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A Message from England: Trump and Brexit Have a Lot in Common
This year, it seems that there have been only two conversations in the whole of the British Isles: Trump and the UK’s EU Referendum, better known as “Brexit”. The vote is over now and there is a nervous apprehension in the air as Britons come to terms with the uncertain implications of the outcome. Donald Trump has stated that the spirit of the vote is “essentially the same thing that is happening in the United States.” And he’s right. The issues in the US presidential race are conspicuously similar to those of the EU Referendum.
I’ve been living in England and working with a British military unit for nearly two years, and this week I had the opportunity to visit the American Air Force base, RAF Lakenheath, northeast of London. While walking on base, I heard a recording of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” start to play on the base loudspeaker and saw the color guard prepare to lower the American flag. Despite appearances, I was in the heart of Leave territory in England and the song was supposed to be “God Save the Queen”.
Unconsciously, I began to mouth the lyrics to the American version; “My country, ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, God save the Queen”. Oh no! I guiltily hustled away from the scene of treachery and felt relief that I hadn’t sung aloud. I wondered whether I had not been in the UK too long.
On the other hand, maybe integration into British society allows me to hold a unique American perspective on the tumultuous political campaigns that have stirred up contentious debate and at times even physical violence in both of these countries.
Hearing the song, “God Save the Queen”, reminded me of the parallels between these two movements. We’re both singing different words, but the notes are from the same sheet of music.
The most vocal and controversial issue in these debates has been the control of immigration. Trump would like to build a wall between the US and Mexico and to ban Muslims from entering the country. Although the UK doesn’t need a wall due to its predominantly maritime borders, the Leave camp seeks to restrict the influx of Europeans entering the UK for work under the EU’s provisions for free movement of persons.
The Leave campaign’s rationale includes terrorist threats, immigrants putting unsustainable strain on emergency medical services, and foreigners snatching up low-paying jobs from national citizens. Sound familiar? Recollecting the popularity of Mexican restaurants in the US and Britain’s national dish, the markedly non-British chicken tikka masala, it confounds me that there is such a fear of immigration when both nations assimilate aspects of foreign cultures so thoroughly and willingly into their own.
Also at the forefront of the campaigns is the reclamation of state sovereignty. The Leave party wants to wrest decision-making power from the EU government in Brussels and restore it to British Members of Parliament. Echoing this sentiment, Trump indulges supporters of states’ rights who wish to repeal or prevent many national government policies they believe have been or may be wrongfully imposed on them such as Obamacare, same-sex marriage, and transgender use of bathrooms. In both cases, the people want decisions to be made at lower levels with less oversight.
This is because, in the US as in the UK, big government is confusing. Big governments make big laws and complex treaties that are unwieldy and difficult to explain to voters. As I heard Christiane Amanpour state recently at Oxford University’s Said Business School, “Faith has gone out in the ability of the government to govern.” This ebbing faith results from perplexing systems that, in turn, cause people to call for simpler systems to regain control of their governments.
The third topic that I often hear addressed is economic independence. Both the Trump and Leave campaigns would like their nations to be economically independent, but this cannot happen without access to natural resources and domestic industry.
UK industry is less robust than it used to be, and the country relies heavily on imports. The Leave party aspires to end reliance on EU trade by increasing industrial capacity and obtaining what they can’t dig up or make themselves through new trade agreements with Commonwealth nations. Similarly, Trump wants to revise tariffs and trade agreements to support US jobs and to keep companies in the US.
Possibly the strangest likeness is the reluctance to vote that people from both nations have expressed to me. While many Brexit voters felt that the government should be making the call because the consequences were unclear and potentially significant, American voters are throwing their hands up in despair because they don’t like either candidate. But in November there will still be an election, and we will need to make a decision.