As I type this, ITV (through C-Span) is reporting that the Leave campaign is cruising toward a victory, with an 85% chance at victory. By the time I’m done, it could be a done deal. All night- or in the wee hours, if you are reading this in the immediately impacted areas- the results started to trickle toward the red, toward Leave. Wales, which has benefited enormously from the EU, while still suffering thanks to its postindustrial wreckage, was almost entirely and passionately Leave. England, with a resurgence of nationalism, went heavily toward an exit. Only Scotland kept it from being a total rout.
ITV just called it. It’s over. Brexit is a reality, and the world is a far different place.
It’s been a season of weirdness, on both sides of the ocean, two countries tied umbilically together. For as much as we pretend to be different, and as much as we are, there are real similarities, and they are bubbling to the surface, like some kind of deeply buried and seismically awakened sludge, in this year of simmering discontent and atavistic anger.
It’s impossible to discount what is happening. Throughout the night, there were references to the “white working class”, in cities like Manchester and Cardiff and throughout Wales, and how the Remain camp failed to persuade them that they are better off in a united Europe. I honestly don’t know if that is true they would be, though I suspect it is. But the argument is the same as it is here.
In the US, Trump is essentially in the Leave camp. I mean, he very literally is, having supported it (once he was told what it was). But instinctively, even if he didn’t know what it was, he knew, in his dark heart. He knew that “Leave” encompassed his entire campaign. The heart of Trumpism is a desire to leave the modern world. It’s a desire to leave a world where what once seemed certain and permanent (even if it was only a few generations old) was rapidly changing. It’s a desire to leave the world of complexity and uncertainty and retreat toward blood and soil. It’s the call to retreat disguised as victory.
And yes, that is a powerful message for many, left out of the global economy, punished by market forces that are beyond their control, but clearly in control of those who benefit. It’s a message that resonates because, while it blames “elites”, it really turns anger on those who are weaker (immigrants, Muslims, etc). It’s an extremely seductive howl, a lowing, lusty battle dirge. It accepts failure, but gives in to the desire to burn the world down with it. It’s the truncheon of the race riot manifest in the ballot box.
Both campaigns- Trump and Leave- have had violence as their main currency, or, if not the actual currency, the silver and gold that gives it value. Because when you tell people their country is under attack, and not just from immigrants, but from their children, and their grandchildren (as Satelan chillingly documents), and that they are being enabled by what are essentially quisling politicians, well, then what choice does a patriot have. It’s what led to the murder of Jo Cox. It’s what drives Trump’s supporters, like this terrifying racist. It’s not a policy. It’s sheer emotion.
This emotion is driven by modern dislocation. Yes, we’ve had immigration and a shifting balance of power for decades (it’s still mostly white, and male, but it is shifting). And yes, the UK has been in the EU for decades. But this is still relatively new. Before really the end of WWII an actual political alliance with France would have been insane. Even WWI was more out of the inconsistent European alliances that formed in the wake of Napolean. You don’t have many Englishman who remember France as an enemy, and the Continent as a wholly foreign place, but the memory remains. The memory of Empire remains, as it does, in another form, in America. This loss of identity, tied in with the shifting balance of power through immigration, assimilation, and expanded civil rights, is coupled with the very real economic dislocation of globalization. It all feels like a loss of power, and the personal and political can intertwine easily.
The memory of being on top is still powerful, and can be reanimated up by canny politicians who know how to stir up the blood that has dried in the soil. With sweaty passion and crocodile tears they gift life back into the blood, making it rich and liquid in a suddenly loamy soil, from which can sprout thousands of pairs of thick-booted feet, marching in unison to an old-fashioned martial beat.
It’s transoceanic, baby. Donald Trump doesn’t know anything about the world, but we’re living in his image.