Two things happened last night: Britain shocked the world by voting to leave the European Union, and Trump packed his bags to visit Britain for entirely unrelated reasons to do with golf courses.
“They took back their country. That’s a great thing,” said Trump in a speech at his Scottish golf course, during which he was flanked by protesters holding Nazi golf balls, with a Mexican flag flown by another protester just outside of the golf course. (Nevermind that until very recently, he had no clue what Brexit was.)
The scene sums up the paradox of Trump as he’s viewed outside of America. He’s spoken of with disdain throughout Britain, even by people who share his politics. But his brand of right-wing populism just won 52% of British votes, making Trump the international face of the Brexit agenda.
In the last year, Britain has experienced Trump’s campaign in roughly the same way as liberal America. First it was hilarious political theater, then a bizarre and alarming distraction, and finally a hellish waking nightmare with hints of Mr. Burns, white power rallies, and Hitler. If the UK were voting, Trump would lose in a landslide. Only 12% of Britons view him favorably, according to a December 2015 poll. Another poll in March found that 3% or less believe Trump will be good for world peace, climate change, or U.S.-British relations.
But if Trump seems uniquely American, that’s an illusion. Most Western countries now have their own Trump. Populists like Trump, Marine Le Pen in France, and the Brexit campaigners in the UK target easily-recognizable scapegoats: Muslims, immigrants, the Roma. Across the West, white, working class people’s lives are worse than a few decades ago, they can’t get their hands on the real power brokers, and they’re looking for someone to blame.
The difference between Trump and Britain’s Brexiters is, perhaps, that he went there first. Back in March 2016, it was impossible to believe that a British political campaign could win with a slogan like “Make Britain Great Again.” “It seems unlikely that the slogan would be used verbatim now; Trump has poisoned that particular well,” said Dave Cridland, an amateur historian and professional programmer who lives in Wales.
But then Trump’s language began to infuse the campaign for “Brexit,” with anti-immigrant rallying cries taken verbatim from Trump’s playbook. “Make Britain Great Again” is now a popular phrase among Brexit supporters. “I Want My Country Back” is another. The phrase “Britain First,” the name of a pro-Brexit group, echoes Trump’s frequent hashtag #AmericaFirst. The phrase was also allegedly shouted by Thomas Mair as he was arrested for killing pro-Europe MP Jo Cox.
This turn to patriotic, anti-immigrant sloganeering feels new to Britain. And even though Trump is less an ideologue than an opportunist, I kept hearing from liberal British people that this change in the U.K.’s political rhetoric is the most concrete and damaging local effect of Trump’s campaign.
“One of the dangers of Trump is not so much his influence on politics, but on everyday speech,” said an organizer at the British anti-fascist group SLATUKIP (an acronym for Still laughing At The U.K. Independence Party), who preferred to remain anonymous. “His much-publicized language and hate make many feel their own racist views are now ‘mainstream’ or ‘acceptable,’ and thus enable them to openly use hate speech.”
Many British people seem to want the particular "freedom" Trump promises, even if they don’t associate their views with the man himself. They want the freedom to say anything, to abuse their enemies, to insult the boss without losing their job. And they view political correctness as a form of oppression that keeps them from saying the bigoted things they believe everyone secretly thinks.
British liberals believe that Trump’s powerful, populist language helped the Brexit campaign, led by their own British mini-Trumps: Nigel Farage, the leader of the far right anti-immigrant party U.K. Independence Party, and London’s conservative former Mayor Boris Johnson. “What’s scary, apart from Trump and his views, is that his success is a sort of Nigel Farage thing. Or like Goebbels,” said Jean Cooper, a trade union organizer from Birmingham, alluding to Farage and to Hitler’s propaganda minister, Josef Goebbels, in the same breath. She added, “I live in fear for my friend Aida because she’s Muslim.”
Hoda Hashem, who runs the @AntiExtremistUK Twitter account, said that Trump is “encouraging the mass hatred of Muslims” both inside and outside of the U.S. Hashem is a British Muslim woman, making her a member of three groups Trump has insulted during the campaign. (He recently tweeted about the UK’s “massive Muslim problem,” an uncomfortable fascist echo that doesn’t exactly help to distance him from the Nazis.)
So, Trump’s language is seeping into British politics. But “Trump” is still a political insult in Britain on all sides of the political spectrum. People who don’t like Johnson—who once said "voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts”—attack him by calling him “Trump with a Thesaurus.” Street artists created a mural of Johnson kissing Donald Trump to discredit Johnson’s leadership of the Brexit campaign, the push to get Britain to leave the European Union.
You might think Johnson would be OK with all this, given that he’s on the right of the British Conservative party and isn’t exactly a fan of immigrants. But not so. Trump’s overt anti-Muslim statements are the sort of thing you’d only say aloud in Britain if you want to be viewed as a racist lunatic. This explains Johnson’s scathing response to Trump’s suggestion that parts of London had been taken over by Muslim extremists. "The only reason I wouldn't go to some parts of New York is the real risk of meeting Donald Trump,” Johnson said in January.
True, the news is fresh, but it says a lot about Trump’s standing in the UK that no one from the winning Brexit campaign speaks warmly about him, or said anything about meeting him during his visit. Britain’s (now former) Prime Minister David Cameron also said that he “has no plans” to meet Trump, which is a fairly major burn considering that Cameron met with Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, in 2012.
Trump is out of favor with other Conservative politicians, who called Trump a “wazzock” and “crazy” in January 2016, when the UK parliament debated banning him from Britain. (In case you missed this—yes, it really happened. British lawmakers officially considered banning Trump, after half a million UK residents signed a petition.) Even Farage said Trump had gone “too far” with his call to ban Muslims.
In fact, if you want to find a British person who will admit to admiring Trump, you need to find a neo-Nazi, or close to one. The only British party to publicly endorse Trump is the British National Party (BNP). It’s also the only electorally-successful British party of recent times with fascist ties, and it boasts a Facebook page full of pro-Trump news items.
British army veteran Geoffrey Ellwood, who has “liked” the BNP’s Facebook page, seems surprisingly invested in Confederate-flag politics for a British subject. He is also excited by the idea of Trump’s presidency: “Donald Trump would reinstate the Confederate flag, so disgracefully disrespected by libtard mobs [sic].”
Meanwhile, Trump embodies qualities that are the opposite of what most of the English middle class admires. They admire self effacement, modesty, and the tasteful avoidance of ostentatious wealth. They shudder at Trump’s gold airplane toilet fittings and gifts of (fake) diamond cufflinks.
But there’s another reason many British voters backed Brexit yet wouldn’t dream of supporting Trump. “World War III,” said Michael Arnold, an acupuncturist from London, when I asked him what aspect of the words “President Trump” concerned him the most. And this is where analogies between Trump and Brexit break down. Electing Trump president would give him terrifying powers that were not granted to anyone by voting to leave Europe. And that might be a reason why Trump won’t ever be elected president, leaving his contributions to the Brexit moment as his most lasting political legacy.
Mary Noble is managing editor at Topix. She's British and writes about American politics for fun. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.