Early this spring, when a Trump presidency seemed still just a chimera, I hosted a private dinner for over two dozen sitting ambassadors at a Washington hotel.
The topic was the future of NATO. My guests all spoke of their great admiration for the United States, even those who were troubled by the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia. Ever briefly the talk was of Putin; then it gave way to my guests’ strange cocktail of amusement and shock at Trump’s unlikely ascent.
“Americans will come to their senses,” said one Asian ambassador, dressed perfectly, standing for our parting toast and echoing the fallacy that the pundit class has been bellowing all year: This absurd and insurgent Trump candidacy, surely, is one bad news cycle away from fatal. Many ambassadors also argued that the British people would see sense and stay in the EU.
Now, a new political reality unimaginable just months ago has set in overnight.
Britain voted to quit the EU, a seismic shift in geopolitical world order. Prime Minister David Cameron stood somberly the morning after to announce his departure by October.
The speculation is that the historic win, championed by non-establishment figures like Nigel Farage and the preternaturally colorful Boris Johnson, will presage a split of Scotland from Britain. Others fear the contagion of Euroscepticism could lead to other member nations severing themselves from the world’s largest trading body. Maybe so. Party leaders in France, Italy and the Netherlands are wasting no time in capitalizing on this sea change to trigger similar “Brexit” style referendum movements in their own countries.
The enveloping irony around all of this, of course, is that Trump arrived in Scotland the day of the Brexit vote.
Trump is mired in the most turbulent period of his candidacy, his campaign sputtering, maybe run aground for good. Possibly, though, it has been revitalized by a reset of his campaign that started last weekend with the firing of his campaign manager, the pugnacious Corey Lewandowski, and culminated in Trump’s brass-knuckles speech Wednesday that took aim not just at Hillary Clinton as a “world class liar,” but at corporate profiteering, Saudi Arabia and the Sultan of Brunei’s treatment of women and the LGBT community, globalization itself—even the impish American spirit, sounding as close to Emersonian as Trump may ever possibly get.
For weeks, the London press has painted those in the Leave camp with Trumpian tones. You know the picture: working class, out-of-work disaffected men, embittered by a new world order that has seen London elect its first Muslim mayor (of all things!) and a country seemingly awash in Muslim immigrants. The Remain camp did its best to portray Leave Lilliputians as acting out their racist impulses.
It’s true, Trump and the Leave campaign shared many common political themes. Leave unabashedly vowed to restore Britain’s greatness and hit hard the sclerotic political establishment in Brussels. The leader of UKIP, Nigel Farage, decries the threat posed by Syrian immigrants, while Donald Trump talks about the threat posed by radical Islamic terrorism.
But if racism alone were the explanation for Trump’s ascension and the rupture between Britain and the EU, how then to explain a brittle political order where multiple member countries are now openly discussing thoughts of their own break from Brussels?
“I am actually an open borders kind of guy,” said Kevin Hassett, a former economic adviser to President George W. Bush who was a vocal proponent of Leave. “So what you want is for everyone to be able to move, you want the governments to be able to compete to be the most attractive place to be. And so what’s going on in the EU is that they’ve formed a government cartel to prevent the governments from competing with one another.”
“For an American, as mad you may be about whatever the EPA or the IRS does, just imagine if you only had a one twenty-eighth vote over what it does," Hasset said. "You were in this place with this big bureaucracy that sets rules and you only have a small vote. You’d feel like you’ve given up your sovereignty, wouldn’t you? You’d feel like you were lost in a Kafkaesque hell, wouldn’t you?”
The EU has always been a forced marriage of nations. There are feuds, disputes and rivalries that span multiple centuries. Twenty-first century Europe has a millennium of war and savagery within its borders to reflect upon. It took an American, albeit one expatriated to London, to properly contextualize how the death toll of the Great War had so completely obliterated Europe—culturally, psychically and economically. When T.S. Eliot wrote The Wasteland, his mosaic of disconnected verse was meant to recreate the chaos and disorder that was Europe of the early 1900s. The poem also employed a mosaic of foreign and ancient languages, demanding the reader put in the work to extract the yield of the poem. Eliot’s “mashup” of languages seemed to make a single haunting point: There is no common language in Europe, only a history of death.
Right after college, while visiting a friend on scholarship in Vienna, I found myself biking along the Danube in the fall of 1999. We were far from the city and deep into country where very few people spoke English. Our first night in Krems, we went to a heuriger for wine and cheese. I found myself talking to a married couple as they lamented that their son had moved away to get married. When I asked where he had moved, the woman said, the town beside us. The next morning, I biked to that town in under five minutes.
Drive anywhere in any country in Europe, one hundred miles in any direction, and you will find a town where locals boast that they have the best wine or the best cheese, sometimes in a radically different dialect that their neighbors two towns over. Neighbors, in the Americans sense, are often perceived as foreigners. Consider the internecine strife within Spain: the Basques in the north have staged a political and military campaign against Madrid for nearly seven decades, killing many innocents. The wealthy Catalans in the east have been flirting with secession from Madrid in recent years.
These subplots to the overarching EU drama have played out in different ways over the years. If the British are racist for leaving the EU, then so must be the Germans. The Greeks (invoking my paternal genetic heritage here for protection), challenged by endemic tax evasion and unemployment, have run up so much debt in recent years that the country is a Gordian knot of economic disaster, unlikely to be unraveled in my lifetime. The earnest tax-paying Germans have balked many times at the notion of bailing out their lazy EU brethren, who they see as free-riding.
The Greeks, like the Portuguese and poorer Eastern European countries like Lithuania, of course, were big beneficiaries of the $1.5 trillion Britain sent from its treasury annually to Brussels. In the end, those in the Leave camp found it outrageous that their hard-earned largesse was being put to use to pay for bridges in Greece rather than to fix potholes in Manchester. The absurdity needs proper context: Last year over 300,000 people immigrated to Britain for work; just like the U.S., Britain has seen its manufacturing base evaporate to cheaper places overseas. The real number to fixate on: nearly 9 million people aged 16-64 were economically inactive—basically able to work but unable to find work. In the U.S., that bellwether number is even higher, with a record 94 million Americans out of the labor force in May (14 percent of the population in the UK, vs. 30 pervcent in the U.S.).
No one would argue that the job displacement is the result of “radical Islamic terrorists” or Syrian refugees. The culprit, broadly speaking, is globalization. Corporations can sell things more easily, in many new places, and can elect to manufacture goods wherever its most cost-advantageous. Where one economist will call this “liberalization,” political candidates, like Trump and Sanders, are calling this a rapacious hollowing out of the American manufacturing base.
The United States and Great Britain are among the wealthiest countries on the planet. That prosperity should underpin stability. Why then the tempestuous tectonic political shifts within each country? The Brexit and its origins will be studied for decades; Trump’s rise, if it is still being taken seriously after a horrendous few weeks of campaigning, will only be viewed as a rebuke of the system if he manages to translate his iconoclasm into a viable political bloc beyond November. Nietzsche argued that mankind needed “fixed horizons” to live comfortably. Why then the willingness in Britain to upend their fixed horizon: a reliably sclerotic political experiment; and, in America, a reliably “low energy” Republican political party that has been struggling with shifting demographics for years and a good, solid answer to what happens when free trade takes American jobs offshore.
Trump has been willing to play liberal and progressive notes while running as a Republican. Leading into the spring, polls showed him and Clinton in a statistical tie, although that changed dramatically after he publicly castigated the federal judge presiding over his Trump University lawsuit, who was born in Indiana, for being “Mexican.” If he could cease the self-inflicted wounds, he might gain ground again.
Days after ousting Lewandowski, Trump delivered the biggest speech of his campaign at his hotel in New York. Full of the usual bluster, Trump’s speech was chock full of the red meat that Hillary opponents had been waiting for. Trump’s use of the teleprompter was notable, as was his restrained cadence. It gave the speech an entirely different look and feel as a result. One passage, toward the end, stood out for me:
They will have a chance to vote for a new agenda with big dreams, bold ideas and enormous possibilities for the American people.
Hillary Clinton’s message is old and tired. Her message is that things can’t change.
My message is that things have to change – and this is our one chance do it. This is our last chance to do it.
Americans are the people that tamed the West, that dug out the Panama Canal, that sent satellites across the solar system, that built the great dams, and so much more.
Then we started thinking small.
We stopped believing in what America could do, and became reliant on other countries, other people, and other institutions.
We lost our sense of purpose, and daring.
After declaring the American spirit moribund, Trump provides a litany of projects he would undertake to revive the American economy—the “roads and airports of tomorrow”—so that his speech starts to sound like the opening passage from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” where he ticks off the noise and activity of a country teeming with industrial growth. Except that Trump is not a bard, he is a construction guy, first and foremost, as he himself readily admits. And no one argues that America’s infrastructure isn’t crumbling. Even the opening of Trump’s speech, a full-throated rant against corporate globalism, is a rhetorical Mobius strip that runs right into Bernie Sanders:
That’s why we’re asking Bernie Sanders’ voters to join our movement: so together we can fix the system for ALL Americans. Importantly, this includes fixing all of our many disastrous trade deals.
Because it’s not just the political system that’s rigged. It’s the whole economy.
It’s rigged by big donors who want to keep down wages.
It’s rigged by big businesses who want to leave our country, fire our workers, and sell their products back into the U.S. with absolutely no consequences for them.
It’s rigged by bureaucrats who are trapping kids in failing schools.
It’s rigged against you, the American people.
Throughout his campaign, Trump’s rhetoric has been vilified as racist, sexist, nativist and populist, depending upon the audience and the crisis. Reductive explanations are always problematic in that they ignore previous historical forces in play when technology, shifts in demographics, wealth disparity and immigration have given rise to similar “movements” of leaders with nativist tones.
Recently, two scholars from Oxford University, Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna, published an audacious text about the lessons that could be drawn from the dislocation and demographic shifts that occurred during the Renaissance, a period of rapid advancement much like our own today. They argue the upheaval at the time due to technology led to a politics whose complexion is very similar to ours today.
“Now, like then, new media have democratized information exchange, amplifying voices of those who feel they have been injured in the upheaval, said Goldin. In a column by Thomas Friedman, who reviews the book, he goes on to show how this turbulence led to the rise of an obscure firebrand friar, Girolamo Savonarola. He quotes Goldin as writing that “he and his zealous supporters, though a small minority, swept away the Medici establishment and seized control of the city’s councils.”
“From there,” the article continues, “Savonarola launched an ugly campaign of public purification, introducing radical laws including laws against homosexuality, and attacked public intellectuals in an act of intimidation that history still remembers as the Bonfire of the Vanities. Savonarola was amongst the first to tap into the information revolution of the time, and while others produced long sermons and treatises, Savonarola disseminated short pamphlets, in what may be thought of as the equivalent of political tweets.”
Trump, like the Brexiters, has been an American Savanorola throughout his unorthodox campaign, smashing the idols of party structure, ruling class and fixed horizons. Whatever one thinks of Trump, you have to acknowledge that he is better at masterminding his own narrative than the rest of the world appears willing to give him credit for.
This poses dangers for America. While the global elite stare aghast at the steamy ruins of its grand EU experiment, it will have to take more seriously the prospect of a Trump presidency. Those ambassadors I hosted all expressed concerns about the idea of Trump’s America-first solipsism, which, in their eyes, would render the geopolitical future into a Jackson Pollock where no one is certain where American global engagement begins or ends—or even if it exists at all.
The thought of a dissolved or diminished NATO — which Trump has pushed — panics the Europeans and the Turks, as Russia loads up their border with troops; Trump’s spurning of TPP rattles much of Asia, especially Singapore and Vietnam, nations heavily dependent on trade.
Our stalwart allies, Japan and the U.K., Trump publicly has excoriated as trade cheats and skewered as bastions of limp-wristed Euro-malaise, though the latter perhaps not so much anymore.
And what of his infamous wall?
In America, the views on admitting Syrian refugees and welcoming more illegal Mexicans come down to those who view immigration as culturally additive versus those who see such an influx as a dilutive hazard to Western culture and safety. For the former, their case is a simple one to make on humanitarian and religious grounds; although the embrace of dislocated peoples obscures the metadebate that should be taking place and occupying the political discourse. How did they become refugees, or why are they leaving in the first place?
That answer is obvious enough. Hearing it uttered in official circles, however, is like searching for the Loch Ness Monster. In April, I attended a gala for Refugees International, an honorable organization that raised quite a lot of money that evening. As Richard Branson spoke, I thought of the Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. His 1978 commencement address at Harvard University is well-known and memorable for its takedown of the West, its ruling elite and media. “The western world has lost its civil courage…such a decline is particularly noticeable among ruling groups and the intellectual elite…they have no determining influence on public life.” That evening, there were many nice speeches, but I would have liked them all better had someone made reference to the genocides and economic waste and dictatorships and brutality and civil wars that had displaced so many in the first place.
The Brexit has dealt a big blow to the theories of integration — moral, economic and cultural — that have bound the world. Such notions of greater integration, in the aftermath, appear at risk by the so-called populism that pushed Britain to sever from the EU. In the U.S, it’s hard to see a viable pathway for the Trans Pacific Partnership, even if it is an important thread that will draw countries closer. Trump represents an embrace of uncertainty, a certain asymmetry to predictable systems and policies, and that holds appeal among at least the 12 million Americans who voted for him.
If Trump and Brexit plunge us into the Eliotic realm of chaos and discord, these are the words from "The Wasteland" that now may make sense to us all: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.”