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Europe: The Final Countdown

How Brexit Is Britain's Trump

The fight over the EU is a Tory family bust-up stemming from the same place that gave us Trump.

Boris Johnson chatting to a Remain supporter in Ipswich (Stefan Rousseau / PA Wire)

"Ughh," say my British friends, "look at them. Look at the Americans with their Trump, their garish Technicolor Mussolini. Look at them handing him the Republican nomination."

"Yes," agree my American friends, "look at us. Despise us. Pity us for the vulgar fools we are."

But the Brits have no place coming over all smug. We have our own version of the Trump phenomenon brewing right here, right now. Ours may be performed at a lower volume – the Downton Abbey to America's Real Housewives – but make no mistake: the noise around Brexit springs from exactly the same origins as that around Trump.


Both Trump and Brexit are internal right-wing squabbles that have somehow spilled onto the world stage. Despite what their supporters may cry, what fires both Trump and Brexit isn't the question of America's place in the world, or even Britain's place in Europe. It is simply the question of what it means to be on the political right in an advanced economy. These are Frankenstein's monsters of the Republican and Conservative parties that have broken loose and left us all having to wade through their toxic bile. And it is actually the Republican and Conservative parties themselves who are probably most terrified

In America, this goes all the way back to Nixon, when the Republicans instituted their explicitly racist "Southern Strategy" – consciously playing on white fears surrounding desegregation. As Nixon strategist Kevin Phillips helpfully explained back in 1970, "the more negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That's where the votes are."

Since then, the GOP has been driven by a triple-alliance of social conservatives who hate abortion and minority empowerment, fiscal conservatives who hate affordable healthcare and the minimum wage, and foreign policy hawks who hate pretty much everything. But it was always understood that it was the moneymen who were really in charge. The Republican electoral game – perfected in the Karl Rove era – was to keep everybody shouting about race, abortion rights and "family values", while the clever economics wonks got on with the serious business of taking everyone's money and giving themselves tax-breaks.


But that rage couldn't stay contained forever. All Trump has done is to turn the manufactured cultural angst on its creators, snatching power from the party elite. One only has to look at the flailing Republican #nevertrump campaign, the loathesome squirming with which Paul Ryan grudgingly endorsed him, or read the National Review describing Trump as "impulsive, brutish, intemperate, megalomaniacal and lacking any foundation in principle" to recognise that Trump is probably more of a problem for the GOP themselves than for the Democrats. Barring an act of God, Trump has very little chance of winning the election, but he might just destroy the Republican Party.

So what about Brexit? Well, where the American conservatives used fear of women's choice and minority empowerment, the British Conservative Party used the European Union. For decades the Tories used "Europe" as a dog-whistle trigger to deflect from actual policy discussion. The economy grows, but so unequally that living standards stagnate? Blame the EU. Small businesses are struggling to compete against tax-evading multinationals? Well, it's all down to the bloody Eurocrats in Brussels with their rules about straight bananas, isn't it?

This reflects the Tories' own seismic split. This is between the "modernising" Conservatives, just trying to get on with privatising all state assets and selling arms to corrupt regimes – for whom the EU is a useful preserver of the status quo – and their backwards-looking wing that simultaneously longs for a xenophobic Little England and a global British Empire.


Like Trump for Republicans, the entire Brexit debate is essentially an argument between these two factions of the Conservative Party. In a sane world it would never even intrude on anyone outside that toxic little bubble. Our misfortune is that the Tories suffer from an explosive ideological incontinence, and we're all getting sprayed with their mess.

The Tory split over Europe is so deep that Brussels has long been less a policy issue for them than a neurosis – leading them to depose Margaret Thatcher and spend over a decade in the electoral wilderness. To see Cameron, Johnson, Osborne, Gove and Smith tear each other apart over Brexit once again is almost hilarious. The Conservatives should be having a field day, with a Parliamentary majority and a divided Labour Party still adjusting to Jeremy Corbyn's leadership. And yet Brexit has turned this government into a faction-ridden shambles.

Under any other circumstances, the reaction to the Republican and Conservative parties' self-immolation would be to put on the popcorn, open a beer and watch the fireworks. But in both these cases the stakes are too high: Trump is disastrous for progressives, and the idea of a radical Brexit is completely ludicrous for exactly the same reasons.

It is a mistake to even give these two movements the credit of calling them "the politics of anger". This is the politics of petulance. Anger can explode in rage, or dissipate into apathy – but it can also be focused, harnessed and productive. It was anger at the plight of the British workers who fought the War that built the NHS; it was anger that drove America's Civil Rights Movement. Petulance, on the other hand, is useless. It is void. It is the infant's cry of rage that they can't reach their toy after they've thrown it out of the pram. Strip away the veneer of respectability around Brexit and you find the same petulance that is driving Trump's supporters in the US.


No Brit who votes for Brexit can look down on an American who votes for Trump – they're the same thing. It's no wonder that Trump seems fond of Brexit and Vladimir Putin seems fond of both. For all the very obvious problems with the EU, to vote for Brexit in order to strike at the establishment isn't so much throwing the baby out with the bath water – it's drowning the baby, pissing in the bathtub, then setting your house on fire.

But hey, Brexiteers, don't worry – if Remain wins on the 23rd, maybe Nigel Farrage can promise to build a wall across the white cliffs of Dover and get Belgium to pay for it.

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