Since a reality television personality was elected President of the United States, British political journalists have made the habit of staying up all night gawking.
Elections, by-elections, Twitter storms, impeachment proceedings – thanks to the time difference, we wake up and predict what could happen across the pond, then fight sleep to watch events. After spending days on CNN's live coverage, we joked that choosing "Sleepy" Joe Biden might finally give us a good night's sleep. It's a soap opera. It's journalistic junk food. It's all consuming and at the same time unfamiliar.
That wasn't always the case, of course. Britain's addiction to the west wing is relatively new. a product of the digital revolution that took place alongside the George W. Bush administration. We stopped and never turned around. But the 24/7 flow of information that keeps us so excited has become a vector for poison running through the veins of British politics.
There were few relaxing dreams in Westminster Wednesday night. When a horde of flag-bearing pro-Trump rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol, British politicians and media watched powerlessly from across the Atlantic, wondering what that meant for them – and perhaps what part they might have played in the instigation .
Former leader of the British Independence Party, the figurehead of Brexit, and well-known Trump sycophant Nigel Farage were the quickest to get out of the gate with his tweet: "Storming Capitol Hill is wrong. The protesters have to go. “Like an aging bloodhound, he can still smell anger. Piers Morgan, one of the UK's most influential celebrity journalists and an avid Trump supporter for years, tweeted, "President Trump must be removed from office with immediate effect." Good Morning UK presenter Donald later wrote in his Daily Mail column Trump had "turned into a monster" and demanded his impeachment. "I never thought he would be able to become what he is now," he wrote. Both try to bring daylight between themselves and a man who, while retaining the loyalty of millions of people, is finally becoming politically toxic.
There is a cognitive dissonance in how the UK covers and digests the news from the United States. British journalists adore and introduce themselves to their better paid, more glamorous media peers in global newsrooms, even when the most successful cross the Atlantic for double pay and leave them behind in their wake.
Likewise, the British are fascinated and despised by political events in the United States. Moral snootiness is a bad mask for jealousy and fear of the country's diminishing relevance. America's systems are esoteric, the talk shows are risky, but the power is gigantic and the money inconceivable. It's close enough to hurt them deeply, but not close enough to force the British to think about their own complicity. Instead, they raise their hands, send thoughts and prayers, and sigh over the former colony, a land that just seems so similar that it is uncomfortably foreign. Because basically they believe, "It could never happen in Britain."
But the cultural exchange, political reverberation, and linguistic symbiosis between Britain and the United States, exemplified by numbers like Farage, mean that this can absolutely happen here. Don't forget Jo Cox, the Labor MP who was shot and stabbed multiple times in the run-up to the referendum by a far-right terrorist radicalized by neo-Nazi groups and xenophobic rhetoric. Witnesses testified that he shouted, "Britain first!" when he attacked her. That was four years ago.
In recent years the UK has seen its own surge in right-wing violence, domestic terrorism, xenophobia and racial hatred. Climate science denialism and anti-Vaxxer sentiment are exploding. Brits are also being radicalized and brainwashed by online conspiracy theories like QAnon. This increases the dangers of copycat in the face of the success of extreme action in the United States: British political institutions such as Parliament and even 10 Downing Street are far more accessible to the public and more vulnerable to attack than the Washington Capitol complex.
The channels of exchange between the United States and Great Britain go well beyond the special relationships or media conglomerates and digital newsrooms that span the Atlantic. Language is the key here; English is the lingua franca of the Internet. That leaves American content dangerously overrepresented and means we are all swimming in the same sewers. Britannia does not rule the digital waves, and terms like "cuck", which originated from the far-right US government, were happily adopted by their British counterparts.
Even in journalism, figures like James Delingpole, editor of Breitbart UK, have moved from relatively conventional British Conservatives to more extreme US counterparts. Milo Yiannopoulos, the racist provocateur who fell out of favor after praising pedophilia, began blogging about the traditionally most conservative of all UK outlets: the Daily Telegraph.
The inability to actually participate has allowed British journalists to comment on US politics without really considering the consequences. After the 2016 referendum, there were many performative soul searches in the UK media about "where we went wrong", leading to an over-correction to the right in the name of balance, populism and the "left behind". But like the US media in the run-up to his election, the British media reveled in Trump, dismantling his click mania and treating him as a joke. Now he's the one who laughs.
Thursday morning featured a series of thought pieces, analysis, and columns desperate to fall back on years of tacit approval of Trump's wicked nature. Repentance for years of clickbait and a media landscape that rewards intellectual gymnastics, playful things and attended the same school as the editor. But there are also fat comparisons between the scenes of the fascist uprising on Wednesday and the Remainers-led protests against Brexit and the referendum. Even now there are politicians ready to use Wednesday's tragedy to advance their own agenda in the UK. Even now there are right-wing pro-Trump commentators prepared by producers to appear on national radio in the interests of "balance".
And yet there are media metrics that believe that online events are nothing more than “noise” that is impossible to carry over to real life. There are top journalists who have no idea what Parler or Telegram actually is and who cannot tell their 4chan from their 8kun. UK newsrooms are only just emerging to the threat of right-wing online radicalization and disinformation, even as it radicalizes UK citizens.
Trump literally ended his tenure by putting America first – and putting it on its own like a rabid monster. During his presidency, all of his critics' nightmares came true. But Trumpism will not end with the inauguration of Biden, nor will the toxic flow of its worst impulses cease on America's shores.