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Revolt on the right: five similarities between Trump and Brexit

31 Jan , 2017  

By
Dr Robin Bunce is a historian based at Homerton College, University of Cambridge. He specialises in the history of political thought. His recent biography of the black intellectual and activist Darcus Howe, co-written with Paul Field, is published by Bloomsbury.

No one could accuse Donald Trump of being a profound thinker. In 2008, until the bias implicit in the term was exposed, it was a commonplace to refer to Barack Obama as “articulate”. Trump, by contrast struggles to speak in sentences.

For all this, Trump was on to something when he described himself as “Mr Brexit”. Right-wing press coverage of Theresa May’s recent trip to Washington also contained the instinctive acknowledgement of a certain kinship between May and Trump.

It is easy to overstate commonalities between national movements but there are some essential similarities between Trump’s agenda and the vision of a “clean Brexit” which has captured the British right.

World View

Neither Trump, May nor Farage have a consistent world view but they are agreed on the broad direction of recent history.

For Trump, the US is a global power in decline. This is the thought behind the slogan “Make America Great Again”. Trump’s remedy is to renegotiate the US’ relationship with other powers because he assumes that the deals done since the Second World War have allowed other countries to take advantage of America’s largesse. 

This is why Trump’s commitment to NATO is so shaky – he sees European countries as freeloaders. This is why Trump wants to renegotiate NAFTA – he believes that the treaty is rigged in Mexico’s favour. 

Much the same feeling motivates Brexit. Indeed, the phrase “Make Britain great again” has been adopted by UKIPers and right-wing journalists since September in a self-conscious homage to Trump. This, and the slogan “Take back control”, reflect the view that the EU has sapped Britain’s strength because it was designed to privilege French and Germans interests over those of Britain. 

Racism

For Trump, the “plight” of white American men is a microcosm of America’s decline. As American dominance has weakened globally, so the dominance of white men has retreated domestically.

At the same time the threat posed by Mexico is a macrocosm of the threat posed by Mexican immigrants: just as Mexico has taken advantage of NAFTA, so Mexicans have taken advantage of lax migration policies, liberal labour laws and generous welfare provision.

Trump’s white nationalism, and his rejection of “political correctness” reflect his view that over the last five or six decades American leaders have trashed the traditional privileges of white men in order to placate minorities. 

Similarly, right-wing Brexiteers’ complaints about the EU are all but indistinguishable from their complaints about EU migrants. The EU, and EU migrants, impose their values on the UK; the EU, and individual migrants, take British jobs; the EU, and EU migrants, sponge off British wealth.

While leading Brexiteers and Trump do not talk in terms of race, their language is clear enough for their supporters to fill in the gaps. Moreover, comments on social media show that their supporters have no compunction in using explicitly racist language.

Economic Nationalism

One of the curious aspects of the revolt on the right is the rejection of free markets. Mike Pence, a much more traditional conservative than Trump, recently claimed that the “free market has been sorting it out and America’s been losing”.

Trump’s commitment to the nation (at least as he conceives it) above the market, is obvious from his “two simple rules: Buy American and hire American”.

May’s government, in rhetoric if not in action, is similarly sceptical of markets. She has spoken about the government’s duty to intervene where markets fail. Moreover, she is committed to achieving “self-sufficiency” in the NHS: staffing British hospitals wholly with British nationals by 2020. 

Equally unusual for politicians on the right is the commitment to welfare. In his own words, he is “not a cutter. I’ll probably be the only Republican that doesn’t want to cut Social Security”. “It’s not unreasonable” he argues “for people who paid into a system for decades to expect to get their money’s worth”. 

In Britain too, Brexit is often linked to the preservation of the welfare state, most famously with the £350 million NHS pledge. 

However, welfare is conceived as legitimate in so far as it is available to white natives. Supporters of Trump and Brexit all talk up the stereotype that migrants and minorities are exploiting or, as Farage puts it “milking”, the welfare system.

Populism

A fourth similarity between the emerging right in Britain and the US is a new populism. Trump, Farage and May are all willing to offer simplistic, often counterproductive, solutions to complex problems.

The reasons for stagnant wages in the US, and for rising poverty and homelessness in the UK are complex. Slowing productivity gains, the radical mobility of capital, technical unemployment, market failure and the paradox of thrift are some of the issues facing the US and the UK. However, these are difficult to conceptualise.  

It is far easier to blame visible minorities. May pandered to this stereotype in her Lancaster House speech, explicitly blaming migrants for “pressure on public services, like schools, stretch[ing] our infrastructure, especially housing, and put a downward pressure on wages for working class people”.

Similarly, Trump’s tweets offer various “alternative facts”, blaming Mexico for “killing us on jobs and trade”, and for “sucking drugs and death right into the U.S.”

As President, Trump has justified his policy of “preventing Muslim immigration” on the basis that “there is great hatred towards Americans by large segments of the Muslim population”. Trump claims to have evidence that a quarter of American Muslims believe that violence against the US is justified “as part of a global jihad”.

Rejecting Democratic Norms

Finally, new right-wing regimes are intensely relaxed about violating democratic norms. Trump’s immigration policy has already been met with legal challenges. However, migrants are being held and deported without access to legal counsel, in direct violation of court orders. 

Even before this Trump refused to consult the State Department, his Cabinet or Congress about the ban. Obama used executive actions extensively but he did so in a context where Congress was dominated with his opponents. Trump does not have this excuse. His reluctance to work with Congress is remarkable precisely because he has majorities in both Houses.

Additionally, Trump has consistently impugned the legitimacy of elections in the US – even having won he continues to allege illegal practices. 

May makes no secret of her desire to strip British citizens of the protection of the European Convention on Human Rights. She fought hard to deny Parliament a vote on triggering Article 50 and her government is also presiding over the redrawing of Parliamentary boundaries and the reduction of MPs that will lock-in a Conservative majority.

Supporters of Brexit, goaded by the right-wing press, have also demanded the abandonment of legal protection for migrants in the wake of Gina Miller’s successful supreme court challenge. Online, the fact that Miller “wasn’t even born here” has led many to demand legal changes to ensure that “foreigners” cannot challenge the government in British courts. 

The deportations, witnessed over the last few days in the US, were prefigured by the deportation of 50 UK residents to Jamaica as part of Operation Nexus last September.

Whilst the people deported technically retained the right to appeal, the moment a Deportation Order was issued they lost the right to work in the UK, their right to benefits and the right to legal aid. As the Home Office can take up to a year to deal with appeals, a Deportation Order is effectively impossible to fight – whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation. Anecdotal evidence suggests that UK residents who are citizens of other EU countries are next in the government’s cross hairs. 

In both the UK and the US the prevailing view on the right is that migrants do not deserve legal protection.

Conclusion

A final commonality between Trump’s government and the pursuit of Brexit is that they are both far worse than optimists feared. Its now apparent that Trump intended to be taken literally, as well as seriously. At the same time, it is clear that Brexiteers believe that anything short of a hard Brexit is a “fake Brexit”.

Pressure from the right-wing press, and the confidence with which the right in Britain and America are operating, mean that traditional constitutional checks are likely to be blunted.

However, democracy is bigger than constitutionalism, and while vast swathes of the population in the UK and the US are prepared to protest, following the example of the recent Women’s March, there is hope that the revolt on the right can be stopped. 


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