Bobby McDonagh / Aug 2020
During the tortuous Brexit negotiations, British negotiators have frequently complained that the EU’s approach is ideological. This assertion is so curious that, as the negotiations enter their final phase, we should consider what psychology may lie behind it.
Any neutral observer of the Brexit debacle as it has unfolded can see that it is the UK, rather than the European Union, that has been driven by ideology. Since before the Brexit referendum, the British Government has dismissed experts out of hand. That was the necessary foundation stone of the Brexit narrative. British business was informed that its views were immaterial, a message delivered in such a nuanced way that Boris Johnson only required two words. Britain’s real world interests have been entirely secondary to the sacred dogma about taking back control.
The EU, on the other hand, has been rational and pragmatic. Some might accuse it of being say inflexible or short-sighted, even if I would not share those criticisms. The one thing the EU’s approach has not been is ideological.
The question then is why the UK Government chooses to criticise the EU for the glaring mote in its own eye, for the very fault that stares back at it from every mirror in Downing Street. There is, of course, some playing to domestic public opinion involved. But it seems that what psychologists call “projection” is also in play. Projection is the defence mechanism that involves projecting one’s own undesirable feelings or impulses onto someone else rather than admitting to those impulses. In layman’s terms, projection is the underlying urge of a kettle to call the pot black.
Another striking example of such psychological projection was the concerted strategy of the elite that drove Brexit from the outset to portray their opponents as the elite and themselves as barefoot tribunes of the people. Beyond the public posturing involved, many Brexit cheerleaders seem to have believed their own propaganda. It is a classic case of projecting their own self-evident elitism onto their political opponents. The strategy worked well and indeed helped to get Brexit over the line. However, alas too late to stop Brexit, the strategy is now looking utterly threadbare and suffered a mortal blow with the Cummings affair which led to widespread public anger at the brazen sense of entitlement reflected in the belief that the COVID-19 lock-down rules were only for lesser mortals.
The manifestation of psychological projection in politics is by no means limited to the UK. Indeed, the most glaring example of the phenomenon has been in the United States where the world’s greatest propagator of fake news, President Trump, persistently accuses his critics of spreading fake news. On an hourly basis he attributes to his opponents the very transgression that defines his own approach to public discourse. The impulse to project one’s own faults onto others has found its modern political apotheosis in Trump’s torrent of transparently fake “fake news” allegations.
This phenomenon was evident from the first day of the Trump Presidency when he misrepresented the size of the crowd that attended his inauguration, and then accused those who presented the real attendance figures as propagating fake news. In other words, he was projecting his own truth deficit onto others. The more fictitious his assertions, the more barefaced he has been in berating those who recall reality.
At some deep psychological level Trump must surely have some sense that he is manipulating reality. But his human defence mechanism requires him to impute the culpability to others.
One of his most absurd claims has been that his predecessor, Barak Obama, is guilty of “the greatest political crime in American history”. This nonsense bears the hallmark of a man, surrounded by allegations of his own wrongdoing, seeking to transmit unconscious undesirable feelings about himself onto someone else. It is a fairly safe bet that, in the run up to the November election, Trump will relentlessly attribute his own worst characteristics to Joe Biden.
Psychological projection is widespread in international politics. It is evident when the Chinese Government describes criticism of its Hong Kong policy as imperious and shameless. It is evident when the Hungarian Prime Minister, Victor Orban, accuses his domestic political opponents of undermining the international standing and Christian values of his country. It is evident when the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, on the cusp of purporting to extend his country’s sovereignty to embrace Palestinian land, accuses the Palestinians of being unwilling to compromise.
Faced with a world in which leaders increasingly attribute their own failings to others, the defence of reasonable people must be to recall, at every opportunity, that words still have meaning, that denial is not exoneration and that truth is not defined by political spin.