Trump, Brexit and the Imp of the Perverse

I grew up in a period when politics was boring: the era of the ‘great moderation’ and the ‘end of history’. A time when all the politicians looked and sounded the same, and had a similar acceptance of capitalism, globalisation and the welfare state. With Donald Trump settling into the White House and the UK heading for the hardest of Brexits, it’s fair to say that age has passed.

There is a part of me that, in spite of myself, finds it all utterly fascinating. We can all guess roughly what the world would have looked like had Hillary Clinton been elected president or the UK remained in the EU. What’s happening now, though, you can’t take your eyes off. I wouldn’t have voted for either outcome (and goodness knows I fear the consequences), but part of me can’t help being drawn in by the sheer drama of it all.

This morbid curiosity, I want to suggest, is an underrated electoral force. My theory is that there is a constituency of people who use their vote, not to promote an ideology or to vote in a way that they think will benefit them personally, but for the most outrageous or comical or unpredictable option, just to see what happens. These people vote for mischief.

Edgar Allan Poe wrote a story about ‘The Imp of the Peverse’: the realisation that strikes many of us from time to time of the crazy, stupid things we could do if we wanted to – smash a window, start a fire, jump from a height:

We stand upon the brink of a precipice. We peer into the abyss—we grow sick and dizzy. Our first impulse is to shrink away from the danger. Unaccountably we remain… it is but a thought, although a fearful one, and one which chills the very marrow of our bones with the fierceness of the delight of its horror. It is merely the idea of what would be our sensations during the sweeping precipitancy of a fall from such a height… for this very cause do we now the most vividly desire it

I think a similar impulse overtook some voters in 2016: possibilities opened up that might not have seriously occurred before and sheer curiosity took over.

I am not saying such sentiment was a major contributor to either of these political events. Most people had more familiar reasons and emotions, good and bad, to vote the way they did. Even if I am correct, I suspect it is only a small fraction of the electorate that would trivialise their vote in this way. Yet in such close elections, the actions of a small fraction of the electorate can be extremely consequential, decisive even. And so in the coming weeks and months, as we switch on the news each morning with trepidation, we should at least consider the possibility that we’ve all been trolled.

Update: This American Life has a story this week speaking to internet trolls who worked for Trump.

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