Lessons from Brexit and Trump

1f19a1bBy Dr. Gregory Perreault (PF&R Chair)
Appalachian State University

Contemporary events have left many in dumbfounded. In the United Kingdom, many media professionals assumed that naturally the British people would want to stay in the EU. The vote for Brexit showcased just how wrong that assumption was. In the United States, media professionals again assumed that naturally a traditional politician like Hillary Clinton would be elected as opposed to someone as untraditional as they come, Donald Trump. And yet, President-elect Donald Trump is currently selecting his cabinet.

What does this mean for us as scholars of media and religion? I would argue that these surprise developments should serve as a reminder of why our field is so integral. Furthermore, it should challenge us to find new and novel ways to share our findings more publicly.

In the British exit (abv. “Brexit”) from the EU, Muslim and Christian communities showcased a variety of perspectives regarding the vote. Among communities concerned with immigration, Brexit held appeal in that only by leaving the EU could the UK effectively restrict immigration. And yet, the “Muslims for Britain” campaign argued that by leaving the EU, the UK could increase free trade among Commonwealth nations such as India. Among Christians, Protestants favored leaving the EU while Roman Catholics favored remaining. A former Archbishop of Canterbury likened leaving the EU to the Isrealites leaving Egypt in the Old Testament. In short, the motivations on both sides are related to diversity and unity, fear and safety.

In the US election cycle, Donald Trump had very publicly mocked a disabled reporter, thrown a woman with a screaming child out of a campaign rally, been hounded by a Entertainment Tonight video showing him bragging about assault on a woman, and refused to release his tax returns—as has been done by every other presidential candidate in recent history. And he won decisively in electoral college votes. It does appear that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, but that’s beside the point: its clear that something about Donald Trump resonated in America. It resonated among white evangelicals who voted more heavily for Trump (81%) than even for George W. Bush (78%) and among Catholics who voted for Trump at (52%).

The “why” behind these votes has been a topic of consternation in the news media. Journalists and pollsters seem to have discovered, too late, the proliferation of fake news on social media. This, taken with low media literacy rates and an inability to distinguish commentary from news from fake news, is a perfect storm for such integral votes.

For myself as a media sociologist, these two events were reality checks. They reminded me who my neighbors are and who my students are. As media and religion scholars, some of us could see the writing on the wall, but not all of us. I didn’t. This begs for further research into religious groups, news consumption, and media literacy. It showed us that there are some limitations on predicting voter behavior (remember that polls overwhelmingly showed a Brexit loss and a Clinton win), but the results showed us an increasing need to understand our neighbors.

Some of these neighbors work at our universities (yes, it’s true) and some do not. But the likelihood is that most are not going to read our academic works. Unless they need to cite it.

This calls upon us to find ways to share what we’re learning more broadly. It might be on a blog, it might be in letters to the editor, maybe TMZ, I don’t know. The problem of course is that this will do nothing for your tenure dossier. But it might help us prepare for, or learn from, the next Trump/Brexit.

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