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Double Trouble: Trump and Brexit

Throughout the summer, the World Policy blog will host a weekly series of articles featuring global perspectives on the U.S. presidential election, the effects of which extend beyond partisanship and beyond our borders. Read the first article in the series, considering the election's impact on U.S. trade with sub-Saharan Africa, and stay tuned for commentary from the U.K., Singapore, Turkey, and more!

By Jonathan Stubbs

Donald Trump continues his march toward the White House. Across the pond, a seemingly unrelated campaign calling for the United Kingdom to exit the European Union is also steadily gaining traction. Yet similarities and parallels between both campaigns can be drawn, revealing disturbing trends in Britain and America that threaten liberal civil society.

A Trump presidency would be bad for migrants, Muslims, women, and virtually all minority groups. Apart from his now infamous wall, Trump’s frequently sexist remarks (such as those against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton) reek of misogyny. Like all dangerous demagogues, he is not averse to inciting violence if threatened. Trump has already indicated that he would call his followers onto the streets, even going so far as to ask his supporters to punch protestors at rallies.

These controversial views are not just playing to the gallery, but are longstanding ones that would characterize his leadership. His presidency will be a full-frontal assault on civil liberties and human rights, and will undo the global progress made in those areas in recent years. This has already begun in Republican states, with the overturning of LGBT rights in North Carolina and with more states looking set to follow. 

But this regression plagues not only American civil society. Arguments and tactics straight out of Trump’s campaign are widespread in the equally toxic “Brexit” campaign. President Barack Obama’s support for Britain to remain in the EU was attacked by Boris Johnson, former mayor of London, who cited the president’s part-Kenyan heritage as reason for his “ancestral dislike” of the United Kingdom. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell condemned this as “dog-whistle racism.” Donald Trump made similar slurs during Obama's re-election campaign, publicly questioning the president's birthplace and religion—an imposition that will no doubt be directed toward millions of Americans should Trump secure the White House. 

Beyond explicit similarities, the prejudice that characterizes both campaigns stems from a deep simmering distrust, fear, and loathing of the “Other” in both Britain and America. They are a backlash and a reassertion of self-regarded cultural and social superiority that inevitably result in political, social, and economic discrimination. This is often hidden and marshalled behind the banner of opposing perceived political correctness or supposed conspiracies in affirmative action. Fox News barely concealed its contempt at the U.S. Treasury’s decision to replace the face of former U.S. president Andrew Jackson, a slave-owner, on the $20 bill with ex-slave and abolitionist, Harriet Tubman. In Britain, the right-wing Daily Mail smeared the new London mayor, Sadiq Kahn, by associating him with the July 7, 2005, London bombings—a kind of connect-the-dots, all-Muslims-are-terrorists inference. Supporters of Trump and Brexit tend to be older white men who view cultures and religions they do not understand as a threat—a view expressed through a strong dislike of immigration.

Far more worrying is that such attitudes are seeping into policymaking through attempts to normalize such beliefs as the “middle ground.” Even as she came out in support of “Remain,” British Home Secretary Theresa May sabotaged the cause by stating that Britain should leave the European Convention on Human Rights because it sometimes inconveniences the enactment of right-leaning policies. Her statement completely failed to grasp the fundamental and universal element essential to the underpinning and protection of such rights. This represents an erosion of rights and civil liberties, one that can only be accelerated if Brexit is successful. They have more than an echo of the ghettos in Poland during World War II and Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1990s, a conflict that the EU was criticized by many, including Britain, for not doing more to stop. Brexit would make the EU less able to respond to such crises and would further destabilize the region, as a more fragmented Europe would find it much more difficult to agree on a unified response.

In the U.S., Trump has listed a number of progressive policies he would reverse if elected, including health care reform and the normalization of relations with Cuba. This would cause millions of Americans to be priced out of health care and millions of Cubans to be isolated from the community of nations. Trump would reverse the Iran nuclear deal, a major foreign policy success of both the Obama administration and the EU. A Trump America and a Brexit Britain would not have the will or the influence to secure this deal, making the world a more dangerous place.

Such an assault would be both social and economic. Workers' rights and employment protections such as holiday, health and pension, and maternity and paternity provisions are directly under threat. Brexit’s clarion call for the people to be liberated from the supposed servitude of unelected EU bureaucrats would in fact see a reassertion of Victorian economic utilitarianism and the deep social division, inequality and economic subjugation that inevitably follows. It would recreate the conditions of 19th century Britain described by Charles Dickens, with the rights of the wealth creators overly protected, enabling them to harvest and bottleneck the redistribution of wealth. Examples of this have already been seen with the proliferation of zero-hours contracts and inequality in both Britain and America having accelerated since the financial crisis, from a continued rise over the past 40 years. 

Simultaneously, 1930s America would be revisited with Trump’s protectionism. Trade wars would harm U.S. exports and threaten jobs. It is also incompatible with Brexit’s vision for Britain: a stampede of instant “have-your-cake-and-eat-it” free-trade agreements with the rest of the world, including America. Trump rails against globalization and free trade, blaming it, along with immigration, for America’s ills. Immigration is also the scapegoat of Brexit, which, paradoxically, promises a free-trade utopia while setting fire to its free-trade single market access with the largest economic trading bloc in the world. Investment in education and the infrastructure needed to fully reap the benefits of immigration is the antidote to Trump and Brexit’s socioeconomic snake-oil elixir.

The severe implications of such an assault on liberal civil society extend beyond the domestic. Russian President Vladimir Putin's strategy exploits such weaknesses in the open democracies of the West in order to destabilize them from within. This can be seen in his support for right-wing groups throughout Europe. Putin is suspected of having links to subversive organizations through Europe and the U.S. that aim to destabilize Europe and weaken the transatlantic alliance. A point of concern to Western intelligence agencies includes the alleged Russian infiltration of European political parties. Politico recently reported the Russian influence in Donald Trump's campaign, including the front-row attendance of the Russian ambassador during his recent strongman, “America First” foreign policy unveiling. It is the clearest indication yet that Britain's self-imposed exile from the EU and the community of nations would be celebrated with kholodets and vodka in the Kremlin. 

Strategically, Trump is at best indifferent to NATO. According to those pushing for Britain’s EU exit, the alliance has been the sole reason for European peace and stability over the past 70 years. Lower support for NATO would be music to the ears of Putin, enabling him to pursue his geopolitical goals unchallenged. Small Eastern European nations would be left at the mercy of their Russian neighbor in the context of an isolationist Great Britain, a destabilized European Union, a weakened NATO, and a disinterested U.S. president. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the Ukraine crisis is indicative. Nigel Farage, leader of the right-wing UKIP and prominent Brexit supporter, blamed the crisis not on Putin’s desire to redraw national boundaries or opposition to closer EU-Ukraine ties, but instead on the EU for “provoking” Russia. Farage, like Trump, is an admirer of Putin’s strongman foreign policy. Both campaigns would pose a major threat to European stability should they succeed.

From a British perspective, leaving the European Union and the European Convention on Human Rights would leave Britain less prosperous, less free, and vastly less secure in a weakened, destabilized continent. In America, protectionism, tariff wars, discrimination, social division, and the unravelling of alliances will not regenerate the Rust Belt—they will spread it like dry rot. In a time of peril for transatlantic liberal society, a vote for Donald Trump is a vote for Brexit.

*****

*****

Jonathan Stubbs is an MA graduate, an independent journalist, and the founder and writer of the political blog, Britain2100.com.

[Photo courtesy of Jamelle Bouie]

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