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Mis-speak and muddle in the transatlantic age of anger and anxiety

By Dafydd Rees
01 October 2020

By Dafydd Rees

The past twenty-four hours have been a bumpy ride for both President Trump and Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

In the US, the reaction to the first Presidential Debate has been one of revulsion. It was “an ugly brawl,” “a train wreck” and a “national disgrace” are just a selection of the more polite views. 

For me, the most insightful opinion came in this morning’s editorial in the New York Times. It argues that the debate left the American people “incapable of agreeing what is true, and what are lies.”

In all the criticism levelled against the President, isn’t it interesting that Democratic challenger Joe Biden’s description of him as a “liar” is the one barb that has gone unnoticed by both President Trump’s allies and his enemies? 

Instead it was Donald Trump’s reference to the Proud Boys extremist hate group to “stand back and stand-by” which is dominating the media’s attention in the debates’ aftermath. 

His own party have gone public with their criticism. Republican Senator Tim Scott from South Carolina, and who is African-American, believes that the President “misspoke,” but has called on Mr Trump to correct any impression that he won’t condemn white supremacists.  

In the UK, the Prime Minister Boris Johnson has also been met with a barrage of hostile reaction.

Today’s Sun, Mail and Telegraph newspapers all focus on the muddle and miscommunication at the heart of Government over Coronavirus. For the Mail, Boris Johnson is Dr Doom, while in the Sun he’s been ridiculed as “Spongeboz Scarepants.”

To get a sense of the prevailing mood, cast an eye over the readers letters’ page in the Daily Telegraph. The word omnishambles is back in vogue.

In the Times, columnist Iain Martin is already imagining a “life after Boris” for the Conservative Party. This week, as many as 80 Tory MP’s were reportedly ready to rebel over the imposition of COVID-19 rules without parliamentary scrutiny.

Yesterday, Boris Johnson apologised for his inability to explain new restrictions. Writing for the Conservative Home website, James Frayne, an ally and adviser to the Prime minister, has advised Boris Johnson to be more honest with the public and focus on the economic impact of COVID-19 or dice with political death.

Over the course of the past few weeks I’ve been part of a Newgate Research project which has involved listening at length to the views of focus groups drawn from across the UK. What struck me time and again over the course of this qualitative research was a widely held sense of confusion and uncertainty.  

 It is my contention that political debate in the US and here in the UK feeds off each other in a kind of feedback loop.

Over the course of the past four years it has left the British public feeling angry and anxious all at the same time. Time and again last weekend, it was the many and varied opinions of Donald Trump which cropped up in general policy conversations.

Uncertainty and disquiet over the economic impact of local lockdowns with no end date in sight,  ever-present health concerns over COVID-19, the never-ending trials and tribulations over Brexit all have had their part to play. Add in the impact of social media and the cumulative effect has been, in my view, to leave an indelible mark on the tone and nature of British political attitudes and thinking. 

COVID-19 rules which are confusing, unfair and inconsistent are also feeding into the narrative that politicians can’t be trusted. When that is set against the backdrop of a nasty and volatile US presidential election, the next few months look set to be a prolonged period of disaffection and frustration both in the US and in the UK.