A day before the vote TV showed us a middle-aged Englishwoman in dowdy floral dress and sweater who turned on a younger woman encouraging voters to stay in the EU. She said her father and grandfather fought for Britain so it wouldn’t have to be bossed around by Germans. She was for Brexit and, for good measure, wanted the Chunnel bricked up to keep the immigrants out.
Sound familiar? It ought to in a country where a candidate for president is running on a really big wall and a ban on immigrants who have the wrong religion or ethnic origin. And he’s an international businessman who, you’d think, might favor the international order and the EU, even if it comes with meddlesome bureaucrats.
But all over the world masses of people are seeking to flee vile places for safe havens and a better life, and angry voters are trying to slam the doors to prevent them from coming to their neighborhood. It’s hardly surprising in an era characterized by accelerating economic and technological change, global trade and its disruptions, growing inequality, rising diversity, spreading racial, sectarian, and ideological terrorism.
There’s also the issue of a lopsided birthrate. Europeans are having too few children to keep the population from shrinking in many European countries, while the immigrant populations are growing fast.
Life isn’t safe or predictable, is changing fast, and those on the losing end of the equation are mad as hell about it. Populism and nativism are probably inevitable as well as demagogues willing to play on such fears. Britain’s turn away from the EU is not entirely surprising since the island nation, as far back as the Spanish Armada, has always been prepared to repel all boarders.
Some Brits have always regarded the country and its people as being a cut above their continental neighbors, not to mention the former colonies – the white man’s burden, the lesser breeds without the law. A political foe accused no less a fellow than Winston Churchill of epitomizing this elitist view, summed up in the phrase “the wogs begin at Calais.” That is, anyone from beyond the English Channel is by definition inferior.
Those who voted to “Leave” were older, rural, poorer, less educated Brits from the Midlands north, the British equivalents of places like Flint, Michigan or Charleston, West Virginia, or Biloxi, Mississippi. They resented the more prosperous, better educated, upper class elites of the south — City of London financiers, home country suburbanites or Kentish country squires. People with money and cosmopolitan views, welcoming to immigrants and contemptuous of their left-behind countrymen.
The analogies to Trump voters are clear enough. But unlike the relatively homogenous countries of Europe, each with its own ethnic identity, language and history, we are all children of immigrants, often several intermingled strains. So the turn to anti-immigrant fervor seems more jarring in America.
Of course, rapid change and disruption have brought out a nativist reaction before, aimed at German, Irish, Jews, and Catholics. And prior to World War II, the United States was more isolationist than internationalist in outlook, except for adventures in land-grabbing under the banner of manifest destiny.
Will the Brits live to regret their hasty Brexit? It may only be the beginning of fragmentation in Europe. The Scots seem poised to abandon England and choose to stay in the EU, and the Northern Irish might try the same trick. Other continental countries, under the pressure of immigration, terrorism, and economic malaise, are also considering emulating Britain and leaving the EU, including the Netherlands and several Mediterranean members.
Will the United States turn inward, abandon leadership of a global modus vivendi dating back 70 years to Bretton Woods? Experts warned that Brexit would be a costly debacle and similarly warn against the isolationist, anti-immigrant prescriptions of Trump. But the kind of voters who favored Brexit and adore Trump hold experts in contempt. Aren’t they the know-it-all, eggheads who ruined their lives, livelihoods and homeland with their liberalism?
In Britain, one reason the vote to leave succeeded is that the millennials who favored “Remain” by a wide margin failed to show up at the polls. If voters 18-34 in America who flocked to Bernie also stay home, we could find ourselves – like the Brits – alone and afraid in a world we didn’t want remade.
Because the irony is that this sort of splintering of the modus vivendi of the last seven decades will probably hurt the West and benefit people who don’t necessarily wish us well, unregulated boatloads of immigrants, malign forces like ISIS, and opportunists like Putin and Xi Jinping.
A final note: On the Saturday after the vote and the Friday market swoon it precipitated, The Wall Street Journal provided a snapshot of out time. On the front page were handwringing tales about how the “Leave” voters had ignored voices from the political establishment, 1,200 business leaders and economists and academics warning them not to do something crazy.
Inside was a glossy magazine supplement showing absurdly priced clothes, homes, jewelry and cars, each page containing gewgaws costing more than the average family of four earns in a lifetime. It isn’t hard to see this as a blazing instance of “Let Them Eat Cake” obliviousness.
As the populist wave rises in Europe, America, and elsewhere around the globe, the elites are consuming conspicuously and assuming nothing can disrupt their charmed lives. Yet the disruption is under way, and if nothing is done to reform the unequal status quo somewhere the tumbrils are being readied and the blades of the guillotines sharpened. Apres Brexit, le deluge?