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2016 The Year That Was: Welcome To The Post Fact Era

Welcome to the post fact era.
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The ancient Romans regarded Janus as the deity of transitions. He is said to have presided over the beginning and end of conflicts, and is frequently depicted with two faces as he looks out both towards the past and the future.

As we reflect back on 2016 which has upturned the western liberal world order, one can't help but wonder how Janus would feel were he presiding over events from high above.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but looking back, Brexit came to define 2016.

And, whilst many joked that what happened in Britain may not necessarily stay in Britain, very few predicted that America would be brazen enough to elect Donald Trump.

The former Apprentice star was surely too bombastic, racist, sexist, and loose with the truth to be elected by the American people.

Yet, after self-styling himself as Mr. Brexit, and promising a "Brexit times ten", the tycoon tweeter did not disappoint: all hail president Trump.

Caputuring the zeitgeist, British politician Michael Gove noted: "People have had enough of experts."

On both sides of the Atlantic, they appear to have had enough of facts as well. Perhaps 2016 will be most remembered as the year when the truth became an elastic concept.

It was a time when fake news stories peddled on Facebook could in some instances hold more sway than the mainstream media: stories "sponsored by political activists but also increasingly by state actors and their surrogates," writes FT editor Lionel Barber.

Welcome to the post fact era.

What does this mean for politics going forward? Trump's campaign certainly broke every rule in the playbook, from threatening to muzzle the press and jail his opponent Hillary Clinton to branding all Mexicans as "rapists".

And, whilst it is tempting to draw parallels with the 1930's and the rise of Hitler, we are really far from a Great Depression. In fact, corporate profits are up, credit is flowing and the US is fast approaching full employment.

But, not so fast: those numbers heavily mask the fact that there are a lot people out there from the American rust belt all the way to middle England who have all been left out of this "recovery".

For the overwhelming majority in both in the US and U.K. real incomes have stagnated for nearly a decade. And, there are many who are far worse off. After the financial crisis, they lost their jobs, their pensions, and in some cases, even their homes.

Yet, at the same time, the wealth of the top one percent flourished, raising the ivory tower class to even loftier heights. And, to add insult to injury, the bankers responsible for creating the whole debacle in the first place were only rewarded with even fatter bonuses. As Naomi Klein writes in the Guardian :

We have witnessed the rise of the Davos class, a hyper-connected network of banking and tech billionaires, elected leaders who are awfully cosy with those interests, and Hollywood celebrities who make the whole thing seem unbearably glamorous."

According to author Francis Fukuyama, "the real question should not have been why populism has emerged in 2016, but why it took so long to become manifest."

Enter Nigel Farage, 'the Godfather of Brexit' stage left, and Trump himself stage right.

Both rabble rousers stoked the flames of public discontent by fanning anger towards immigrants, global institutions such as the WTO, and in the UK's case the EU, followed by a good bout of nostalgic nationalism to make them yearn for some golden bygone era.

Slogans like 'Let's make America great again' and 'Take Back Control' in the U.K. rallied the masses as it provided a salve to their anti establishment frustrations epitomized by the likes of the Bush's and the Clintons.

Never mind that both campaigns were short on policy: they alluded to a better time, a promised land if you will. The "how" simply wasn't important. As Barber notes:

"In 2016 we witnessed the birth of the "Fourth Way" -- a new brand of politics that is nativist, protectionist and bathed in a cultural nostalgia. We also witnessed a widespread disillusion with globalisation. This period - call it Globalisation 2.0 is now over."

Free trade became a dirty word for a public worried about job security and the competitive threat posed by developing nations. And, free movement received an even harder rap as Europe become inundated by refugees from both the Middle East and North Africa.

The recent string of terrorist attacks from Paris to Berlin has severely weakened the public's appetite for more migrants. After all, how can the government assure that ISIS fighters have not infiltrated the pack?

"There was a sense governments had somehow lost control, of national borders and national identity," writes Barber, hence the allure of Trump's "beautiful" wall with Mexico.

So, what does this mean for the year ahead?

Recent events certainly hold promise for other disrupters lying in wait. It will be interesting to see how well the far right fare in the upcoming French, Dutch and German elections.

Moreover, when Trump finally does take the helm of the world's largest economy in a few weeks time, how will we all fare as citizens of the globe?

"For more than two centuries, the US has served as a beacon for democratic values such as pluralism, tolerance and the rule of law," writes Barber. And, "for the most part, it has been on the right side of history. But, "in 2016, Americans voted for the first time for a man with no previous government or military experience. Like Brexit, it was a high-risk gamble with utterly unpredictable consequences."

Trump has already started a twitter war with Beijing after dismissing its one China policy, whilst threatening to pull out of the much needed Paris climate pact.

It does not bode well for neither international relations, nor for the health of our planet. After all, 2016 will be the hottest year on record as temperatures threaten to pass the 4C mark well before the turn of this century.

But, according to Klein, a large portion of Trump's base could be eroded:

"If there were a genuine redistributive agenda on the table, an agenda to take on the billionaire class with more than rhetoric, and use the money for a green new deal. Such a plan could create a tidal wave of well-paying unionized jobs," fighting economic inequality and climate change both at the same time.

If Trump really wants to make good on his promise to 'Make America Great Again' he had better pay heed. Time can but tell what 2017 will bring. But, according to Harvard professor Cornel West, "in these times, to even have hope is too abstract, too detached, too spectatorial. Instead we must be a hope, and a force for good as we face this catastrophe."

I wonder what Janus can see as he stares out from our past, and into our future.