After a while of depressing news years, 2016 may ultimately represent a bottoming out.
Between the seemingly endless cavalcade of celebrity deaths, self-inflicted political upheaval, chaotic scenes in the world, increasingly bleak climate change data and all the rest, what began as a drive to return from a bleak 2015 hit further depths.
To some degree, its a strange achievement given it was a year that bought the eradication of Ebola in Africa among further technological advances in healthcare, a peace deal for the longest running civil war in history, and compelling sport stories both in Team GB’s medal haul at the Olympics, and for 5000-1 outsiders Leicester City beating decorated contemporaries to the Premier League title.
2016 was not as unilaterally terrible as its reputation suggests, but its headlines come saturated in misery. It will also ultimately be defined by 2 acts from the Western world that will cast shadows over the next few decades.
The headline grabbing development of 2016 is the election of Donald Trump as the President of the United States. Its a sentence that, in many respects, still feels extremely weird to see written down, and that is even before factoring in a campaign that dealt in poison instead of policy.
The question of why exactly the businessman wanted the job has never really been answered, and before this, he’d seemed to have become something of a joke. His patchy business record has previously been suggested by financial experts as giving him a smaller fortune than he would’ve done if he’d just lived on the interest of his real estate father, and he’d seemingly gotten a niche nailed down in reality TV.
At the start of his campaign in the summer of 2015, he seemed light on policy, and those policies seemed light on credibility. It also doesn’t help his political initiation came from spreading a racially-motivated and plain wrong conspiracy that Barack Obama was not born in the United States.
This was even before the campaign itself. This was a strangely turbocharged mix of trolling, reality show TV tactics, and blasé attitude to conventional politics. Be it a refusal to release tax returns, bottom feeder politics regarding his opponents in both party and Presidential campaigns, comments about women that culminated in the infamous “grab them by the pussy” tape – one that lost his co-chuckler Billy Bush his job – and more, Trump’s campaign was a toxic whirlwind.
By any normal yardstick, this is a man who shouldn’t really be President. In a normal democracy, the fact he lost the popular vote by just shy of 3 million means he shouldn’t be. Yet thanks to the Electoral College system, a seemingly present connection with people away from the coastal bubbles, or those who bought into the personality cult, years of policies that encourage voter turnout depression coming to a head, a lack of excitement in Hillary Clinton – who, e-mail shenanigans or not, ran a campaign that was primarily uninspiring – and all the rest after an overlong and exhausting campaign, here we are.
Certainly, the troll brigade is delighted. Its a success for them in two streaks – namely the victory for the growing strain of far-right Twitter trolls that have been populating the internet for years, and in the personification of Trump. For years, his Twitter has been a stream of bibble and bile, but now carries the weight of a President and is continuing to look irrational.
The reaction elsewhere has been primarily bewilderment. It has also lead to a reaction of blind panic, such as is the way with a scenario as mired in confusion as in reality. The row over echo chambers is perhaps overdue given how social media bubbles have developed, but the fake news argument is a tricky issue to decipher.
Its one thing to decry websites run by Macedonian teenagers that encouraged a man to take a gun to a DC pizza restaurant to investigate an unhinged conspiracy involving Clinton, but its another to list genuine sites or satirical publications, and betrays a mixture of negative issues. Clearly, its an issue that isn’t going anywhere. Its also an issue Facebook has to answer, given its seeming refusal to acknowledge just how influential its platform has become.
The other major development, which beat Trump by five months and was as seemingly confusing as its contemporary, is Brexit. Which, for those who somehow avoided this phrase, is shorthand for a British exit from the European Union.
Very much the pipe dream of a wing of the Tory Party and their friends-enemies at UKIP for years, a referendum in late June saw the campaign for Brexit win. Not that a number of people on that side seemed happy to have won.
Certainly, anyone who watched Boris Johnson and Michael Gove’s press conference the day after the referendum wouldn’t get the sense this victory was what they wanted. Indeed, many have wondered if this is what Boris wanted full stop.
It may not have helped that Nigel Farage continued the Tory-UKIP arguments that pre-date the referendum by trashing the Tory-led promise of £350million a week extra for the NHS, or was helped later that evening when leading Leave proponent Daniel Hannan said on Newsnight that Britain still may not be able to control its borders.
Apocalypse, wars, financial disasters, immigrant tidal waves, sovereignty and all the rest were discussed before the referendum vote during the appalling low standard of debate that passed for the campaign. But it seems as though no one really thought of a plan of what to do if the Brexit brigade won.
Certainly, the now-ex Prime Minister David Cameron has a lot to answer for, having proposed the referendum to shut up his party’s bickering ahead of the 2015 general election without thinking of the consequences, running a Remain campaign that really did not look bothered until it was too late, and then quitting so he didn’t have to clean up his own mess.
After a brief Tory civil war, former Home Secretary Theresa May has stepped up to the breach. In truth, she has not been inspiring, but has been somewhat masked by a self-absorbed Labour Party more interested in fighting its own elongated battle than challenging the Tories.
Nevertheless, six months on from the vote and there’s still no real sign of a plan beyond meaningless “Red, White and Blue Brexit” soundbite twaddle. It may not be a good sign for her cabinet newly filled with pro-Brexit MP’s that everytime the possibility of a clean break is mentioned, the pound sheds worth against the dollar.
The economic picture remains unclear, with a heady mix of positive and negative trends having emerged. But little may well be known for a while by virtue of the fact the process is still yet to start. Lost amidst the array of social media squabbling, petty propositions from MP’s, court cases on who actually has the authority to activate the EU’s untested Article 50 exit notice and all the rest is the fact that the fun and games are still yet to really start. And that’s even before the fact the timeline to agree something and cleanly break over 40 years of legislation is less than 15 months, so it can be ratified by all EU member states, the EU Parliament and Commission, and possibly even further bodies.
This is going to be a highly complex legal quagmire at best, and its highly questionable what the benefit is. But like Trump, its existence also comes encased in confusion.
Lurking over the shadows somewhat menacingly is Vladimir Putin. The Russian President’s role as an existential bogeyman is seemingly as ever thus – all manner of accusations were forthcoming before 2016, and he ends the year the target of Obama’s outward loathing amid claims of Russian interference with the US election.
All told, the Russian thread is one that, by its nature, is mired in secrecy, rumour and innuendo. While its fairly agreed lax security saw the Democrats have their e-mails hacked, views on how much Russia interfered in the process as a whole differs.
Its plausible they could intervene if they wanted to, and that an open anti-Clinton agenda would give a motivation, but the case of whether or not they did is still to be truly discovered. It may not help, however, that Trump’s reaction is not to take on the question on whether or not his victory is tainted by potential interference.
Russian views on Brexit remain somewhat unclear. While arguments have surfaced on-off about Russian funding for UKIP, and claims have been around that Putin would’ve liked the EU’s destabilisation, it isn’t quite the same as outwardly saying Putin was pro-Brexit. His commentary on the issue has certainly been more nuanced, inferring that asking the question in the first place was a bad idea. But it has been normal for Putin to be a hard man to pin down.
During 2014’s Ukrainian unrest, Putin was described as fighting “asymmetric warfare”, with a lot of cloak and dagger deception as to what Putin’s real goals were. Later that year, a film documentary has suggested Russia’s actions as having a similarity with gaslighting – something Teen Vogue were keen to describe Trump as doing.
The cloak and dagger mystique is certainly a curious counterpoint. Part of the desire behind some of the mindset behind Trump and Brexit’s twin victories was people looking for a return to less convoluted forms of society, but in truth, the picture behind them may well provide its own vague mess.
But people were willing to look the gift horse in the mouth in 2016. Perhaps the major sign that people wanted political figures that didn’t speak the normal language came before both Trump and Brexit in May, when the Philippines elected “The Trump of the East” as President.
Rodrigo Duterte hit international attention at large at a summit of Pacific nations in October, when he acted offended that Obama cancelled a meeting with him after his own comments that Obama was the “son of a whore”, having previously levelled similar insults at the Pope. A similarly moody mindset has been seen partly as why he’s tried to realign traditionally US-leaning Philippines interests with China. But beyond the practice of saying bad things, his anti-drug policies are believed to be implicated in the deaths of thousands of people, and the man himself has previously suggested he threw a man out of a helicopter in a threat to political figures.
Part of the appeal with Duterte seems to have roots in the idea of the strong man ruling by individual force, which is a leadership style that was spied elsewhere in the world even before Trump turned up. This personality cult is based around characters who can take control almost single-handedly, with each creating narratives that whip up a nationalist fervour, show a distinct lack of interest in conventional rules or even the law in extreme examples, and theatrical claims of how they can change single-handedly corrupt institutions and systems.
Nearly a decade on from the near-collapse of the global economy in 2007-09, and the snail pace recovery that followed, its a message many voters in different areas of the world have been willing to buy. The question for 2017 now that we’ve arrived with these scenarios in play is simple – what happens now?
Predicting anything seems to be really tricky – after all, many pundits torched their reputations with erroneous predictions that Brexit and Trump victories wouldn’t happen. Wondering what happens if and when these successes hit bumps in the road, and people who voted for them question their decision to vote for them, is a curious one.
All that can be said to be on the safe side is that those who wanted politics to be less dour have got their wish. Whether this is a good thing is something that, willingly or otherwise, we’re about to find out.