When the world awoke on Friday, June 24, the convulsion of insanity that has overtaken the United States for the past six months suddenly felt like a global paroxysm.
And thankfully, Donald Trump was at the ready by the crack of dawn with a congratulatory tweet on the occasion of his visit to his Trump Turnberry golf course: “Just arrived in Scotland. Place is going wild over the vote. They took their country back, just like we will take America back. No games!”
“Scotland voted in, you moron,” British pop singer Lily Allen tweeted in reply — a relatively mild representation of a reaction that was on the whole far more profane.
For weeks, the discussion in the run-up to the referendum in the United Kingdom about whether to leave or remain in the European Union has focused on dry examinations of trade and tariffs, regulations and bureaucratic red tape issued from Brussels. Yet the results of the vote told a story of a starkly divided nation, not unlike like our own: Young people, the highly educated and well off tended to favor staying in the union, with strong sentiment in the global financial center of London, the port of Liverpool and the entirety of Scotland. Meanwhile, the victorious leave movement drew its strength from cities like Sheffield and Birmingham in the industrial heartland, where wages have stagnated over the past several decades. An anti-immigrant backlash hasn’t been too far below the surface of the rhetoric surrounding the leave campaign, and was blatantly articulated with a poster portraying UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage standing in front of a stream of brown-skinned refugees with the wording, “Breaking point: The EU has failed us all.”
There was a time not that long ago when anti-globalization was predominantly the turf of the left. After the end of the Cold War, when the United States became the unrivalled world superpower and capitalism the dominant ideology, anxiety on the left about corporations rewriting the rules on trade, labor and the environment crystalized in a series of militant protests — against the World Trade Center in Seattle in 1999, against the World Bank and International Monetary fund in Washington and against the European Union in Nice in 2000, and against the G8 summit in Genoa in 2001. Far-right groups attempted to co-opt the anti-globalization movement for racist and nativist purposes, but with little success.
Then the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks reoriented the US state apparatus from the agenda of global capitalism to military dominance, forcing the left in the United States and much of the world to redirect its energy to opposing the invasion and occupation of Iraq. With the drowning of New Orleans in 2005, the foreclosure crisis in 2007 and the Great Recession, along with the rise of tea party intransigence and the ascendance of the Koch Brothers oligarchy, the US left has been preoccupied with domestic rather than international matters for the past 10 years.
So it’s rather stunning for those of us in the United States who haven’t paid much attention to the rest of the world to discover that while our own political system appears to be spinning out of control, reaction to the refugee crisis in Europe is similarly giving rise to far-right political parties that appeal to xenophobia and national sovereignty.
No one draws the comparison more clearly than Trump himself, who wrote in a fundraising email to his US supporters on the day after the Brexit vote: “Voters in the United Kingdom chose to leave the flawed and failing European Union and reassert control over their borders, politics and economy, taking a brave stand for freedom and independence.”
It’s not just in the United States and the United Kingdom that we’re seeing a revival of nationalism based on what journalist Mary Kay Magistad calls a “narrative of national humiliation,” but also in Russia, China, Turkey and many others. When nationalism curdles into fascism, it expresses itself on the homefront through racial appeals and the scapegoating of outsiders, while abroad — mark my words — it manifests as military aggression.
There was an odd echo of Trump in the exultant reaction to Brexit by Marine Le Pen, head of the ultra-right National Front Party in France, who argued that by breaking up, nations can paradoxically come together.
“For all the patriots, for all those who love freedom, this day is one of joy,” she said. “It’s not Europe which has died; it’s the European Union that is shaking. And it is the rebirth of the nations and a need to rebuild between them a new European project — that of cooperation.”
Trump said something strikingly similar in Greensboro on June 14.
“But we’re led by the stupid people, and that’s gonna end, folks,” he said. “That’s gonna end. And you know, I’ll tell you something: We will have a better relationship with Mexico and China and India and Japan and Vietnam.”
If you believe that, good luck.