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18 July 2018

We dismiss the threat of populist blowhards at our peril

Why the likes of Nigel Farage and Piers Morgan aren’t funny any more.   

By Helen Lewis

Where do they get it, these guys – where does a person acquire that rock-hard confidence that doubles as a reality distortion field? A certain type of man has taken over public life, and their uniting quality is this – you can’t see anything close to a chink in their impermeable wall of self-belief. (And yes, I’m saying men, because true gender equality will only be reached when a woman demonstrates the bulletproof pomposity of Piers Morgan, the shameless lack of preparation that characterises Donald Trump’s approach to foreign policy, or the unsinkable conviction of Boris Johnson that he’s the reincarnation of Winston Churchill.)

It’s tempting to point the finger at the usual suspects: class privilege, private school, a family who should have said “darling, sometimes you have to let other people talk” more often. All of the above exude the ease that comes from assuming you will always land on your feet. It’s a turbocharged version of Pulp’s greatest lyric: “If you called your dad, he could stop it all.” Except it isn’t dad, it’s a whole ecosystem set up to coddle and protect exactly the kind of people who quack on about bootstraps and self-reliance and the wonder of the free market, then accept a job from their mate or pick the kind of trade where you fail upwards.

Piers Morgan, only 14 years ago, was sacked as the Daily Mirror editor for printing fake pictures that claimed to show British soldiers committing war crimes. Try screwing up that royally as, say, a paediatric surgeon and see whether you get a sweet gig presenting Good Morning Britain. If Boris Johnson had been selling PPI instead of Brexit, he’d be the subject of robo-calls begging people to settle out of court. Donald Trump lost money running a casino.

The twin protections of self-assurance and our society’s pro-blowhard affirmative action scheme are extremely strong. I recently received an email from a high-status man remonstrating with me about something or other. It made me feel instantly, drenchingly guilty. It was only after a few minutes, and a slower second reading, that I thought: no, sod off, you’re in the wrong here. This was the reality distortion field (RDF) in action: projected so strongly, with such assurance, that I gaslit myself into believing I was at fault.

This is why people who have an RDF are so dangerous. In “The Emperor’s New Clothes” it is only the boy, who doesn’t know better, who can see what’s really happening. Everyone else, no matter how clever, or rich, or sophisticated, finds the lure of consensus overwhelming.

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In 1951, psychology researcher Solomon Asch gathered male students together under the guise of a “vision experiment”, with one genuine participant alongside several people working with the researchers. If the plants gave an obviously incorrect answer to a simple question – which of these lines is the same length as the one in the drawing? – then the naive participant would go along with them 32 per cent of the time. (It was just 1 per cent for the control group.)

We live in a giant global version of the Asch experiment. Surely Morgan must be a good journalist, we think, or he wouldn’t be rewarded with a breakfast show, a newspaper column and the opportunity to interview the US president. Johnson is rewarded with a lucrative Telegraph gig after huffing out of the cabinet; clearly everyone else sees something in him that I can’t. Maybe I’m wrong?

Sometimes, the effect of the RDF is merely annoying: it offends natural justice that bad things don’t happen to bad people. Occasionally it is disturbing. Take Nigel Farage. His party is effectively defunct, his main source of income (as an MEP) is ending, and he has been reduced to hosting radio phone-ins. And yet on 12 July, the BBC’s late-night political programme This Week tweeted a cosy joke. “Some say there’s just not enough @Nigel_Farage on TV, so to make up for it, we have doubled up in this shot,” the message ran, alongside a picture of Farage holding forth, with a mini-Nige in the camera’s monitor.

Ha ha ha. It’s funny, you see, because Farage still gets booked by a publicly funded broadcaster after speaking at a far-right rally in Germany – which, if I remember rightly, was the kind of thing we ostracised people for, back in the good old days of the 1930s. If Oswald Mosley were alive today, he wouldn’t be banned from speaking on the BBC, but instead asked to dress up as St George for an amusing “bit” on a late-night programme, booked on Question Time to “balance” Gina Miller, and offered a show on LBC where he could take phone calls about “rapefugees” and creeping sharia.

Farage has perhaps the most impressive RDF in British politics. Because he once appointed himself the voice of a genuine grievance – the abandonment felt by voters in declining post-industrial England – he continues to project a facade of respectability. It has survived endorsing France’s Marine Le Pen. It has survived the Alternative für Deutschland rally, to which he was invited by fellow MEP Beatrix von Storch, who was expelled from the European parliament’s centre-right group for saying that border guards should be able to shoot women and children, and blaming the sex assaults in Cologne on “barbaric, Muslim, rapist hordes”. It will survive, I am sure, Farage’s promotion of Trump strategist Steve Bannon on LBC, where the latter announced that the race-baiting self-styled free speech martyr Tommy Robinson should be freed from prison, to which he was sent for the small matter of trying to collapse a criminal trial. The guard rails of democracy are in real danger, because no one will point out the obvious. The emperor is wearing jackboots.

How far do you have to go, to be beyond the pale in 2018? Unfortunately, it looks as if we’re going to find out.

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This article appears in the 18 Jul 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump-Putin pact