In the early hours of June 24th this year, I was sat upright in a hotel room bed, observing UK Brexit votes coming in, with increasing disbelief at the apparent will of the country that’s been my home for 19 years to exit the European Union. As a European migrant residing and working in the UK, I represent the sort of immigration that Brexiters wanted to curtail, so it was hard not to interpret that vote as a rejection of me, personally.
Tonight I got to experience a re-run of that disconcerting event as the United States followed the same trajectory with its democratic choice of Donald Trump as its next president. It was uncanny deja vu, as the buildup to the decision was characterized by the same tone of discord, same echo chambers, and the same contest between a sensible, serious option and a ridiculous cut-off-your-nose-to-spite-your-face choice.
Like an Americanized sequel, everything’s bigger and the whole world’s at stake
As the small hours of my London night turned larger, widespread bewilderment and shock were expressed both on social media and in stock market volatility, while belated Google searches spiked for things that should have already been known. Trump’s election is, as he himself had promised it would be, Brexit 2.0 — only exponentially bigger, more consequential, and lacking the Brits’ dark sense of self-deprecating humor.
The first time that I truly believed Brexit, as a decision, could happen was when it had already happened. Too comfortable in the way I’d settled into London, a city built and sustained every day by immigrants, I had lapsed into the mistaken belief that sociocultural progress was like the tech industry that I cover: always moving forward. It’s hard for racism or religious intolerance to survive in a densely populated place like London — no group of people can isolate itself, and there are too many opportunities to see the good in those you might have previously detested or feared — but that doesn’t mean that intolerance and bigotry are on an inevitable path to extinction.
What Brexit taught me was that we have to work for and defend the values of a civilized society. It showed me that social reversion is possible, especially when driven by widening income inequality that’s puffed up by demagogues into an us vs. them confrontation. Your economic well-being is suffering because they are taking from you.
There is no us vs. them
Let me tell you, there is no us vs. them. Even as I might feel rejected by the UK, I’m conscious of the fact that only a quarter of the country’s population voted in favor of Brexit, and from among them, the vast majority were motivated by dissatisfaction with their own lot in life, not some bellicose desire to inflict harm and hardship on others.
Like the British, many Americans voted for Donald Trump as a protest; to rebel and throw off a status quo that felt suffocating and congealed with the greasy corrupt politicking of a complacent bureaucracy class. I still believe in the fundamental goodness of the British and American people, but I also think that both made catastrophically bad decisions.
The Brexit vote devastated the British currency, whose fall is leading to higher prices for imported goods and greater difficulty for Brits themselves to travel abroad. It’s making the country more insular even before it’s been put into effect. Poverty has increased, as shown by the rising use of emergency food banks, and far from uniting to tackle the new challenge together, Britain is now more fractious than ever. Yes, I still believe that most Brexit voters weren’t racist, but the fact of their choice has given a sense of validation to racist and bigoted beliefs, which has found expression in a significant increase in hate crimes across the country. We may see similar crimes rise in the US, and the dollar is already falling.
This US presidential election was always going to be one that left at least half of the country deeply unhappy with the outcome. But the route out of that division is made much harder now that the chosen candidate is the one who campaigned on an openly divisive platform. This morning, Donald Trump urged the United States to "come together as one united people," but his voters will still expect him to build a wall and bar Muslims from traveling into the country.
Brexit campaigners made a lot of promises that they didn’t, or won’t ever, fulfill. Many of the loudest voices — Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson most prominent among them — abandoned the whole cause after the decision was made, seemingly unwilling to deal with the fallout of their calamitous push of the country toward the edge of oblivion. Like Donald Trump in the US, there was sometimes doubt in the UK that Johnson actually wanted Britain to leave the EU: it seemed more like a rebellion designed as a stepping stone to other political machinations.
Did we learn anything?
I still live my same pre-Brexit life in London, but I’m conscious that that’s not the case for many others like me. The stark truth is that, while political rhetoric draws religious and racial lines between people, the greatest divisions are those of wealth and geography. Dense urban centers force multiculturalism upon people and inevitably produce a more tolerant society. I doubt life in New York or San Francisco will change dramatically for people. But in more rural places, that same first-hand knowledge of different social groups is lacking, which makes it easier for intolerance to spread (especially when misinformation is so easy to propagate on Facebook).
In The Matrix, instances of deja vu portend some oncoming calamity caused by a systemic malfunction, and that’s exactly where I believe the US is headed. I wasn’t shocked by this night’s events, because I’d seen and felt them so recently in the UK. Unlike Brexit, though, the choice of Donald Trump as president is not reversible.