Nationalism, Populism, Globalism: Brexit and Trump 

by Robert Imre

The victory of Donald Trump as President of the United States has been reported in various ways as a shock,  just as the Brexit vote was reported to have shocked people in the UK and the US.

The nationalist (and in the United States, the old term ‘nativist’ is often used) elements, coupled with a resurgence of populism, are specific factors that can be traced to help us understand how this political situation has developed. As a political scientist I see this as both commonplace, as well as a much longer process of (at least) beginning in the Thatcher and Reagan neo-conservative/neo-liberalisms begun in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. The new ‘reality TV’ version of media management begun in the late ‘90s opened the door to a ‘post-factive’ political communication delivering populist politicians. The medium really did become the message.

As such, I suggest here that both results can also be seen as unremarkable in terms of modern politics and how political machines and election cycles operate. Through my own conversations with political science colleagues over the past several months, we had similar conclusions, both that Brexit was a real possibility and were not surprised when it eventuated. Similarly, a Trump presidency was not far-fetched and there was a path that he could take that could possibly bring victory. Google translate will give you a pretty clear view here.

Brexit

Secessionist movements have been around as long as there have been states and nations so it should not be a surprise when states, that is to say some form of a modern constituent political units, that are bound together through trade or political agreements, decide to split (and possibly join other political configurations). 

These (attempted) splits can occur due to any number of factors and are often the result of trade issues, social movements, nationalist revivals, anti-colonialism, and any combination of these factors will change the political unit of state and alter borders. Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the British Raj, Quebec and Scottish secessionist attempts, Singapore and Malaysia, the list goes on and will continue to go on in the future (one can Wikipedia them all for backgrounds on political origins). 

Backlash

The UK had been leaning more and more towards looking like some of it’s multilingual, multiethnic and multicultural progressive former colonies (especially Canada and New Zealand and to some extent Australia) in the post-WW2 period. The backlash here, mainly as a result of a disenfranchised post-industrial working class and rising xenophobia spurred on by a ‘post-factive’ set of election campaigns, is leading England and Wales towards a reformation to make that political constituency appear more like small and mid-sized European states (Hungary for example): creating the false notion of an ethno-nation, rather than a cosmopolitan civic polity. This is seen as way to stem the tide of the negative effects of late-industrial capitalism and the entrenchment of neo-liberalism, especially by a particular elite that sees their own power-base dwindling in the face of some form of political consociationalism. Ironically, led by a core of professional politicians who were instrumental in this neoliberal entrenchment, and taking pride in misinformation, this is also a global movement, stronger in some times and places and weaker in others, that looks very much like the Trump presidential campaign: retreating to a ‘new nationalism’.

Trump is not Unique:

We have seen this before in the post-Cold War period with both Berlusconi in Italy and Putin in Russia (as well as many others) in the post-Cold War period. Campaigns run in the same manner, by similar personalities, and entrenched in the political imagination of their respective constituencies. The Trump campaign demonstrated a miscalculation on the part of their opponents, both inside and outside the Republican party, and saw the disaffected ‘rust-belt’ voters who would normally vote Democrat, and may well have at least split their vote with Bernie Sanders, go with Trump’s totally malleable misogyny and racism. While there are a number of other demographic events here, this is probably the lynchpin, and played in to Trump’s appalling rhetoric about women, Muslims, Mexicans, and so on. This is almost exactly the same tactic that Australian Prime Minister Howard used in his first two election victories (although the misogynism was not so overt, and the ‘other’ obviously did not involve Mexican people) and it created the notion of the ‘aspirational voter’: working class (or ‘battlers’ in the Australian vernacular), in many cases the losers of global neoliberalism, who sought a way out not through labor unions, but in going after a constructed other and pushing women out of the political and economic spheres. Howard was not a reality TV star, but his political campaigns were very much about bringing a disenfranchised blue-collar class to vote for a political party that created a false ‘other’, coupled with a false hope, and Australia has been doing so ever since. Ignoring the participation in the heroic rescues of the Vietnamese ‘boat people’ in the early ‘80s, asylum-seekers arriving by boats are locked away in internment camps not seen since WW2 while at the same time globalization and the associate problems continues unabated. 

Today we have a situation where plenty of people are willing to vote for reality-TV personalities, who promise everything, use brash and insulting language, and appear as some kind of demagogue seeking to fix the unfixable. This certainly is an accurate reflection of American popular culture, including all of those negative aspects of misogyny and racism that are so deeply embedded. It is also a reflection of a global popular culture of misogyny and racism, and populist political movements reflect this, using the most crass of media techniques pushed forward by the reality TV phenomenon, and as such not needing to rely on facts, science or research of any kind. This is more than mere sloganeering, it is a deliberate campaign of deceit, lies and misinformation by political opportunists: the Brexit and Trump campaigns encapsulated.

Delusions:

It was delusional of the progressives in the US to think that rational argument will win the day. Playing on these core cultural tropes meant that there was no need for Berlusconi, Trump, or Boris Johnson to show a detailed policy plan on how to fix the global economy. Who would read it? The delusions played on, with people of all kinds claiming they will ‘move to Canada’ or New Zealand if Trump won, thinking that their privilege extended to the global as to be able to move to another country when their own side loses an election. 

What next?:

Questions about what the future might hold is something else, including the Grand Game questions about Russia and China, global trade, and the ongoing struggle with political violence. For both the US and the UK there are many unanswered questions, and like Berlusconi and other populists, they wont have a plan, they will answer them on the day.

Dr Robert Imre is currently Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at The University of Newcastle, Australia and a Fellow with the Space and Political Agency Research Group (SPARG) at the University of Tampere.