A few clues: Politics here are in utter chaos. A controversial member of the cabinet has resigned. There’s constant speculation about the future of the nation’s leader. Talk of trade wars dominates the headlines. Businesses are threatening to up and leave. Migrants have been abused and deported. Racism and xenophobia are on the rise. And the country’s reputation on the international stage fades by the day.
If you guessed the United States, you’d be wrong — but I wouldn’t blame you. I’m in the United Kingdom this week, and there seem to be eerie echoes of Donald Trump’s America almost everywhere.
I could go on and on. Thanks to Brexit, “Theresa May’s premiership has been a rolling series of crises,” declared the Financial Times on Tuesday. Whose presidency does that remind you of? “In 2016, the British people voted on an abstract question with virtually no knowledge of what it meant in practice,” thundered the Irish Times on Monday, referring to the fallout from the referendum on leaving the European Union. Again, sound familiar?
But should we really be surprised? Both the Brexit vote in the U.K. and — less than six months later — the presidential election of Donald Trump in the United States were unparalleled and unprecedented acts of political, social, and economic self-harm. Both have become bywords for dysfunction, disunity, and dishonesty. And every passing week brings new evidence of the sheer blatantness and shamelessness with which the president of the United States and the leaders of the “leave” camp are just making it up as they go along. The attendant chaos, therefore, is not a bug, it’s a feature; Trump and Brexit have chaos in common.
Who’d have guessed that voting for a reality TV star with a long history of bankrupting his businesses, stiffing his contractors, and defrauding his customers, and with zero knowledge or understanding of public policy, macroeconomics, or international affairs, would be fundamentally incapable of leading or governing the world’s only superpower?
Who’d have imagined that voting to quit the biggest single market on earth — and the country’s largest export market in goods — in proud defiance of the economic experts, and without a clear plan or exit strategy, would result in political and economic disarray?
Well, a fair few of us, actually. The dire consequences of Trump and Brexit were entirely predictable — and predicted.
The irony is that Trump himself, earlier this week, referring to the ongoing British government divisions over whether to have a “hard” or “soft” Brexit, and the dramatic resignation of his “friend,” the former foreign secretary and arch-Brexiteer, Boris Johnson, talked of “turmoil” in the U.K. and a “situation that’s been going on for a long time.”
Yet the president has been bent on loudly and publicly aligning himself with Brexit for a while. He bizarrely dubbed himself “Mr. Brexit” and told his supporters that they were part of an “incredible movement” that is “sweeping across our country, it’s sweeping frankly across the globe. Look at Brexit, look at Brexit.” He praised the “fantastic” decision to leave the EU and said he thought the U.K. was “so smart in getting out.”
“I really do see a parallel between what’s happening in the United States and what’s happening here,” the then-Republican presidential candidate told reporters on a visit to his Trump Turnberry resort in Scotland, the day after the Brexit referendum.
For once, I can’t help but agree with The Donald. There are clear parallels between the election of the 45th president of the United States and the historic vote to withdraw the United Kingdom from the European Union — but they aren’t the ones Trump thinks they are.
These parallels relate to illiberalism and authoritarianism; nationalism and racism; anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism. The votes in favor of both Brexit and Trump, for example, had much less to do with economic anxiety or poverty, and much more to do with cultural anxiety and racial resentment.
Both Brexit and Trump profited not only from the demonization of immigrants — especially from Syria — but also from subtle anti-Semitism and naked Islamophobia. Both have resulted in a “stark increase” in racism, intolerance, and hate crimes against minorities and people of color.
Both were presented as populist revolts by globalization’s losers, despite being pushed by billionaires; despite “no consistent proof” that populist voters are “more likely to be unemployed, have lower incomes, come from lower classes or hold a lower education”; and despite alleged Russian involvement, behind the scenes, on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
Of course, there were a few reasonable arguments in favor of Brexit, while there were none whatsoever in favor of the loathsome Trump. Nevertheless, there is one glaring, monumental, and deeply depressing difference between the two which makes me pity my fellow Brits much more than my American colleagues and neighbors. Trump is president of the United States for a maximum of six more years. But Brexit, well … that’s forever.