Seven days before the Brexit referendum, the Labour MP Jo Cox was out campaigning for Britain to remain in the European Union, when she was shot, stabbed and murdered by a far-right maniac shouting ‘Britain First’.
People were shocked, and shock instantly turned to rage. This is what happens, they said, when you fan the flames of right-wing extremism. Pundits pointed at a provocative UKIP poster that showed a queue of migrants from the developing world and said, in Trumpian capitals, BREAKING POINT. That was a clear incitement to violence, they said.
The whole political/media class thought that was that. The staff at Vote Leave (the official, pro-Brexit campaign, who hadn’t put out that poster) were despondent. Brexit was now toxic: all their efforts had been tarred with the crazy brush.
Then something strange happened. The polls showing EU support went down, and then, on June 23, to much horror, the British voted Leave. This led to a sense among Remainers that Brexit was not just bad, but possibly evil. The whole country had succumbed to Britain First madness.
But what had happened? Had the British public suddenly become pro-violence? Of course not. The truth is that the Cox story revealed that laws of electoral physics are not immutable. Rolling news and social media renders public reactions ever harder to predict.
Big, even awful ‘surprises’ now do not necessarily influence how people vote. Indeed, perhaps the widespread media assumption that, after Cox, no sane person could support Brexit, prompted a lot of people to think differently. Perhaps the Remain campaign became complacent in the final days. It’s even possible that, had Jo Cox not been murdered, Britain would still be in the European Union.
It’s worth bearing the Cox story in mind when thinking about the pipe bombs mailed to various Trump opponents this week. Nobody died in this latest act of (seemingly) right-wing terror, thank goodness. But one sees the same dynamics at play. Democrats have been far too quick to say that Trump hath wrought this terror.
When shocking things happen – again, happily, the pipe bombs story is not too shocking – people don’t necessarily want politicians to play politics, even if their more ardent supporters are crying out for it.
Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer could not help themselves. Quick as a flash, they fingered Trump. They repeated the point that Trump and his rhetoric were responsible. Rather than expressing relief or gratitude that the President Trump has issued a statement condemning the violence, they said his words were ‘hollow’.
‘Time and time again,’ they said, ‘the President has condoned physical violence and divided Americans with his words and his actions: expressing support for the Congressman who body-slammed a reporter, the neo-Nazis who killed a young woman in Charlottesville, his supporters at rallies who get violent with protesters, dictators around the world who murder their own citizens, and referring to the free press as the enemy of the people.’
Nobody understands how public reactions multiply in the social media age. But the Pelosis and Schumers of this world are less shrewd than Trump when it comes to judging the mood. It would have been far more impressive for them to surprise everyone by not laying the blame directly at Trump’s door. To seize the political opportunity seems not just graceless but foolish. They look cynical.
I know, I know – the Democrats now think they need to fight dirty to beat Trump. They should wrestle the pig. ‘When they go low, we kick em,’ says Eric Holder, adapting Michelle Obama’s maxim for what he thinks is necessary to win in 2018.
But that argument is based on the false premise that the party ever ‘went high’ against Trump. Going high, in Democrat language, means moral grandstanding, making a show virtue, which is itself a vice. It turns out going low pretty much means the same thing.
Nobody can tell whether the bomb threats will influence the midterms. Perhaps it’s not a significant enough news event to make much difference. But it’s not beyond the realms of possibility to suggest the story could actually help Trump, given that the Democrats will be bound to court a backlash by endlessly equating Trumpism with extremism. The lesson of Jo Cox is that you never know.