves as socialists. Blair cleverly associated himself with a cultural current of the mid-Nineties that blended social liberalism and rock’n’roll permissiveness with contempt for the crusty old idioms of traditional Conservatism. This was the age of “Cool Britannia” and it was unfashionable to be anything other than Labour.

Or, at least, that was the mood in the capital among the creative and media class that manufactured the roaring Nineties zeitgeist. The moment is captured by Martin Amis in his 1995 novel The Information as one author broods on the success of his rival: “Of course Gwyn was Labour . . . Gwyn was . . . a writer, in England, at the end of the 20th century. There was nothing else for such a person to be. Richard was Labour, equally obviously. It often seemed to him, moving in the circles he moved in and reading what he read, that everyone in England was Labour, except the government.”

Once the glamour of the New Labour project faded, it turned out to be not much better at nurturing community and a sense of belonging than Thatcherism. Blair’s critics on the left attribute that to his embrace of free-market economics, admiration for the City of London and acceptance of socially corrosive levels of inequality. Conservatives accuse the Blair-Brown government of inflating the size and reach of the state, above all through the welfare budget. This, they say, led to a dependency on government that left civic bonds to atrophy. Such was the thinking behind Cameron’s “big society” project. It was meant as a Burkean rebuttal to the old accusation that the party of Thatcher didn’t believe in society and as a rejection of the New Labour instinct to treat every social ill with a multimillion-pound government taskforce.

The “big society” failed for many reasons. Traditionalist Tories thought it was a vacuous PR exercise. Cameron’s lack of intellectual application supported that view. In the context of budget austerity it also looked like a euphemism for a neo-Thatcherite assault on the welfare state.

Among the few people who took the “big society” seriously were intellectuals on the left, mostly under the “Blue Labour” banner, who also criticised the Blair-Brown governments for relying on impassive and ineffective bureaucracy to deliver social progress. In 2012, Jon Cruddas, the leader of Labour’s policy review, told the New Statesman: “[David Cameron]’s idea of a ‘big society’ was a recognition of the way our social relationships have become more impoverished . . . Labour made a mistake by dismissing Cameron’s pro-social politics. We now have the opportunity to develop our traditions of reciprocity, mutualism and co-operation. The party grew out of collective self-help and popular movements of self-improvement. Labour’s social alternative must be about rebuilding Britain from the ground up.”

On the left, Blue Labour, with its twin aversions to centralised state intervention and globalisation, leads to uncomfortable terrain for the generation that was steeped in mid-Nineties metro-Blairism. It is more Eurosceptic and nostalgic for class consciousness. It is also explicitly English.

Towards the end of the 20th century, the liberal left came to the largely unspoken conclusion that Britishness was the preferred vehicle for expressing national identity. It was felt to be safer from connotations of ethnic exclusivity because it lumped together the different peoples of the United Kingdom. It was the Union Jack that New Labour waved to project inclusive modernity. (“We are patriots. This is the patriotic party because it is the people’s party,” Blair said in 1995. A year later, Peter Mandelson said: “We have reclaimed the flag. It is restored as an emblem of national pride and national diversity, restored from years as a symbol of division and intolerance . . .”)

The English flag and celebration of Englishness were judged too angry and too white. But English identity was in the ascendant – helped in no small measure by the 1996 European football championship, hosted by England and accompanied by the bedecking of every object with the Cross of St George.

The years of New Labour’s decline and fall coincided with a rise in English self-awareness. In a 2013 survey by the Institute for Public Policy Research think tank, 60 per cent of respondents felt their Englishness to be more important than their Britishness, with only 16 per cent feeling the opposite. Some 60 per cent also said they had come to feel this way more strongly in recent years. This was true across social and geographical groups with the notable exception of black and ethnic-minority communities in England, which still prefer Britishness.

There is a number of explanations. Scottish and Welsh devolution and the rise of nationalism in both countries raised the salience of Englishness as the least politically assertive identity in the UK. Meanwhile, the Tories had been expelled from Scotland and most of Wales and proceeded to define themselves by hostility to the EU. So the main political opposition at Westminster was simultaneously nationalistic in tone and English in composition.

It also seems plausible that Englishness came to be a haven of self-identification for people who felt excluded from the New Labour carnival of modish urbanity precisely because Britishness had been
appropriated to that cause. “That Nineties thing was such a small group of people, nearly all of whom lived in London,” notes John Denham. “Most of the country was left outside that dialogue.”

Denham describes himself as part of the “English nationalist wing” of the Labour Party, which calls for an explicit engagement with identity politics. The aim is to mobilise the dissenting, egalitarian strains of English history that can support an open and tolerant progressive politics to rival
the bitterness that nurtures Ukip. “There is no reason why English identity should become an older-white-working-class, racist or xenophobic thing. We have so many other ways of expressing ourselves.”

Yet the myth took hold that the English were the one group of people whose voice was not being amplified in the political choir, pushed as they were to the back of the line-up behind Brussels bureaucrats, Scots and asylum-seekers. Given that Britishness became the sterile label on a bloodless constitutional entity, Englishness was the natural vehicle for cultural grievance.

“During the New Labour years, Englishness offered a language of inheritance and tradition that expressed a deep opposition to the metropolitan hubris and state-led managerialism with which those governments were often associated,” says Michael Kenny, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London and the author of The Politics of English Nationhood.

Some of that opposition has attached itself to far-right organisations – the British National Party (BNP), which is more English than its name implies, and the English Defence League (EDL). That support has since been subsumed into the growth of Ukip. At a public meeting on 1 April, Farage said he was “quite proud” to have poached a third of the BNP’s support since the last general election, and explained it as a strategy. “What we did,” he said, “is for the first time try and deal with the BNP question by going out and saying to BNP voters: ‘If you’re voting BNP because you’re frustrated, upset, with the changes in your community but you’re doing it holding your nose because you don’t agree with their racist agenda, come and vote for us.’ ”

Ukip attracts protest votes from non-racists but also gives fascists a route to political respectability. The boundary is blurred. Farage’s rhetoric is potent because it transcends the bovver-booted venom of the far right to mine a richer seam of mainstream English resentment. (Ukip is barely relevant in Scotland, where the Scottish National Party is unassailable as the vanguard of anti-Westminster insurgency.)

Cameron poses arguably the greatest obstacle to Tory hopes of recovering ground that has been lost to Ukip. A segment of older, conservative voters who had no identification with the New Labour project could, for a while, expect redress in the event of the Conservatives returning to power. But instead, they got coalition under a prime minister who, in purely cultural terms, seemed to offer continuity Blairism – a negligible shift in attitudes from Islington to Notting Hill. Many old-fashioned Tories harbour the suspicion that Cameron despises them.

In reality he has made considerable efforts to woo back his party’s disgruntled defectors. The Tories could hardly have been clearer in their determination to deprive immigrants of benefits and their eagerness for a referendum on EU membership. That may persuade some waverers, but it isn’t adequate compensation for those who feel that the Prime Minister has been complicit in a more fundamental crime. Cameron stands for the smug plutocracy that has taken away their country. Farage offers himself as the man to take it back.

The kind of Englishness Cameron represents is establishment to the core. The mix of Downton Abbey breeding and west London mores makes him almost uniquely ill-equipped to project empathy with people who feel dispossessed. As the leader of the opposition, Miliband might, in theory, be better placed. But so much of the anger that is now spilling out against politics accrued under the last Labour government. Miliband also leads a pro-European party that is historically (and rightly) suspicious of nationalism and uncomfortable legitimising a politics of white male anger that conflicts with its anti-racist and feminist instincts. In any case, Miliband has no experience beyond politics that he can mobilise to present himself as an outsider.

Neither does Farage. He is a public school-educated (unlike Miliband) former City trader who is spending money running a party financed mostly by a handful of former Conservative donors. Ukip gets away with calling itself anti-establishment because it has redefined “the establishment” to mean anyone who was elected in the era of the Great Betrayal of pro-Europeanism and mass immigration.

Farage is also effective because he appears to say what he thinks. The three main party leaders exhibit a squeamishness in expressing commonality with the electorate, because they have so little shared experience with the people they aim to represent. Instead of empathy, they offer a mannered facsimile of empathy, cobbled together from fleeting campaign-trail encounters with voters.

“Politics is ceasing to offer people a resonant language, a way of orienting yourself in the world and expressing expropriation, disenchantment, and a way of offering a better future,” says Michael Kenny.

Much more is at stake here than the outcome of the next general election. There is a ceiling on the level of support Ukip can reach, set by its own hostility to swaths of modern Britain and its tendency to recruit cranks. The party’s organisation is currently inadequate to the task of reaching its full potential. Farage’s energy may flag. His bubble could burst. The energy that inflated it will not then dissipate. Politics has already been changed by it.

We are witnessing the start of a battle to decide the character of English national identity in the 21st century, and Ukip is dictating the terms. It threatens an inversion of the old liberation struggles, with white men revelling in supposed victimhood and pluralist politics cast in the role of a colonising power to be overthrown. Tolerance and liberalism, both of which have deep roots in England, are on the defensive.

The constituency that feeds Farageism is radical and disruptive. It believes itself to be under attack and it wants to fight back. This is not Little England. It is Militant England and its march is unopposed.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

JIM WATSON/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Welcome to the zoo: what it feels like to report a presidential campaign

Hatred of the mainstream media was a theme at both the Republican and Democratic conventions. Yet how much of the incipient cartoon fascism on show was our fault?

Here’s how you cover an American political convention: you get up inhumanly early to fire off your first emails, chugging down hotel coffee that tastes like burnt leather. Then you put on your least-squashed outfit and you drag yourself through crowds of sweating delegates to an event or a talk (or, if you’re unlucky, the treadless circus of the convention floor), and you watch and listen with your phone in your hand and one eye on social media until you run across something that you think might be worth writing about.

You email your editor from the phone to see if your sense is correct, and the idea is saleable. Meanwhile, you’ve started looking for somewhere to open your laptop and bang out your copy. You write it. You buy a coffee so they don’t kick you out of the café. You scramble for healthy wifi. You talk your way into the giant car park repurposed as a crèche for journalists outside the arena, where your organisation has a tiny table, and Google and Facebook have giant booths distributing free snacks, just to remind you who’s really in charge of the media.

Then you file your copy. You send the link out all over social media, because that’s part of your job, and you go in search of food with your eyes all glassy from screen glare, until you have to do it again. Whenever your editor goes to bed, you think about wrapping up and relocating to a bar where you can flirt with half of your attention while drinking beer and scrolling, constantly, through social media.

At some point around 4am, you clock off and spend an hour searching for a cab that you hope you’re going to be able to put against expenses, and you chat to the driver on your way to your overpriced, out-of-town hotel, too tired to register the shock of a conversation with an actual human being. Later on, in a hotel room that you can’t afford, you ask yourself: how does it feel to have made something that hates you?

In the two heat-drunk, deadline-crazed weeks that I spent at the Republican and Democratic conventions this summer, that line kept echoing in my mind. It’s spoken by an android to its creator in the Alex Garland film Ex Machina, but the 15,000 journalists, reporters, columnists, television crew members and media flunkies gathered to watch the biggest American political showdown of this half-decade could have asked ourselves the same question. Hatred of the mainstream media was a theme at both conventions. Yet how much of the incipient cartoon fascism on show was our fault? And what can we do to stop it?

This is a story about stories, the people who tell them and the price we pay. In all the thousands of essays, reports, video diaries, interviews and listicles produced at and around the lumbering pageant of the US presidential race, one class of person is supposed to be almost invisible, and that is the people who do the work of production: the journalists. But what is happening in politics today, particularly in the United States, and particularly in this election, has everything to do with the media – the industry, yes, but also the people in it. If the media are the message, the message is anxious, incoherent and mired in a money crisis that it has no idea how to handle. Not unlike America, as it happens.

***

Just in case you’ve had the good fortune to have spent the past two years under a rock, let’s recap. These US conventions are the official nominating ceremonies for the presidential candidates of the Democratic and Republican Parties, as well as four-day pageants at which lobbyists and media flunkies come to flirt and network and make whatever passes (in professional political terms) for friends. The candidate selection is merely the excuse for this shindig, and this time the fix was in before it had even begun.

The Democrats had chosen the former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, representing the centre-liberal status quo with a corporate feminist twist and a side order of hawkish sabre-rattling. Her main challenger was the veteran socialist Bernie Sanders, who believes in wealth redistribution, free university education and social justice and gained an enormous following among young voters who have not yet accepted that they owe their votes to any candidate with a blue ribbon.

On the Republican side, a field of whey-faced religious extremists had been cleared for Donald Trump, the real-estate tycoon and reality-television star, who stands on a platform of imposing a “complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”, building a border wall with Mexico and replacing the entire US electoral system with a giant statue of his gelatinous face, sculpted from misdirected class rage. This, more than anyone, was the man we had all come to see.

One of the liturgies of doctrinal Trumpism is that there is a thing called “the mainstream media”, which tries to control what “ordinary” people think, despite knowing next to nothing about their lives. The mainstream media are assumed to be homogeneous, cosmopolitan, well paid, based almost exclusively in New York and the Beltway of Washington, and liberal to its core. This is a more accurate description of Trump than it is of most US journalists I know.

Trump did not invent performative hostility towards the “mainstream media”. Every insurgent politician in recent years has taunted the press in public, while giving hacks hungry for copy exactly what they want: a story that draws in readers. And a great many journalists, at least those who have not yet given up on the notion of speaking truth to power, feel less comfortable when power tries to court us than we do when it pretends to hate us.

The ways in which we create and consume media today are not the same as they were even four years ago, during what was dubbed in the US as “the social media election”. Rapid changes in communications technology have reshaped the terrain more thoroughly than those employed to scry in the entrails of the internet for the future of human thought can anticipate. What is clear is that power flows to those who can understand and exploit the hysterical reality engine called the media – and that has always been the case.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Franklin Delano Roosevelt swayed the nation with his deft use of radio – and so did Adolf Hitler. In the 1960s, John F Kennedy became the first “television president”, beating his opponent, Richard Nixon, in televised debates that radio listeners felt that Nixon had won. Ronald Reagan, a professional actor, perfected that position. Barack Obama is the first US president to understand and exploit the full potential of the internet, recognising that social media can be used to reshape the calcified structures of money and messaging that are still, across the West, called democracy.

This year, Donald Trump – a reality TV mogul before he is anything else – has taken control of the narrative, understanding, like Europe’s right-wing populist pundits, that it is possible to bypass facts altogether and hit the electorate in the incoherent space of pure emotion. What, at a time like this, does journalism mean? What does it mean to be a member of the press in an age when there is no longer a clear distinction between media and meatspace, between reality and television?

***

 American political conventions are not the staid, rainwashed yearly affairs that we are used to in Britain. Every four years, the Republican and Democratic Parties throw a festival for thousands of lawmakers, lawyers, reporters, lobbyists and the occasional actual voter on their break from handing around snacks at press parties. It lasts four days, because that’s how long it took originally to count up delegates from every state, and now the rest of the time is filled up with boozing, hobnobbing and wearing clothes that make everyone look like they’re live-action role-playing the most depressing parts of the mid-1980s. There are speeches, and more speeches, musical interludes by tame celebrities, blind children singing the national anthem, and quite a lot of God-bothering – and much of the main action doesn’t start until 4pm every day, in order to give people time to recover from the night before.

This would not work in Britain. America still takes itself too seriously to consider how crass this looks to an outside world that also has reason to fear a vicious, swollen toddler with alarming hair being given access to the US nuclear codes. This year, the Republican convention in Cleveland, Ohio, came first, as befits the case for the prosecution of the political status quo. On the Saturday before it began, the airport was already lousy with journalists looking for Trump people to interview.

Armed police circled the terminal as a choir of children from local schools sang patriotic lullabies to soothe us into what would be a two-week fever dream of nativist fear-mongering and empty political pageantry. The candidates, remember, had already been decided by a grudging, deeply divided electorate. All that was left was ritual, and the dim, thrilling possibility that someone might do something off-message.

I bought the first coffee of the week and got in a cab to call my editor while my synapses soaked in diluted stimulants. The roads were jammed with thousands of hacks doing the same, some of whom already had deadlines to meet. Nothing had happened yet. That didn’t matter. We were here to create news, not report it.

“The threshold for news now is very low,” said Matt Pearce, a reporter for the LA Times and an old friend from (where else?) the internet. “There are more of us running around and there’s less to do. A lot of us were bracing for something potentially as bad as the protests at the DNC [Democratic National Convention] in Chicago in 1968 . . . That’s always the conflicted part of the business. Chaos and mayhem make for selling newspapers, but if you live here in Cleveland, you want nothing to go wrong.”

Why did we come here? To see the show. We had heard that there would be protests, which always make good copy, and dissent on the convention floor. And we knew without doubt that there would be frothing cryptofascism, which makes better copy. The more Trump claims to hate the press, the more we fall over ourselves to give him the attention he craves. He is an insider trader in the attention economy.

I heard the word “zoo” repeatedly. The reporters had “come to see the zoo”. A zoo: where you pay to see dumb and dangerous beasts in cages, and then eat ice cream. Is that where we thought we were? There were wire fences around the convention zone and the people there knew that they were on show, putting on a spectacle for the liberal media that they claimed roundly to despise. Trump’s people made it clear that this convention was about showbiz, although the celebrity roll-call was Lynyrd Skynyrd, a man from a TV show called Duck Dynasty and a handful of C-list actors. The DNC had Snoop Dogg.

As delegates, lobbyists and reporters continued to flood into Cleveland, nothing – at least nothing resembling substantive news of any kind – continued to happen relentlessly. But we were all hoping for a moment of transcendence, a big breakthrough. A great observation or piece of writing that would make our editors proud and our landlords happy, back in the places we were from – sorry, the places we were based. None of the reporters, it seemed, was from anywhere. Instead, we were based in New York, or based in Washington, or based in a small village in Finland. We were transient half-people, scrapping for meaning and a living.

It quickly became apparent that the promised protests would not be occurring. We had prepared ourselves for open-carry gun marches and riots in the streets, and so had the police of every local district, who had been shipped in to bristle on every corner, but anyone with a sensible point to make had decided to stay at home. The gun protest turned out mainly to consist of a man with two guns, with dozens of reporters circling him like hungry vultures that had heard the dying screams of political discourse.

Mark Twain is apocryphally said to have observed that there were only three real American cities – New York, New Orleans and San Francisco – and everywhere else was Cleveland. The place did look like it had been hastily constructed out of plywood and the overwhelming impression was of being backstage on a giant movie set, which helped with the sense of unreality not one jot. Nor did the way that everyone in town seemed to spend between a third and half of their waking hours staring at a phone or a laptop screen. The screen-time/real-time distinction had disintegrated completely and we had all come a long way to be in the same place, looking at our phones.

Still hazy from jet lag, I dunked myself in a basement swimming pool; its acid-blue water was the temperature of fresh urine. I dried off in the bar, chlorine tightening my skin. Next to me on an unforgiving leather sofa, Adele M Stan, a reporter from the American Prospect, was wrapped in a shawl, checking her phone. This, she told me, was the strangest political convention of the seven that she had attended. Many of the major Republican political players, unwilling to yoke themselves to Trump’s toxic popularity, had decided to skip it, and so had most activists with any sense. Instead, the space around the stadium was a clear field for ranters, ravers and swivel-eyed performance artists masquerading as political actors – just like the stage.

For two weeks, in two cities, I met almost nobody who was local. The town centres had been cleared and scrubbed for the event, the local tramps and beggars ungently encouraged to move on. Often, even the waiting staff and Uber drivers had come from out of town. Many of the real citizens had left to rent out their homes on Airbnb. 

Everyone in the action zones seemed to be from somewhere else.

I know nobody from Cleveland and yet, within an hour of arriving, I had run into five people I know. They had come to get the story. It quickly became apparent that they had also come to get laid. I have never been so consistently hit on as I was in those first three days in Cleveland. Tinder was lit with people “in town for the week, trying this out for the first time”.

I ended up having some of my most honest conversations of the trip with other reporters on the instant dating app, where we seemed to feel more free to voice our political opinions. We would start off straight-up flirting, then ease into confidences about how bizarre the experience was and intimate existential panic about the nature of sanity, bracketed in plaintive requests for the sort of sex you have with strangers as the world is ending. I matched with two people from The Daily Show. The week was a stew of pre-fascist panic: mate or die.

***

On the walk down to the convention centre in Cleveland, the streets seemed empty except for stray reporters, security guards and a giant billboard howling: “Don’t believe the liberal media!” Overhead, a chartered plane flew the slogan “Hillary for Prison”. This line was available over the next few days on buttons, badges, T-shirts, baseball caps and mugs, announcing to the world that the trolls had taken the wheel of political discourse. Hillary for Prison. Like much of what passes for political conversation in this election, it makes sense only if you say it in an American accent, and it’s not as funny as it seems.
Outside on the corner, two enterprising young men with button-down shirts and ice-white smiles that did not flicker were selling Clinton- and Trump-themed boxes of cereal for $40 each, because they had college debts that they couldn’t rely on the Democrats to cancel. I switched on the recorder, a decision I almost immediately regretted. The spiel they gave me was so polished that I was unsurprised, a quick Google search later, to find five articles about them already published.

There was still little to do but drink coffee, so a square mile of cleared city was full of reporters running around, wired and jumpy, wondering what we were missing. We were desperate for something, anything to kick off, not because we liked the idea of civil unrest but – hey, it had to be better than cluttering up the hotel lobby.

Speaking of hotel lobbies, one thing bears repeating: most of the reporters in Cleveland weren’t as fancy as we were making out. For every well-known news anchor and overpaid op-ed writer, there were dozens of production crew, staff bloggers and freelance reporters living from pay cheque to pay cheque. On Monday afternoon in the aptly named Public Square, I met up with five reporters whom I had known since we all got our start together covering Occupy Wall Street in 2011. They had driven down from New York and found a floor to crash on in the hope of making enough money covering the convention to pay for the trip. Back in 2011, it seemed that new media had the power to reframe democracy. Five years later, that turned out to be entirely true – but not in the way we expected.

We gathered to reminisce about that time, about the protests, the excitement, the arrests, the brief, gorgeous sense that a different world was possible. We’d also heard that Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine would perform an impromptu concert in the square for the protesters, so we sat at a café table, waiting for that to begin. Rage had been all over Occupy like a rash and could be relied on to drum up some modest mayhem.

In the opposite corner, a few dozen young people were gathered around a speaker stage. We spent an hour checking social ­media with one eye, while catching up on what had happened in each other’s lives – who had got married, who had broken up, who’d been made redundant, who had got custody of the dog. We met covering Occupy Wall Street; now we are, apparently, the liberal media establishment. It took us an hour to realise that the people crowded around the small stage were not the warm-up for the protest. They were the protest. By that time, it was over.

***

I turned up to the Washington Post’s convention-viewing party with a gaggle of other young hacks, all of our well-honed powers of observation focused on predicting when the snack table would be restocked and how long we could stay before somebody noticed that we were freeloading freelancers who came here to pinch the wifi. The Washington Post, underwritten by Amazon money, took over a bar near the convention centre and offered on-site massages and craft beers. There were also speaking events throughout the day. Nick Pinto of the Village Voice was not the only one to notice that those who had sponsored the shindig, including representatives of Big Oil, got to put their point of view across unchallenged at these events. So much for liberal bias.

On the big screens behind the free bar, the convention speeches were playing, but almost nobody was watching. Nobody was watching as Willie Robertson, one of the stars of the Duck Dynasty TV show, took to the stage to curse out the “mainstream media”, which lived in a different world from “regular folks like us, who like to hunt and fish and pray and actually work for a living”. “It’s been a rough year for media experts,” he said. “It must be humbling to be so wrong about so much for so long.”

At the Republican convention, I saw 15,000 reporters trying to find a new, original angle on the only story that mattered – that a dark mood of nationalist populism had taken hold in the world’s only superpower and whatever the outcome of this election, there will be suffering. There will be pain, distributed among millions. I saw the flags in the arena, the pomp and excess, the hundreds of fists raised. Country-rock music played throughout. It was like a nightmare marriage of Nuremberg in 1933 and the Eurovision Song Contest, and I knew that this story was not new.

***

Journalists have a way of acting as if we were not political animals with political appetites, as if we were spectators. There may have been a time, in a previous generation, when this was true, when commentators and editors got to play politics like it was a game. But times are changing and so is the industry, and we’ve got skin in this game. Nobody who expects to be personally unaffected by a Donald Trump presidency would, for instance, steal an entire jar of BuzzFeed-branded pens (including the jar), which is what I saw a young freelancer doing at the Washington Post party. By the end of the first week, we were all ready for a little bit of hope. But that wasn’t the story the Democrats were selling, given their reluctance to lie with such lucrative momentum as their rivals.

Philadelphia in late July was hotter than the underbelly of the sun and the air was soupy with moisture. This is not a place where Europeans should ever have settled, for a number of good reasons of which the weather is not the least. The heat sent everyone a bit loopy, as if we were walking through treacle in a dream. And, like in a dream, the narrative kept slipping out of focus. From the start, the messaging was all about the grand story of America, a nation that does not need to be made “great again” because it is already great, a nation that survives by hallucinating its own legend – but the gathered press could not help but share the sense of having been cheated. The awkward truth that Trump and his followers have tapped into is that there are millions of people for whom America is not, and never has been, all that great.

A few days before the speeches started, the crypto-justice trolls WikiLeaks dropped an enormous cache of emails from the Democratic National Committee’s server that had probably been hacked by Russian agents. These appeared to show, to the surprise of nobody, that the Democratic Party had been manoeuvring against Bernie Sanders from the start.

The convention opened with accusations of corruption and the announcement that Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic chair, was resigning. That afternoon, hundreds of Sanders supporters braved the heat to stand outside City Hall to make their feelings known. The one thing I heard from everyone I interviewed – and the one point of agreement between the Bernie supporters and Trump’s people – was that the mainstream media were not to be trusted.

The overwhelming impression of being a reporter at the DNC was of being held hostage – literally, as well as figuratively. Everyone was too tired to move and certainly too tired to flirt. Where the Republican convention was a slosh of sexual energy, of directionless desire, the Democrats’ was all about desire deferred. I deleted Tinder from my phone to make more space for interviews.

The convention centre was miles out of town and getting in involved a system of passes and checkpoints so complicated that you would have been loath to go outside the media zone, even if it weren’t more than 30°C in the shade. The press was stashed in a system of speciously air-conditioned marquees outside the convention hall, with three stinking porta-potties to service thousands of reporters and no water available. Jerry Springer was there, and I had no idea why. Is he a Democrat? Or does he simply materialise wherever reality television meets Freudian psychodrama, wherever people try to pretend that working-class people screaming at each other is entertainment?

It was, more than anything, a physical slog. The tone was set by the way in which the perimeter had been given over to Uber, so that it was hard to get close without taking the on-demand car service. Entry to the security zone was through an oasis-like Uber tent, where you could pick up free water in exchange for your lingering discomfort with Silicon Valley economics. It’s like being in a rewrite of Children of Men for the gig economy. A new adventure in bleak.

Many of the reporters in attendance had just come from Cleveland and were already worn out from a week of frantic deadline-wrangling and late-night networking – not optional in an industry in which job security is based largely on personal connections. Here, the reporters were taken for granted and so was our good coverage. The understanding was that we would encourage our readers, implicitly or explicitly, to support the nominee because we had no other option. By the end of the second day, it wasn’t clear if we would even be allowed to leave without at least a tweet declaring ourselves #WithHer.

On day two, after the roll-call of states was read out and Clinton was officially nominated, some Sanders delegates – who had hoped for something more than the status quo with a feminist varnish – staged a walkout. The first I saw of this was movement in the media tent, that unmistakable herd motion of reporters who realise potential copy is happening near them, like chickens moving as one at the rattle of the seed trough.

Finally, something off-message was happening. After days of manoeuvring to ensure that no left-wing protesters got near the press, they came right to us. T-shirted delegates from Alabama, Ohio and Tennessee stood in the press tent with hand-drawn signs and sticky tape half hanging off their mouths. They had taped their mouths shut to symbolise their silencing by the Democratic committee but were having to untape themselves every few minutes to give interviews and, after the third or fourth time of doing this, the tape started to lose its stickiness. Those trapped outside chanted: “The whole world is watching!” For once, at least for those with a broadband connection, this was true.

They played us like Slick Willie plays the saxophone. It was masterful. We heat-exhausted copy-monkeys, strung out on hours of refreshing TweetDeck, found ourselves standing on tables, holding our phones aloft like protective amulets, trying to capture whatever it was that was happening, because something, for the first time in days, was definitely happening. Something unplanned. Something off-script.

The decision to occupy the media tent was borderline genius. It was one of the best-played protest moves I had ever seen, placing the dissenters instantly in front of the world’s cameras. Like the convention, it was staged not for those who were present but for readers and viewers elsewhere. The internet was the invisible current in the room. The rest of America and the rest of the world were not here, but we were haunted by them – by the sense that real life was going on just outside the room.

Yet, like in a horror movie from the scrag-end of the 1990s, it turned out that we were the ghosts all along. It turned out that we, the delegates, the lobbyists, the spectators and the precarious, anxious press corps, were the ones haunting the real world through the internet, trying to make sense of a story that had run far ahead of us, trying to form the narratives of which material life is made. We sneer at reality TV without understanding that we are active producers in the greatest reality show of all: US politics.

It was enough. I didn’t care enough about what Hillary Clinton had to say to drag myself through the sweltering nightmare of the convention centre for another minute, so my colleague and I fought our way to a cab and watched it on TV, at home. It turned out that Clinton had little to add to the story that America has been trying to tell about itself for decades, apart from a fantastic array of pantsuits and a series of promises that she will be under no obligation to keep.

With the world facing the alternative of Donald Trump, it is now on us – those who create and sustain the narratives of identity and change in the US and beyond – to make that sell, in order to avert disaster. We may not be the establishment but we find ourselves in a position of having to advocate for it, and to do so convincingly to those for whom the prospect of a woman president is not sufficient to inspire faith in a better future. That’s what the media are good for right now, in this fever dream of an election – and it might not be enough.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser