There are lessons about the potential outcome of the American presidential election in the U.K.'s Brexit vote back in June. Brexit will, over the long-term, undoubtedly damage the British economy; however, for all the histrionic outpourings of liberal commentators, British society will undoubtedly survive, albeit with fewer Polish plumbers and Romanian builders.
A victory for Donald Trump, on the other hand, would have far wider repercussions. Judging by Trump's comments regarding Vladimir Putin, globally the United States would, it seems, let Russia do as it wishes — expect more killing in Syria and further territorial incursions into Ukraine. Trump might lean temperamentally toward a strand of “America first” isolationism, but that same thin-skinned temperament makes it easy to imagine Trump firing off a few rockets in a fit of pique. Meanwhile, Trumpian domestic policy poses a genuine threat to the free press as well as the Fifth Amendment right which says that no one may “be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.”
Yet what the pro-Brexit and pro-Trump campaigns have in common is that they are drawing energy from a grassroots rebellion against the mainstream liberal order. On both sides of the Atlantic there is a groundswell of people — largely older, white and working class — who are disenchanted with the status quo. Journalists and commentators are straining every sinew to try to fit these grievances into their own favored narrative of what is wrong with the West, but historical precedent is as good a reference point as any: Big economic downturns tend to produce tumultuous political consequences. Everyone knows what the last comparable economic crisis did to Europe in the 1930s, and you don’t have to succumb to Godwin’s law to see that political turmoil doesn’t just happen like the tide coming in.
In Britain, this is particularly true about immigration. Back in 2004, the European Union expanded to absorb 10 new member states, largely from Eastern Europe. At the time, rather than introducing transitional controls on the freedom of citizens of these member states to seek work in Britain, as other countries such as France and Germany did, Britain adopted an open-door policy. The government at the time predicted that only about 13,000 migrants a year would come, yet hundreds of thousands arrived over subsequent years.
Still, immigration became a political game-changer only when the recession transformed the larger economic picture. Back in 2005, Tony Blair’s Labour Party easily won the 2005 general election, despite the unprecedented numbers of migrants coming to Britain. Labour also prevented David Cameron from winning a general election outright in 2010, which considering Labour’s travails since then was, in hindsight, an impressive feat. There were certainly audible grumbles about immigration, but for almost a decade they failed to translate into many votes for anti-immigration politics.
In this respect, the referendum on Britain’s membership in the European Union came at precisely the wrong time for Europhiles. Simmering discontent about immigration has in recent years clashed head-on with anger about falling wages — meaning that migrants themselves are often blamed for what is essentially an after-effect of the 2008 financial crash. The mercurial rise of the anti-immigration UK Independence Party brought together a similar coalition to that united by Trumpian politics in the United States: older, poorer, working class voters and wealthy, free-market-supporting businessmen. When the former would complain about wages and jobs, the latter would point knowingly at migrants and the European Union.
This rise of right-wing populism has been similarly bolstered by the loss of a working class identity among western social democratic political parties, including in Britain and the U.S. Over recent decades, the manual workforce in formerly industrial economies has shrunk markedly. Thus, in order to win power, center-left parties have sought to appeal to the rising middle class. Parties which were founded to represent the working class have subsequently become far more liberal in outlook: They have embraced progressive social causes while making peace with the free market. Old-fashioned social democrats used to want to reduce income inquality. In contrast, elite liberals are happy if the boss makes 100 times as much as you do — so long as the chances of being the boss are divided up proportionally along the lines of gender and ethinicity.
This has left a huge electoral void which right-wing populism has moved to fill. As the British academics Robert Ford and Mathew Goodwin wrote in their influential 2013 book, “Revolt on the Right”: “Working class and less well educated voters feel more alienated from the political system than ever before, while disaffection levels among the middle classes and graduates have risen much less.” In Britain, this sense of disenfranchisement found its voice in the vote against "liberal elites" last June.
I travelled around the north of England prior to the vote and was shocked at the number of working class, social democratic voters I met who were planning on opting to leave the European Union. Globalization to them meant the disappearance of work to China and India. As a middle class Londoner, free movement to me was the right to live and work where I chose, whereas to the people I met, it meant the “right” to be undercut in the labor market by migrants who were willing to do anything for any price. Worse, social liberalism meant they were unable to complain about it without being labelled a bigot. One former miner summed up the mood of many when he said that the town he lived in was “becoming poorer than we were forty, fifty years ago.”
Donald Trump is not America’s answer to challenges of this sort, but he represents what the anti-Stalinist historian Robert Conquest once referred to as the simpleminded attitude of “If I were King” — that all it needs is for well-intentioned people (or blowhards) to come to power and everything can be solved by decree. It is “nothing but the anger of a disappointed child,” as Remy de Gourmont called the excesses of the French Revolution. But if Trump is elected president next week, it will be because enough people feel that the only way to assert some semblance of control over their lives is to crudely lash out. As the Russian revolutionary dissident Victor Serge once wrote, “When there’s no worthwhile banner, you start to march behind worthless ones.”
James Bloodworth is a columnist for the International Business Times UK and the author of "The Myth of Meritocracy."