Argument

As Britain Gawps at U.S. Chaos, Violence Could Cross the Atlantic

The U.K. can’t afford complacency in a politically poisoned Anglosphere.

U.S. Capitol Police detain pro-Trump rioters outside the House Chamber during a joint session of Congress in Washington on Jan. 6.
U.S. Capitol Police detain pro-Trump rioters outside the House Chamber during a joint session of Congress in Washington on Jan. 6. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Ever since a reality TV personality was elected president of the United States, British political journalists have gotten into the habit of staying up all night to gawk. Elections, by-elections, Twitter storms, impeachment proceedings—thanks to the time difference, we wake up and predict what might happen across the pond and then fight sleep to watch events unfold. After days of being glued to live coverage on CNN, we joked that the election of “Sleepy” Joe Biden might finally afford us a good night’s sleep. It’s soap opera; it’s journalistic junk food. It’s all-consuming and at once unfamiliar.

It wasn’t always this way, of course. Britain’s addiction to the West Wing is relatively new; a product of the digital revolution that occurred alongside the George W. Bush administration. We stopped to look and never turned away. But the 24/7 flow of information back and forth that keeps us so agog has become a vector for poison running into the veins of British politics.

There were few restful dreams in Westminster Wednesday night. As a horde of flag-bearing pro-Trump rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol building, British politicians and media alike watched, powerless from the other side of the Atlantic, and wondered what it meant for them—and, perhaps, what part they might have played in instigating it.

Former UK Independence Party leader, Brexit poster boy, and noted Trump sycophant Nigel Farage was quickest out of the gate with his tweet: “Storming Capitol Hill is wrong. The protesters must leave.” Like an aging bloodhound, he can still smell trouble. Piers Morgan, one of the most influential celebrity journalists in the U.K. and an enthusiastic Trump devotee for years, tweeted: “President Trump must be removed from office with immediate effect.” The Good Morning Britain host later wrote in his Daily Mail column that Donald Trump had “morphed into a monster” and called for his impeachment. “I never imagined he would be capable of becoming what he’s now become,” he wrote. Both are trying to put daylight between themselves and a man who, even as he retains the loyalty of millions of people, may be turning politically toxic at last.

There is a cognitive dissonance in how the U.K. covers, and digests, the news from the United States. British journalists revere their better paid, more glamorous media counterparts in global newsrooms and imagine themselves colleagues, even while the most successful cross the Atlantic for double the pay and leave them distant in their wake.

Similarly, the British are both fascinated by and disdainful of political events in the United States. The moral snootiness is a poor mask for jealousy and fear of the country’s own declining relevance. America’s systems are esoteric, the talk shows are risible, but the power is gargantuan and the money unimaginable. It’s close enough to hurt them deeply but not close enough to force Britons to consider their own complicity. Instead, they throw up their hands, send thoughts and prayers, and sigh over the erstwhile colony, a country that seems just similar enough to be discomfortingly foreign. Because fundamentally they believe: “It could never happen in Britain.”

But the cultural exchange, political reverberance, and linguistic symbiosis between the U.K. and the United States, exemplified by figures like Farage, mean that, yes, it absolutely can happen here. Don’t forget Jo Cox, the Labour MP who was fatally shot and stabbed multiple times by a far-right terrorist radicalized by neo-Nazi groups and xenophobic rhetoric in the run-up to the referendum. Witnesses testified that he shouted, “Britain first!” as he attacked her. That was four years ago.

In the years since, Britain has experienced its own mirroring surge in right-wing violence, in domestic terrorism, in xenophobia and racial hatred. Climate science denialism and anti-vaxxer sentiment is skyrocketing. Britons, too, are being radicalized and brainwashed by online conspiracy theories like QAnon. That raises the dangers of copycat movements, seeing the success of extreme actions in the United States: British political institutions like Parliament and even No. 10 Downing St. are far more accessible to the public and vulnerable to attack than the Capitol complex in Washington.

The channels of exchange between the United States and the U.K. go far beyond the special relationship or the media conglomerates and digital newsrooms that span the Atlantic. Language is key here; English is the lingua franca of the internet. That leaves American content dangerously overrepresented and means we are all swimming in the same sewers. Britannia does not rule the digital waves, and terms such as “cuck” that originated with the U.S. far-right have been happily adopted by their British counterparts.

Even in journalism, figures like climate science denier James Delingpole, the editor of Breitbart UK, have moved from being relatively conventional British conservatives to imitating their more extreme U.S. counterparts. Milo Yiannopoulos, the racist provocateur who fell from grace after praising pedophilia, got his start blogging on the most traditionally conservative of all British outlets: the Daily Telegraph.

The lack of ability to actually participate has allowed British journalists carte blanche to commentate on U.S. politics, with no real consideration of the consequences. After the 2016 referendum, there was much performative soul-searching on the part of the British media about “where we went wrong,” causing an overcorrection to the right in the name of balance, populism, and the “left behind.” But, like the U.S. media in the run-up to his election, the British media reveled in Trump, mined his mania for clicks, and treated him as a joke. Now he’s the one laughing.

Thursday morning saw a slew of think pieces, analyses, and columns desperate to roll back on years of tacit approval of Trump’s baser nature. Penance for years of clickbait and a media landscape that rewards intellectual gymnastics, playful whataboutery, and having been to the same school as the editor. But even alongside that, fatuous comparisons are being drawn between the scenes of fascist uprising on Wednesday and the Remainer-led protests over Brexit and the referendum. Even now, there are a politicians ready to use Wednesday’s tragedy to further their own agenda in Britain. Even now, there are right-wing pro-Trump commentators being prepped by producers to appear on national radio for the sake of “balance.”

And still, there are key media figures who believe that online events are nothing but “noise” that could not possibly translate to real life. There are top journalists who have no idea what Parler or Telegram actually is and can’t tell their 4chan from their 8kun. British newsrooms are only just waking up to the threat of right-wing online radicalization and disinformation, even as British citizens are being radicalized by it.

Trump has ended his term true to his word, by putting America first—and turning it on itself like a rabid monster. His presidency has been all his detractors’ nightmares come true. But Trumpism will not end with the inauguration of Biden, nor will the poisonous flow of its worst impulses stop at America’s shores.

Harriet Marsden is a freelance journalist and broadcaster in London. Twitter: @harriet1marsden

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