I'm not the first to point out the similarities between the campaign in Britain to leave the European Union and Donald Trump's campaign for president. It has been well-noted that both have invoked and relied upon racist and xenophobic invective, crass nationalism, and appeals to a disaffected and alienated white working class. Both promise a return to a mythic national greatness. Both have defied pollsters and upset "politics as usual" liberals. So Britain's decision in Thursday's ill-thought referendum to Leave Europe, risk a recession, and give a mandate to the violent nationalism undergirding the Brexit campaign sends a troubling message to the U.S.: The far right, the racist right, the shouts-not-dog-whistles right can win. And therefore we should double down on our efforts against proto-fascist Trump and vote for Hillary Clinton.
This is an easy narrative and it's half true. Or it's true if we buy what we've been told: that the soul of our nations are imperiled by far-right populism and will be doomed, or else saved by a vote in the other direction. But what the Brexit debate illustrated is that, contrary to unrelenting rhetoric, Britain's soul was not up for saving. It's been languishing in austerity-driven, migrant-resistant hell for some time; the decision to leave the EU is just a drop to a deeper circle.
Welcome to the politics of lesser evils, the landscape that Britain and the U.S. share now more than ever.
The problem with the sui generis violence of racist nationalism is that it makes the everyday violences of neoliberal politics look like sweet relief. But neither the European Union nor a Clinton presidency offer salvation from creeping fascism. We need a different politics to climb out of hell together. And I'm not talking about Bernie Sanders or Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, either.
I'm British but I've lived in New York for seven years. When I was a teenager I used to insist on calling myself a Londoner, opting for a superiority complex instead of patriotism. The identification is more accurate: London voters overwhelmingly voted to stay in the EU, and so did younger demographics. Outside the cosmopolis, areas with older, whiter demographics wanted out. Like most everyone in my identity-affirming social media feedback loops, I'm devastated by the referendum result. As with Trump's popularity, it is grim to see the propaganda of well-established racists like The UK Independence Party's Nigel Farage gain material political traction.
But had the campaign to remain clinched a victory, I wouldn't have woken up joyful this morning. The options on the table were between transnational capitalism, technocracy, and shameful treatment of non-European migrants (that is, Remain in the EU) or, doomed nationalist capitalism, xenophobia, and recession (Leave). The precise same framework of options is on the table in the U.S. in the coming election.
It makes sense to choose a lesser evil. That's why it's lesser. But if we call the success of a lesser evil a victory, we buy into such a totalizing ideology that we might just forget to fight for something good. The trajectory of election spectacles fools us. We are fed a ratings-grabbing narrative in which human history culminates on one voting day, and will be cleaved in only one of two directions. This year the tale is an apocalyptic one: History can once again fork towards fascism, or towards progress. As if the proto-fascism (and the fear, disinformation, and disaffection on which it feeds) can be felled by stopping a Trump presidency. As if Clinton is progressive.
It would be an amnesiac panic to throw passionate support behind the very forces that helped foster the poverty, fear, and ressentiment that drives rightwing populism. Clinton, along with just-resigned British Prime Minister David Cameron (who bet his career on remaining in the EU) and the EU leadership, are the poster children for these neoliberal policies. Internationalism and free trade are not the enemies of fascism and nationalism—the former uphold the inequalities that drive the latter. The actual enemy of fascism is anti-fascism—fierce dissent and zero tolerance for bigotry—and real socioeconomic class, race, and gender equality. And while the European Union was originally conceived as a unifying project to render the rise of fascist states impossible, anti-fascism has not been the driving force of project Europe for some time, and certainly not equality. Neither have ever been the American project. And the Brexit referendum nor the U.S. election has put anything like that on the table. Meanwhile, both purport to be engaging with "the people" and working-class struggle.
It was clever and dirty politicking to frame the reactionary choice to leave the EU as a protest vote and an underdog battle against "experts" and elites. But the Brexit battle began with a riff in the Tory party—the conservative center versus the conservative right, and pseudo-socialist Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn offering close to nothing. The referendum itself was a dumb gamble by Cameron to consolidate power. And no referendum vote so mired in misinformation can claim the direct democracy the process purports to enable. When the anti-establishment is led by Farage and the unassailably posh former London mayor Boris Johnson, this is no people's revolution. There's to be no liberation here, and Europe didn't equal freedom from oppressive systems either.
The mirroring this side of the Atlantic is clear—there is no anti-establishment candidate in this election; it's just one establishment (Trump’s mega wealth and celebrity) taking on another (Clinton’s professionally political mega wealth and celebrity). Paul Mason noted at the Guardian that the Brexit campaign was nothing less than a "hijacking" of working-class culture; the same can be said of Trump's ascendance.
You might be wondering why I've skimmed over Sanders and Corbyn. Are they not offering a leftwing populism and a call for equality? Many would say so. I believe their popularity, especially with young people, reflects a heartening desire for social change. But I also think these life-long professional politicians have dubious claims to outsider status and I will also reserve my excitement around any person trying to be president or prime minister. It would be a great shame if the enthusiasm around Sanders and Corbyn and their largely commendable values were to be dedicated to electoral politics alone. And in both Britain and the U.S., we have been asked to funnel any such passions into the political center as a bulwark to the far right. Sanders and Corbyn may have been the mouthpieces of a new and better conversation, but the fulcrum lies firmly with the right and we won't vote our way out of that one.
I don't often vote. I believe in withholding one's mandate and maintaining one's political voice and action outside the ballot box. But if I could vote in the United States, I couldn’t bring myself to give my mandate to Clinton. I also thought those of us hopeful and young when Obama was first elected learned that, as Bob Dylan knew, "Hope's just a word that maybe you've seen or maybe you've heard, On some windy corner 'round a wide-angled curve.” Maybe you voted because of hope, and now maybe you will because of fear. I thought we gathered in the streets for Occupy, and in the squares in Europe, and in the streets to fight for black life, because we saw the strictures and interests of state houses and saw the difficult necessity of popular dissent. We are told these movements failed, and there were great failures, but Britain just left the EU and Trump might get elected, yet we still put faith in electoral systems and voting. There’s room for failures in fighting hegemonies.
Still, I voted in the referendum (to stay in the EU) because, in this case, one evil loomed too large in its symbolic and material content. And voting against the vile Leave campaign, a referendum “in or out” vote, felt different from giving my mandate to a politician or party with whom I disagree. I have no love for the austerity-mongering Fortress Europe, but in the hellscape of lesser evils, we vote against, not for things.
The lesson from Brexit might be to rally support around lesser evils, and so be it. We are already hearing stories from remorseful Brexit voters who never really thought it could happen, didn’t know what was at stake, or that their vote could count. Milton's Satan made hell look appealing, too. But there's no freedom in building pandemonium. And that same beguiling Satan was modeled on Oliver Cromwell—a tyrant of the gentry class who harnessed popular revolt to overthrow Europe-loving King Charles I. We have older lessons than Brexit to learn from, in dismissing false promises of liberty.