When I first came to live in the United States from the UK, the most common question, particularly from African Americans, was: “Where was it best to be black?” I would usually qualify my response by making it clear that it’s not morally possible to weigh up whose racism is better before using my autobiography as a vehicle to try and answer the question.
As the youngest of three boys raised by a single mother with a chronic health condition, I’d tell them, my odds were better as a child in Britain. We had a national health-care system, financial support to stay in high school, and free education all the way through university (which is not the case today). We made it to adulthood without any of us ending up in the criminal-justice system or dead. But once we had made it through school—and most were not as lucky as we were—Britain did not know what to do with us. You bumped your head on the ceiling pretty fast, and it felt more like concrete than glass. For several years in our adulthood, my brothers and I lived abroad—two in America, one in Ireland—and it is telling how many successful black Britons leave: director Steve McQueen, actress Marianne Jean-Baptiste, artist Chris Ofili, just to name a few. (Meghan Markle swam across the Atlantic against the tide). Many, though by no means all, leave for America. And a significant number, like me and one of my brothers, come back.
Having returned to the United Kingdom in 2015 after 12 years in the US, I’ve heard a different question, particularly from liberals: “Which is worse, Trump or Brexit?” I have had to similarly qualify my response by first making it clear that nothing good will come from either of them.
There are, however, some important distinctions. The United States will have the chance to get rid of Trump in two more years; Brexit is for good. There were legitimate reasons why some progressive people voted for Brexit—the European Union is a profoundly undemocratic institution—but no fathomable reason why any progressive would ever vote for Trump. The Brexit referendum allowed for one question with unknown implications; the US presidency is a known entity. People voting on Brexit were generally expressing a view about issues related to the nation-state: identity, immigration, sovereignty, patriotism, nostalgia. Trump was about everything from misogyny and xenophobia to foreign policy and abortion. Brexit has been a gratuitous act of self-harm in which Britain is overwhelmingly the primary victim. Conversely, while the Trump agenda will inflict serious damage on America, it is likely to affect other, weaker nations even more.
Both are bad and are making things worse, but each is different. Also, the question of which will prove the bigger disaster has yet to be decided, because we are still dealing with them. At this crucial juncture, with both projects appearing to unravel, the answer will be shaped to a significant degree by what we on the left can make of what comes next.
“In the endgame,” said chess great José Raúl Capablanca, “don’t think in terms of moves but in terms of plans.” Both Robert Mueller’s investigation and the Brexit negotiations appear to be moving into their endgame. Mueller’s noose tightens ever further around the Trump administration, with few higher-ups left to indict who don’t bear the Trump name or haven’t married into the family. Meanwhile, at the time of this writing, UK Prime Minister Theresa May has just postponed a parliamentary vote on Brexit that she was certain to lose by a humiliating margin—but with just four months left before the self-imposed deadline for our ejection from the EU, time is running out. It’s not entirely clear what this means for Trump or for May—though it is unlikely to be good.
The left has approached this double unraveling in terms of moves. What comes next: impeachment, general elections, prison, resignations, defections, second referendum, and so on? It would be more constructive, and more beneficial, to think in terms of plans.
The one thing we cannot do is go backward. If a second referendum on Brexit saw the country deciding to remain in the EU—a big if—it would no more take us back to June 22, 2016, the day before the first referendum took place, than Trump’s impeachment would take us back to November 7. Neither would deal with the bigotry, nationalism, stagnant wages, political alienation, cynicism, and desperation that made them both possible.
If Trump was involved in a serious crime and this becomes grounds for his impeachment, then so be it. But to rely on a strictly legal response to remove him from the presidency misses the point. Similarly, a new referendum in which Britain narrowly decides to remain in the EU rather than narrowly deciding to leave doesn’t solve the fundamental question; it just slightly—if decisively—changes the answer. Both Trump and Brexit are products of a political and economic crisis. The left needs a coherent response to that crisis. Indeed, it was partly the lack of a meaningful response from the center-left that made both possible.
In both cases, the desire should be to reverse the effects of the neoliberal excesses that have led to inequality, marginalization, and insecurity—not to press “pause” on them.
The pertinent question is therefore not “Which is worse, Trump or Brexit?” but “Which left response to the conditions that produced them has the greatest chance of success?” We don’t know the answer to that yet either; though with Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party and the left insurgency among Democrats, both of which preceded Trump and Brexit, we are inching toward one. But at least that question shifts the focus to a cogent view of the future rather than a melancholic assessment of the past.