Explaining the Inexplicable: Why #Trump ≠ #Brexit

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In recent days, it has become part of the default news narrative to equate the election of reality television star and property mogul Donald J. Trump as the forty-fifth president of the United States with the 23rd June 2016 UK referendum result, by which European Union membership was narrowly rejected: both of these events have been depicted as popular ‘revolutions’ by ‘nativists’ or ‘nationalists’ against a distant and delusional ‘globalist’ elite.

However, on closer analysis of the dry facts, this makes little if any sense. Trump and Brexit are highly distinct phenomena; indeed, the differences between them strongly suggest some paradoxical conclusions:

  1. The End of the American Dream. As we have written about extensively on this blog – and as a handful of select commentators have also noted – the United States stopped being a fully developed country (on a par, say, with most of Western Europe or the more affluent bits of East Asia) a long time ago. At least since the early 1970s, it has experienced first relative and then absolute economic decline. This depressing reality has been reflected in almost everything – real wages, public infrastructure, purchasing power, quality of life – except standard media depictions of the US, which have struggled to keep pace with the systemic shift. Therefore, the elevation of Trump to the presidency can at least partly be explained as a reaction to crash deindustrialisation, inner-city impoverishment and extreme wealth inequality – a desperate measure for desperate times. The ludicrous and frankly implausible xenophobia which characterised parts of Trump’s campaign can generally be dismissed as a form of clever (if morally indefensible) marketing.
  2. The Empire Commits Suicide. Conversely, the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the EU – for all it may have represented – could not seriously be defended on the grounds of economic self-interest. Quite the reverse: the global public was treated to the spectacle of Wales – a European Union dependency – deciding to gnaw off practically the only hand which even remembered it existed. Leaving the world’s largest and most valuable single market with no legal arrangements in place to supplant existing trade deals is not a fiscally (or politically) coherent decision. Other explanations – the last manifestation of imperial hangover; an hysterical and constantly-stoked xenophobia; a staggering ignorance of world affairs – simply must be sought. And traditional evaluations about the true sentience of the respective electorates – which have often portrayed Americans as being unaware of broader economic issues – have rarely looked more fragile.

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