On the morning of June 24, Donald Trump arrived in Britain just as Britain woke up to discover that it would be exiting the European Union. Trump’s appearance in this moment of nativist triumph laid bare one of the paradoxes of right wing populism—even as its advocates demand bigger walls, more guards, and tougher laws to stop immigration, the ideology itself knows no borders.
The chaos that has ensued since the results came through has also exposed the central lie that underpins the populist right-wing agenda: While it can rally a section of the poor on the basis of race, nation, religion (or all three), it can not deliver for them even on its own sordid terms.
Having mobilized support with pledges to restrict immigration from Europe, transfer money contributed to the EU to the National Health Service, and leave the single market, Leave campaign leaders are now conceding that those promises are either not possible, no longer desirable, or were only hypothetical anyway.
They had appealed to the post-colonial nostalgia of that part of the electorate who wanted to restore Britain to a version of its former glory. When they voted Britain was the fifth largest economy in the world; the following afternoon, with the pound having lost ten percent of its value and billions wiped off the stock exchange, it was sixth, after France. Not only had the economy shrunk, the actual country looks set to shrink too. Scotland, where 62 percent voted to remain, is threatening to hold another referendum on independence and Irish Republicans are calling for a vote on Irish unity, so that Northern Ireland, where 56 percent voted to remain, can stay in the EU.
Great Britain did not get greater. It got poorer, more isolated, and may yet get considerably smaller.
Comparisons with Trump can be overdone. The most prominent leader of the Leave campaign, the Conservative Boris Johnson, was until recently the elected mayor of multicultural London, which voted 60 percent to remain. And there were good reasons, which had nothing to do with xenophobia or racism, why people might have voted to leave the EU—namely, the democratic deficits in the project, the remote and opaque nature of EU bureaucracy.
The question of sovereignty in the neo-liberal age is central to the range of issues raised by EU membership. How does a nation, the largest democratic unit the West can claim, exercise its will in a world where capital can roam free and traders can undermine the will of the people by simply shifting resources to countries where labor is cheaper and unions are weaker?
The trouble is Britain’s EU membership did not address these dilemmas one way or another, because while we could opt out of the EU we could not opt out of global capital. So as the markets tanked, the pound nosedived, and our credit rating was downgraded, we were treated to a crash course in what ‘getting your country back’ really means in a system guided by profit not patriotism. The EU, at least, came with a patina of social democratic measures: labor protections, a court of justice, some environmental regulation, and the free movement of people.
But the parallels with the forces that produced Trump cannot be denied either. The central issue that propelled many to vote Leave was immigration. It’s not difficult to see why. When the government decided to open its borders to Eastern Europe in 2004, they assumed 100,000 immigrants would come. The actual figure was more than a million. Four years after they did that, there was an economic crash followed by a Tory government and a period of austerity. People looked for someone to blame. With no major party laying the roots of the crisis at the door of the bankers, they turned on the most visible proxies for the globalization that had so damaged their lives—immigrants.
Leave did well in Labor heartlands where people felt they had been left behind. When told things would get worse if we left the EU, they wondered how bad could it get. So while the EU was on the ballot, the verdict was ultimately against a system that they felt had left them behind. The fact that all the major parties, leading economists, and financial institutions backed Remain merely emphasized the point. The stewards of the very system that is crushing people said do one thing, so they did another.
The Leave campaign traded in dangerous xenophobic and racist slurs, leaving the most offensive messaging to the United Kingdom Independence Party, which is basically Trump in a blazer holding a pint of beer.
In many ways this made the campaign itself far more foul than the result it produced. It has not only left Britain deeply divided (I felt like I was back in the US covering the 2004 presidential campaign) but has given free rein to a strain of bigotry and intolerance that most thought marginal.
It has both coarsened our public discourse and risks sending an already fragile and volatile political culture into a tailspin along with the economy. At midnight on the day of the vote, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, who led the Remain campaign, thought he’d won. By 8am, he’d resigned. Labor MPs, meanwhile, have used the referendum loss as an excuse to oust left-wing leader Jeremy Corbyn, who was elected in a landslide less than a year ago. The EU is still waiting for someone to formally request separation. We are both at a standstill and in free fall. Having successfully acquired our country back, nobody knows quite what to do with it.