My Say: The Brexit moments

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This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on December 26, 2016 - January 1, 2017.

As the new year draws closer, I have been in my usual reflective mode, looking back at what a year 2016 has been. Oh, what a dramatic end to an eventful year dominated by that Brexit moment of the unlikely outsider Donald Trump ascending to the US presidency.

We all know what a eureka moment is. It refers to the common human experience of suddenly understanding a previously incomprehensible problem or concept.

But what is a Brexit moment? Of course, the phrase has its origins in the shocking result of the UK referendum on June 23, when the majority of the British people unexpectedly voted to leave the EU.

A Brexit moment, therefore, refers to that rather awkward and unreal human experience of shockingly coming to terms with what was previously believed to be an impossible event becoming a reality.

And nothing can be more surprising and live up to the actual meaning of a Brexit moment than what happened to Michael Gove, one of the chief architects of Brexit, on that fateful June 24.

According to his wife, the journalist Sarah Vine, while much of the nation stayed up into the wee hours of Friday, mesmerised by every new set of results, Gove, thinking that the Brexit campaign had failed, went to bed at 10.30pm and apparently slept soundly — until his phone rang on his bedside table at 4.45am and an excited voice said: “Michael, guess what? We’ve won!”

Vine said, “There was a short pause while he put on his glasses. Then he said, ‘Gosh, I suppose I had better get up’.”

And a Brexit moment is especially hurtful and harder to swallow for the loser and his or her faithful supporters. In this regard, the extraordinary response of The New York Times (NYT) after the US presidential election result was known warrants a notable mention.

After taking a beating almost as brutal as its preferred presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, NYT made an unprecedented appeal to its readers to stand by the paper.

The publisher’s letter to subscribers was part-apology and part-defence of its campaign coverage but the key takeaway was a pledge to do better.

Its publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr admitted that the paper had failed to appreciate Donald Trump’s appeal.

“After such an erratic and unpredictable election there are inevitable questions: Did Donald Trump’s sheer unconventionality lead us and other news outlets to underestimate his support among American voters?” he remarked.

But frankly, who could fault NYT’s publisher and many other media outlets for “underestimating” Trump and his support by American voters?

It is a fact that throughout the presidential election campaign, Trump made numerous controversial, provocative and incongruous statements bordering on ignorance, vulgarity, crudeness and incivility.

Many wondered: Does he have any details of even a single policy proposal? His answer was: “I’m way ahead in the polls.”

When Mitt Romney charged that Trump was unqualified for the presidency simply by virtue of his crude temperament, personal failings and his obvious nature as a charlatan, his reply was: “Romney was a failed candidate.”

And when asked how he will induce Mexico to pay for the wall? His answer was: “Mexico will pay for it!”

All his answers were actually non sequitur (a Latin phrase for “it doesn’t follow”).

In other words, the sentences strung together by Trump simply did not follow a proper sequence and his words did not have the same meaning his readers suppose them to have.

Talking about a non sequitur answer, nothing can beat “Brexit means Brexit”, a phrase coined and made popular by Theresa May, the post-Brexit British prime minister. Just imagine how frustrating and ridiculous it must have been when the people, ever anxious to know more details of the Brexit plan, were repeatedly told, “Brexit means Brexit”.

Another classic example would be Gove’s now-famous statement that “people in this country have had enough of experts”. He made this statement when, in a TV debate, he was pressured to name any economists who backed Britain’s exit from the EU.

Herein lies the common thread of all the speeches made by the pro-Brexit leaders and Trump. They sought to focus on collective emotions, not make reasoned cases for one set of policies over another. They bypassed logos (the appeal to reason) when making their pitch and went directly to pathos (the appeal to emotion) as they strove to elicit tears, laughter and, ultimately, agreement from their supporters.

In dismissing logic and consistency for pure emotion, they created a powerful reality-distortion field in politics.

If you questioned the supporters of the pro-Brexit leaders and Trump, most would concede their men’s many fibs. In their supporters’ minds, though, the “truth” matters less than what is in their heart. It is not that truth and fact do not matter to them but it is that truth and facts do not matter enough to affect whether their supporters want to vote for them.

Be that as it may, many now see Brexit as a revolution. Some see it not only as a British revolution but also as the start of a worldwide movement, from the victory of Brexit in the UK in June to the recent rise of Trump in the US, against the present consensus on globalisation cemented by the political class and sustained by political correctness.

The Brexit moments of 2016 are taking the whole world into uncharted waters in 2017. Yet amid all these uncertainties, at least one thing is certain — historians will ponder the meaning and consequences of the Brexit moments for decades to come.

Khaw Veon Szu, a former executive director of a local think tank, is a practising lawyer. Opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s personal views.