What does Brexit have in common with Donald Trump’s instantaneous denunciation of the FBI’s announcement that it found nothing criminal in Hillary Clinton’s handling of State Department emails?
Two things: Both are rooted in the notion that, as the presumptive Republican nominee put it, “the system is rigged;” In both instances, that perception is part of a fundamental political realignment in which the old divisions between right and left are blurring into illegibility.
We are only beginning to discern some of the implications of such a shift—and none so far are heartening.
The continuing chaos that has followed Britain’s vote to bolt the European Union remains a sobering reminder that democracy is a necessary but not sufficient condition for wise and humane national decisions. The question that now hangs in the American air is whether the coming presidential election might administer a similar lesson here?
There is little doubt that Trump, is the least qualified candidate for the Oval Office in living memory. His personal and temperamental impediments are strikingly clear. Experientially, if he wins, he would be the first president in history never to have rendered a single minute of public service, whether in the military or elective office. He has no record of private philanthropy or of notable participation in civil society.
Stylistically, he’s a vainglorious braying bully and buffoon with a shady record, a grifter and gonif in a good suit. His grasp of public policy is, by turns, a web of self-serving fantasies and an invitation to disaster. By contrast, Hillary Clinton, a former First Lady, is as President Barack Obama described her, history’s “most qualified” candidate for chief executive—one of a handful, along with John Quincey Adams and James Madison, to have served in Congress and as Secretary of State. She is sober and tested by crisis. When she speaks on public policy, she is knowledgeable and realistic.
Why, then, does Trump remain within five points of Clinton in the aggregated national opinion polls and why did Britain commit what probably commit economic suicide by voting to leave the EU?
In both instances, the easy answer has been the upwelling of economic populism among those left behind by the globalized, information age economy. As the Guardian put it the day after the UK plebiscite, if you had money you voted to stay, if you didn’t, you voted to leave.
In the succeeding days, though, it’s become clear that the vote was powerfully dictated by what we might call the two poisonous “N’s”: nationalism and nativism—assertion of an inward-looking, “little England” mentality and ethnic hostility toward recent migrants from other EU countries, particularly Poland and other Eastern European countries. While it’s true that England’s prosperous, new economy cities—London, Bristol, Manchester—did vote to remain, so too did the UK”s Celtic periphery—Scotland, Northern Ireland and the most Cymric regions of Wales, Cardigan, Caernarvon and Merioneth.
Regions of England that voted to leave, such as Cornwall, are among the UK’s largest recipients of EU subsidies. In other words, they voted against their own economic self-interest because they were motivated by something else—nationalism and nativism. In the thrall of those impulses, it did not matter to those voters that they not only were further impoverishing themselves, but also effectively splitting their country apart.
That brings us back to the United States, where the ills suffered by white working class voters as the result of globalization and free trade are supposed to account for the Trump insurgency. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if economic populism and a backlash against trade agreements were the drivers of our current angry politics, why didn’t Bernie Sanders trounce Clinton in the Democratic contest? Two recent Pew polls suggest some reasons—and they are nationalism and nativism.
We Americans now are more fundamentally divided than at any time since the Civil War. It is increasingly true that we not only don’t agree with one another, but also that we don’t want to live near those with whom we don’t agree. We don’t like each other.
According to Pew, majorities of both Democrats and Republicans now view the other party unfavorably and 40% of both parties’ members view the opposition’s positions as “so misguided they threaten the nation’s well-being. Among “highly engaged” Republicans, 62% say they are frightened by the Democrats’ policies and 58% say they make them “angry” and “frustrated.” Similarly, seven out of 10 “highly engaged’ Democrats say they are “afraid” of the GOP’s policy prescriptions and 58% report the Republicans make them “angry.”
Four out of every 10 members of both parties’ call the other’s positions “dangerous.” That’s not your house divided; that’s your house on fire.
Another recent Pew survey found that half of all Americans believe that America’s culture and way of life have changed for the worse since the 1950s, while 49% believe it has changed for the better. Sixty-two percent of white working-class Americans and 70% of white evangelicals “are among the most likely to believe that American culture and the American way of life has changed for the worse since the 1950s.” That percentage increases to 68 among Trump supporters, while 66% of those who back Clinton or Sanders believe life has improved.
Nearly three out of every four Trump voters that “things have gotten so far off track” the country needs a leader willing to break some rules to set things right, which does something to explain why the failed Casino operator’s supporters are willing to tolerate the sort of transgressive behavior that would long ago have sunk any other candidate.
The question of immigration—so potent in Brexit—continues to divide Trump backers from the American mainstream. Six out of ten of our people oppose the presumptive GOP nominee’s absurd proposal to build a wall on the Mexican border, slightly more than two-thirds of self-described Republicans favor it. Similarly, 61% favor comprehensive immigrations reform, including a “path to citizenship” for those in the country without papers. Fewer than half of all Republicans do.
Given these fundamental divides, it’s easy to see why the parties’ members view their opposites as they do. Moreover, Trump’s opportunistic race-baiting and continuing insensitivity to issues like anti-Semitism in his campaign has given the sinister fringes preoccupied with what they like to call “the national question” permission to scuttle out from under their rocks.
Nationalism and nativism are toxic political substances. We need only look to wretched Britain to see them at their corrosive work.
This will be a bruisingly ugly campaign, much as the run-up to Brexit was. It will be so because Trump is unprincipled, a serial fantasist and fabulist. What he and his adherents have in mind when they talk of “making America great again” is a revival that that cruel and discredited notion of national pride that lead Oscar Wilde to proclaim that “Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious.”