Michael Wolff on Brexit: Why "Stupid" Beat "Smart" Media (and How Trump Benefits)

Nigel Farage

The result of the referendum vote is a lesson that, one can only hope, gives pause to the Hillary Clinton campaign.

A principal reaction to the Brexit vote for people in London and in other parts of the Anglo-metropolitan world (e.g., the eastern U.S., Los Angeles and the Bay Area) was shock and disgust that so many people think so differently from the way they do. This has always been the case. H.L. Mencken, in the 1920s, argued it very well, with dripping contempt for American bumpkins. That divide between city and sticks. Or, nowadays, between super cities and crappy ones. Between smarts and stupids. Multiculturalists and those they accuse of being racists. The difference now is that the necessary or begrudging accommodation that once existed between these two poles of attitude and opinion has largely been lost in the apparent triumph of new wealth, tech and media. The future was moving, it seemed, in one inevitable cultural and demographic direction. The stupids, without wealth, tech or media power, were not going with it.

Only Fox News and the British tabloids were irascibly there to remind us of another population and current of opinion. But in London, even though The Sun has a circulation in the U.K. of nearly 2 million (and the Daily Mail, the other middle England standard barer, another 2 million), and The Guardian a circulation of under 200,000, it’s a Guardian world. This is so, The Guardian argues, because on the internet there are no borders, so it can count tens of millions more readers sharing its internationalist view. (What was its trumpeting of Edward Snowden, with his revelations that the NSA, a spy agency, was spying, if not disdain for the old idea of borders?)

Well, no, said the Brexit vote, rather out-Murdoching even Murdoch (while Murdoch’s Sun supported “leave,” his other British paper, The Times, supported “remain”). There are borders, as there have always been — and should be. Precisely Donald Trump’s disturbing gist.

Here’s the divide: The young and educated see the possibilities of life without borders and nationality, not necessarily so much as grand ideology but certainly for the convenience and opportunity. Older and perhaps less worldly people see borders as defining autonomy and identity. They are less sanguine about sharing their homes, cars, photos or their space with strangers and aliens. The former view, the premise on which so much new wealth is founded, is the high-value opinion. The latter view obviously is the low-value one because the people who espouse it are so much poorer.

In that, there is a confusing zeitgeist issue. In the modern era, particularly since borders and regulations began to drop in the 1980s, the zeitgeist has slavishly followed the money. But culture, a sense of well-being and personal identity has, before this, in a more classic conservative sense of valuing bonds with the past, often superseded economic considerations. One of the truly bad words of classic conservatism in fact is “innovation.” Edmund Burke refers to the “innovator's lust for power.” Curiously, much of the new, left, young, urban zeitgeist is, while theoretically anti-wealth, in full cultural alignment with those innovations that create such wealth.

The media itself is of course aligned with wealth creation, with globalism and borderless distribution strategies, and with the pursuit of the young, hip and upscale — and hence was gobsmacked by the Brexit vote. In the U.S. media, in the days following the vote — an event that hardly anybody in the U.S. media or political world had heretofore taken much notice of — there was a unanimity of views to suggest that an inexplicable, ghastly, unconscionable and self-destructive rent in history had occurred.

And yet, for almost a year now, the media has been almost singularly focused on Donald Trump, underwriting his candidacy (as well as supporting its own bottom line) and, in effect, his seemingly bizarre critique of the modern world. Trump provided a way to open the door to an alien (or, as it were, forgotten) American zeitgeist. The media might not understand the stupids, but Donald Trump did, speaking, like the Brexiteers, in a language of symbols instead of policy. Trump offered a way, finally, for all other lagging news media outlets to compete with Fox, which, confoundingly to the rest of the media world, had long converted the stupids into a river of cash.

There were some confusing observations to draw. As the media over the last generation had more and more purposely abandoned the downscale audience and pursued the young, the smart, the mobile and the rich, its own fortunes had declined. This was due, it was said, to the fracturing of the American audience. But, in fact, much of the stupid audience remained intact, going to Fox, keeping CBS on top with its oldster programming and, with the white male stupids, supporting the most lucrative aspect of media: sports. In fact, the great unwashed, vastly less promiscuous in their media habits, formed a far more loyal audience and much better economic bet.

This was, however, confounding, because the wealth, the future, the excitement, the global promise, the millennials, were moving in an altogether other direction. And the media, along with the political establishment, rushed to join the tech platforms and savant gazillionaires out there following this amazing future, while paying no mind to its pitiless disruptions.

The point about a backlash is that no one ever anticipates it. If you did, you’d likely have moderated your claims, your arrogance, your wealth and your righteousness. But now the backlash has come. The Brexit vote rather framed the issue succinctly: There’s a natural resentment of one part of the population toward another part when the latter thinks it knows better and therefore should have greater rights and discretion. The Brexit campaign confirmed this bias, with the London-centered "remain" side repeating over and over again — still repeating with uncomprehending frustration — we are smart and know the facts. That’s a lesson that, one can only hope, gives pause to the Hillary Clinton campaign. But it’s a tough one to learn because the smarts do know the facts and yet are not smart enough to understand that the facts do not shed much light on the issues at hand.  

It’s a startling moment in politics and media when you realize you have no idea who a sizable part of your audience is and, standing naked on the stage, how to talk to it.