Recently, anyone engaged in the world, regardless of where they come from, will have been unable to avoid discussing Donald Trump. As a Brit studying abroad in the US, I’m constantly asked how the rest of the world sees it, and I always reply the same way: We think the idea of a bigoted, ill-informed, inflammatory elitist masquerading as the common man in order to prey on the prejudices of the most vulnerable members of society is as appalling as it is terrifying. And then we copy it in its entirety.
Brexit is Trumpism with a posh accent, Boris Johnson simply a cuddlier, less threatening version of the man himself. Neither provide clear indications of policy, preferring a tactic of vague, indistinct phrases papered over by a blustering charisma, which they use to push misinformation that serves their own agenda. For Trump’s insinuations over Obama’s involvement with Islamic extremism, read Johnson’s claim that continued EU membership would see 76 million Turks migrating to the UK.
Both are patently false, yet both miraculously bypass any attempts at fact-checking to strike deep at the heart of these demagogue’s preferred audience: the poor, the disillusioned, and the prejudiced.
They do this through “common talk,” purporting to represent “the people” against the establishment despite their own deeply privileged backgrounds. Both Johnson and Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), Britain’s far right anti-immigration movement, are privately educated and come from backgrounds that would accept Trump’s labelling of a $1 million loan as “small” without batting an eyelid. Yet both, like the New York billionaire, profess to be just like us, with Farage frequently pictured in pubs, pint in hand, like your average punter — if the average punter had a net value of over $4 million. The wealth of an individual does not render their political views less valid, of course, but to proclaim to be leading the charge against elitism when you yourself are an undeniable member of the elite is hypocritical in the extreme.
That it is so effective is terrifying. Michael Gove, Britain’s justice minister and, aside from Johnson, the most prominent Conservative MP to support Brexit, claimed on national television that “the people are tired of experts,” even equating the warnings of those most proficient in these issues — the Bank of England, the World Bank, the IMF and the leaders of India, China, the US, every EU nation and all of Britain’s major political parties — to Nazi attempts to discredit Albert Einstein’s findings in the 1930s. The parallels with Trumpism are clear, with facts and evidence losing out to not-so-subtle accusations of treachery, mal intent and, hilariously, misinformation.
But the hilarity is pretty quickly counteracted by the horror; these bullish, demagogic deceivers feed off the worst elements of society, dredging up sentiments of racism, xenophobia and prejudice that have no place in the 21st century and channeling them for their own political ends. Since Britain voted Leave, stories have emerged of rampant hate crimes across the nation, with cards reading “Leave the EU/No more Polish vermin” being posted through doors in Cambridge, and numerous events being recounted of those of Muslim or Eastern European heritage being forced off buses under the justification that “we voted Leave.” The signs were there well before the referendum, best typified by the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox by a right-wing extremist, for no other crime than wishing for a world of unity and tolerance rather than division and persecution.
This isn’t Britain. The Britain I grew up in, that I was happy — proud, even — to call home was one of tolerance, of diversity, a country where the response to prejudicial, dog-whistle tactics was to elect the first ever Muslim mayor of a major European capital. How distant Sadiq Khan’s victory looks now. When I first moved to the US, I believed myself to hold some form of moral superiority: race was an issue back home, certainly, but the very fact that America still required an entire movement just to profess the obvious fact that Black Lives Matter seemed alien to me. No one was shot in Britain, especially not due to any differences of color or creed. We were better than that. Not anymore. The tragic irony of people destroying everything Britain stands for in the name of “taking back their country” is soul destroying, and I don’t think I will ever entirely get over it.
The costs are not only internal, but external. Almost everything espoused by the Leave campaign was a lie: Brexit will not significantly reduce immigration, the money we “save” from not having to pay into the EU will be entirely eclipsed by the catastrophic economic costs of leaving, as shown by the pound hitting a 30-year low worse than the 2008 recession, and the political effects will ripple out across Europe and the world.
Pro-EU Scotland will certainly leave, to be followed by Northern Ireland and, most likely, Wales, whilst the remaining EU nations will struggle to hold the institution together. France, already under pressure from its own nationalistic right-wing and with a historic reluctance to work closely with their more powerful German neighbors, will likely buckle soon, and with Germany already taking on more than their fair share of the burden they will be completely unable to bear the strain alone, especially when their own history makes them understandably reluctant to assert any form of leadership on the world stage. Whilst pessimistic, predictions that there will be no UK within 5 years, and no EU within 10, are not beyond the realms of possibility.
However, what is done is done, and the mission now is to determine how we move forward, how to reconcile the disillusioned and heal the divides that are now so obvious.
One thing that becomes obvious in the aftermath of the referendum is that this result wasn’t even about the EU. The number one Google trend in the UK on June 24, the day after we voted to leave the EU forever, was “what is the EU?” closely followed by questions on how Brexit would affect Britain and what it really meant. It later emerged that vast numbers of Leave voters, including in Sheffield, my home town, which voted leave by 51-49 percent despite being considered highly pro-Remain in the buildup to the vote, did so only in protest, never really believing that Brexit was a possibility. To use a protest vote on such a volatile issue was senseless, but it speaks to the real causes of this catastrophe. In reality, Brexit was about two issues: the cementing of immigration over the economy as the key concern of the British people, and the confirmation of popular distrust of the technocracy. Gove’s statement that the people were tired of experts was moronic, but accurate — the Trumps and Farages of the world are trusted more than the Camerons or the Clintons, simply because they appear, however disingenuously, to connect with and understand their electorate.
As such, any form of blame-game is counterproductive. To accuse the British people of racism, to demean their intelligence and demand they be “educated” is to completely miss the point of what has just occurred, and still is occurring elsewhere in the world. Rather than resorting to the old liberal habits of patronization that only serve to exacerbate a working class anger that stems from their beliefs that the elite don’t represent them or listen to their concerns, efforts need to be made to deal with the problems that have caused this disillusionment. In the same way as dropping bombs on ISIS won’t prevent radicalization, intellectually nuking the most vulnerable parts of society will only serve to fuel their anger. They are not ‘wrong’ or ‘stupid,’ they are desperate people forced to choose a radical path because of a combination of deceptive, self-serving leaders and the lack of any viable alternative.
Britain, and the world, is at a turning point that could see a repeat of the catastrophes of the 1930s and ‘40s. To avoid this, we need to promote empathy and understanding, rather than anger and accusation.
Crossposted from the Cal-in-Sac Fellows blog in the Institute for Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley.