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The decision by the people of the United Kingdom to withdraw from the European Union is one one of the most stunning events in recent global political history.

No major country has ever chosen to leave the EU. The vote has huge implications for Britain's economy, its governance, and its place in the world. It has many Brits, like my colleague Felix Salmon, mourning what they see as a retreat into a more narrow-minded, inward-looking, nationalistic kind of society. More than that, though, it's a symbol of a series of destabilizing political and social trends coursing through Western society—including the United States.

Here's how it happened and what it means for Americans.

Brexit was never supposed to happen

Prime Minister David Cameron lost the referendum and resigned.
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On paper, the Remain side should have won the referendum easily. It had the backing of the leaders of every major political party in the country, from every side of the political aisle—including now soon to be former Prime Minister David Cameron, who had just won a general election a mere year before. (Cameron—who really only called the referendum to neutralize the bitter divisions over Europe within his Conservative Party and the electoral threat from the rabidly anti-EU UK Independence Party, or UKIP—must now be wishing he'd made a choice that didn't wind up ousting him from power.)


Remain rolled out a string of economic bigwigs—the governor of the Bank of England, the International Monetary Fund, the OECD—who all warned that leaving the EU would send the British economy into a tailspin.

Right-wing politicians spoke of the access to Europe's free trade zone that would be torn apart. Left-wing politicians warned that withdrawal would lead to a "bonfire" of worker's protections. The country's Treasury produced a series of scorched-earth reports predicting that everything from pensions to wages would plummet if Brexit became a reality. There were generals and spy chiefs who said that withdrawal would harm national security. Even President Obama got in on the act, sternly telling British voters that America supported the status quo.

Ultimately, none of it worked. The Leave campaign had a silver bullet that trumped everything: immigration.

How xenophobia won the referendum

Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, the two biggest leaders of the Leave campaign.

Figures like hard-right UKIP leader Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, the former Tory mayor of London, hammered home the theme that leaving the EU—which allows its citizens to live and work freely in any of its member states—would allow the U.K. to control its immigration levels, stop the terrorists that were surely grouped in with the hordes of people coming to the country, and spend billions of pounds on the public services that were stretched to the bone. (Farage and other prominent Leave proponents began systematically reneging on these pledges mere moments after winning the referendum.)


The Leave movement was emboldened by years and years of anti-EU, anti-immigrant politics that have been coursing through British life. Farage and UKIP have been particularly adept at stoking resentment toward immigrants, especially in many of the largely white, working-class communities across the country which have been hit hardest by globalization, de-industrialization, and inequality. (In response, mainstream politicians either tried to match Farage's attacks or tried to change the subject.) It was those communities—many of which had voted for the left-leaning Labour Party for decades—that turned most fiercely against the EU in the referendum vote.

This is not to say there isn't a left-wing case for withdrawing from the EU: In a nutshell, it says that the EU is a neoliberal clique that yanks democratic control from its 500 million citizens and promotes brutal austerity and corporate power. But that's not the case that just won the referendum. The ugly, nativist, nationalist one did.

The Trump connection

Nigel Farage and his poster.
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If any of this sounds familiar to people who have been watching American politics, it should. More than one pundit has compared the Leave campaign to that of Donald Trump, and with good reason. Both can easily be seen as part of a wave of anti-establishment revolts taking place across the Western world. Those revolts have taken shape in ways both hopeful (Bernie Sanders, say) and scary (step forward, Mr. Trump).

The EU—which spent much of the past 10 years struggling to cope with vast swathes of unemployment, savagely punishing member states if they attempted to forge an alternate economic course (see: Greece), and fending off fascists in several different countries—is as stark a symbol of the shortcomings of that establishment as it's possible to have. Throw in a refugee crisis from the Middle East and you have a toxic brew just waiting to boil over.

Farage and his team happily stirred the pot. At one point, the Leave side produced a poster showing a long line of Syrian refugees, implying that a bunch of scary brown people would soon be invading the U.K. The poster was compared to Nazi propaganda. Later that same day, things got even more horrifying when MP Jo Cox was murdered in the street by an alleged white supremacist who yelled "Britain First" as he killed her.

Faced with such obstacles, the Remain campaign wound up being just as potent a reminder of the many betrayals and failures of the elite as the broader EU turned out to be. In the end, all of those experts who'd presided over the global economic crisis found that people just didn't want to hear what they had to say anymore. The politicians who hoped their united front and predictions of doom would protect them from Brexit discovered that their credibility had vanished. Picture Jeb Bush and Paul Ryan helplessly pleading with people to spurn Trump and you'll get the idea.

Brexit is a big warning to the world

Donald Trump in Scotland the day after the referendum.
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What happens now is anyone's guess. Britain has to extricate itself from decades of complex economic, cultural, and diplomatic relationships that it's built up in the EU. The global economy is freaking out. The value of the pound is plummeting. Cameron is gone. Nationalists in Scotland and Northern Ireland could hasten the breakup of Britain itself. The EU will be challenged as never before. It's still pretty unclear how it's all going to play out.


What's very clear is that the forces that propelled Brexit to victory are not going away any time soon. People are hurting. Racism and bigotry are spreading. There is an ongoing crisis. And elite politicians have no clue how to deal with it.