I lived through Brexit. Here are some words of wisdom for grieving Americans

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The year 2016 has been a hell of a time to be a dual UK and U.S. citizen. Twice now, I’ve woken up in London and picked up my phone, breathlessly wondering what kind of reality was going to glow back in my face. The first time, in June, it was that Britain had voted to leave the EU. This morning it was Donald Trump.


The causes that drove Brexit— nationalism, the wealth gap, white fear in the face of an increasingly diverse nation, a dismediation of the truth — were almost identical to what drove Trump. And, having spent a week in New York last week, I had a gut feeling that the news this morning would not be the jubilant kind that Hillary Clinton had been elected the first female president. The causes were too similar, the anger too palpable. Unfortunately, I was right.

While I loved seeing the social media posts yesterday of my friends wearing pantsuits to the polls and adorning their little daughters in “I Voted” stickers, I did not partake in the pre-celebratory posting. The reason for that was the haunted memory of late June; back then, I had not prepared mentally for any result other than the UK remaining in the EU. The reckoning over the summer was harsh and gut-wrenching. So, as someone who has recently lived through the Kübler-Ross cycle of grief over a political event, allow me to offer a small slice of what I’ve learned since then.


You may now slide into the belief that most of your fellow countrymen are racist bigots. Some are. But most aren’t. Many voted for Trump because they are angry, forgotten, or feel unheard. You may think you know what’s best for the country because you went to university and watch media that is based on facts. But so too does a West Virginia resident who used to make $80,000 a year and, once the factory left the town, now works two jobs to make $30,000. Their choice may not make sense on a macroeconomic scale — globalization and the mass mechanization of jobs would be hard to reverse without dire economic consequences for all — but that fact does not invalidate their right to exercise it.

Pre-Brexit, I could not conceive of a good reason why any Briton would want to give up the right to live and work in 27 countries. But I had also not considered that there are Britons who can’t even afford a train from Leeds to London, let alone Paris or Vienna. That realization was a sobering one and helped me come to terms with what had happened.

And remember: Angry people vote. That fact is largely why both of these unlikely political phenomena were successful. But here’s the thing: Had the results gone in a more progressive route, these people would still exist, feeling unheard, only to have their anger bubble up again in the future. The only difference is you would have forgotten about them had your candidate won.


With Trump as president, we will all see the results of their choice to elect a borderline con-man with no political experience. Damage will almost certainly be done—most viscerally and painfully to the minorities, Muslims, women, LGBT people, and other marginalized groups that Donald Trump seems to take pleasure in targeting and belittling—but it is possible that, with enough resilience and resolve, that pain will bring us to a more productive place. As the country is so steeped in anguish and division, there is a strong chance that things must get worse before they can get better. As one friend said to me recently, “Some generations plant the tree, while others get to sit in the shade.”


With that in mind, know that once you get past the shock and anger, this is a time to engage, not drop out. Trump is now your president, too, so make his job as difficult as humanly possible by vocally and forcefully asserting your needs and rights as a citizen, much in the same way pro-Remain supporters just successfully won a legal challenge to impinge the government’s right to trigger Article 50 (the official start of Brexit) without parliamentary approval. There are plenty of people in America who agree with you, so band together and fight to amplify the causes and values you believe in. And better yet, work with groups or organizations that are seeking to address the anger, hatred, and divisiveness that got America to this point to begin with.

And lastly, take care of yourself in the immediate term. You’ve just spent months engaged in a toxic political process and news cycle leading to this result. I spent most of the 72 hours post-Brexit in pubs with friends, paying little attention to the internet and grieving collectively over what we’d lost. And I don’t regret missing the hot takes and analysis one bit.  


Remember that as of today, nothing is going to change — babies will still be born, waves will still crash, markets may drop but will eventually recover (markets always seem to do that). So take a break from social media. Do something that reminds you are human. Do something that has a positive impact on the square feet directly surrounding you. And don’t try to ponder the immensity of what just happened in pace with the news cycle.

In the days after Brexit, I walked around London feeling like the sky was falling. Today, I see that the complexity of the political machine and the unpredictable winds of popular opinion make the reality of Brexit less of a sprint, and more of a slog. Similarly, Donald Trump’s inauguration will no doubt be a dark day for many Americans, but the trauma and pain we feel today must give way to a productive sense of solidarity that helps us remind him—loudly and unrelentingly—that this is our America, too.

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