Donald Trump got something right for once. In the immediate aftermath of the UK’s historic vote to leave the European Union, he observed “a big parallel” between American and British politics. That parallel is not that we want to take our borders back, as he would have us believe, but rather that we are witnessing a shared political and economic crisis so deep that even overt xenophobia qualifies as a plausible political alternative.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, like President Obama, came to power on the promise that he would fix the disastrous missteps of the previous government. Instead the Tories gave Britons more of the same: continuing military involvement in the Middle East (leading predictably to a mass exodus of refugees) and accelerated neoliberalization at home. Likewise, the Obama administration have continued to prosecute the War on Terror (though they no longer call it that) and have done precious little to shield American workers from globalization and antilabor legislation known as “right to work.” This has left working families on both sides of the Atlantic worse off than they expected to be once they were rid of George W. Bush and Tony Blair.
The resulting mass discontent is nothing less than a Gramscian crisis of hegemony, in which the political establishment has lost the consent of the people to rule. In a stunning rebuke to Mr. Cameron and his government, the British voted 52 to 48 percent in favor of exiting the European Union. Though no comparable referendum has yet taken place in the United States, we do know that only 19 percent of Americans polled by Gallup in 2015 said that they trusted the government in Washington to do what is right, the lowest percentage recorded since 1958 when social scientists began asking the “Trust in Government” question.
Such crises have no natural political meaning of their own. Mass frustration must be channeled by an alternative political project to gain content and form, and here we come to another key similarity between the US and the UK. The loudest voices in the crisis are those of the nativist populists on the fringes of the conservative establishment: UKIP, the Brexiteers, and Donald Trump.
Thus, Mr. Trump said of the Brexit vote, “People want to take their country back, they want to have independence in a sense… You’re going to have other cases where people want to take their borders back.” Nigel Farage, leader of Britain’s anti-immigrant, anti-Europe UKIP party, said that June 23 should be made bank holiday, since it will “go down in our history as our independence day.”
Support for this “America/Britain First” message has come in part from disgruntled working class communities. Mr. Farage pointed out that Brexit “was won … in the Midlands and the North and it was the old Labour vote that came to us and we, particularly as a party, campaigned as hard as we could in those areas.”
Trump supporters tend to be non-college-educated white men, who feel they have no say in public life, who perceive a looming threat from alleged outsiders inside the United States, and who live in parts of the country that are known hotbeds of racial resentment.
Now some might say that Brexit has little to do with nativist politicians: it’s the European Union that is fundamentally flawed in that it unfairly favors its largest economies, especially Germany and France, and opens up each nation’s workforce to competition from abroad. However, it takes serious political organization to pin an entire country’s woes on a single villain, especially when it involves defeating a resourceful “stay” campaign. The contradictions of EU-style capitalism only provide the terrain for battles such as the Brexit debacle to take place. The EU in and of itself does not predispose anyone to xenophobia any more than it predisposes people to socialism or political Islam. The context of partisan struggle matters, even and perhaps especially, when the major parties are in disarray.
What remains to be seen is what the organized Left will do in response. We know what the Far Right is up to. We also know that the political establishment is on the ropes. But what will Bernie Sanders do at the Democratic National Convention and after? Will Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn recapture the working class with an authentic “Old Labour” message? If neoliberal attempts to coopt Sanders and unseat Corbyn are any indication, then it seems the Left will have to do an end run around the center or become irrelevant and watch as nativism gains traction.
Cedric de Leon is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Providence College. He is the author of The Origins of Right to Work (Cornell University Press 2015) and Party & Society (Polity 2014), and co-editor of Building Blocs (Stanford University Press 2015).