The world will end this year, according to some Biblical extrapolations. Eiji Hoffman has run the numbers, and reckons that the Second Coming is scheduled for May 20. Another prophet, Mathieu Rodrigue, reads Revelations differently, and gives us until June 24.
It’s a fair bet that, when we get past those dates, neither man will drop his belief in an imminent apocalypse. That’s not what doomsayers do. Rather, they maintain their general worldview, often slightly postponing the date of Judgment Day.
But don’t think that only cultists behave this way. Plenty of pundits and politicians are doing it every week over Brexit. Faced with the obstinate refusal of the British economy to collapse as predicted, they argue that the catastrophe is still coming, but has been slightly deferred due to something or other and mimblewimble.
Doomsday cults gave us our modern understanding of cognitive dissonance. In 1956, a University of Minnesota psychologist named Leon Festinger published a seminal book called “When Prophecy Fails.” He had studied a cult that, blending Genesis and science fiction, predicted that a flying saucer would rescue a small number of true believers from a great flood that would engulf America on Dec. 21, 1954. When the flood failed to materialize, the cultists did not turn angrily on the leader who had persuaded them to leave behind their jobs and families and await collection by aliens. Instead, they began furiously to proselytize, as if convincing more people that they had been right all along would validate the choices they had made.
We see that reaction every week in the pages of pro-European Union newspapers such as the New York Times. For eighteen months now, the Times has raged against Brexit, painting an unremittingly negative picture of Britain which, in the fancy of its reporters, has become a xenophobic, bellicose, and declining country.
This portrayal depends on ignoring almost everything that has happened since the referendum. For one thing, there is no evidence of a rise in intolerance. There was a rise in reporting of “hate crimes” in the 72 hours following the poll, but no rise in the number of cases referred for prosecution, and with good reason: Many of the “hate crimes” reported in the moment turned out to be people merely complaining about the Leave campaign.
Meanwhile, the U.K.'s economy has stubbornly continued to prosper. To be fair, journalists were not inventing the pessimistic forecasts. They were taking them from apparently reputable sources, such as the British Treasury, the International Monetary Fund, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the Bank of England. But they seem unable to come to grips with the idea that those forecasts were just wrong.
During the referendum, Her Majesty’s Treasury predicted that, in the two years after a Leave vote, GDP would fall by between 3 and 6 percent, and that unemployment would rise by between 500,000 and 800,000. In fact, GDP grew by 1.9 percent in 2016 and 1.8 percent in 2017, and unemployment has so far fallen by around 500,000, with more people in work than ever in Britain’s history.
Exports, manufacturing orders, output, consumer confidence, and the stock exchange have all risen since the vote. Even the pound, whose immediate decline was gleefully seized upon by many Remainers, is right where it was before the vote.
The British Treasury is, of course, as prone to cognitive dissonance as anyone else, and like a doomsday cult, it is still pumping out gloomy predictions. But journalists are supposed to see through that sort of thing, at least eventually. So, why is the New York Times, an American paper with no obvious dog in the fight, clinging so dogmatically to its pessimism? A typical report last week, reveling in Britain’s “post-Brexit slide,” glanced over what has happened since the vote and instead focused on the supposedly devastating news that there hadn’t been a long line to listen to Prime Minister Theresa May in Davos.
The explanation is clear enough. Early on, the Times got it into its head that Brexit and Trump were equivalent phenomena. In fact, although both were anti-establishment, they were very different. Trump promised to block a free trade deal with China, for instance, whereas Brexiteers promised to negotiate one. But the Gray Lady wasn’t interested in nuance. Having taken at face value the president’s claim to be “Mr. Brexit," it determined that Brexit must fail.
What will the Times’ writers do if the boom continues, not just in Brexit Britain, but in Trump’s America? I think we know the answer. Like all cultists, they will declare that a postponed Armageddon is still on the way.
Daniel Hannan, a Washington Examiner columnist, is a British member of the European Parliament.