by Melanie Philips
Flying out of Aspen, Colorado, before breakfast time a few days ago, I blearily presented my boarding pass to the security officer. “Whaddya think about Brexit?” he asked eagerly. “D’ya think it’s gonna happen?”
Everywhere I have been in America in recent weeks, I have found colossal numbers of people gripped by what’s been going on in Britain.
It’s not just an academic interest. They all understand that the forces responsible for Brexit are broadly similar to those fuelling support for Donald Trump who, at this week’s Republican convention, will be anointed as the party’s presidential candidate.
Among Americans there is widespread sympathy with the perceived desire by the Brits to “get their country back”. They feel just the same. Many, however, find themselves on the horns of an electoral dilemma. Not all: dyed-in-the-wool liberals would vote for Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate, even if she were Caligula’s horse. For others, the idea of not voting Republican is equally unthinkable.
I’m meeting people, however, who will “never ever” vote for Hillary because they see her as irredeemably corrupt, compromised and ideological. Yet they are also alarmed and disgusted by Trump, whom they view as uncouth, ignorant and a frightening loose cannon. How on earth should we vote, they ask plaintively.
The way is to look beyond these two personalities at what they represent. Across Britain, Europe and the US, there is a popular uprising against the entire governing and intellectual class. People blame this elite for having left them stranded economically and having damaged their children’s life chances. They view it as a kind of globalised political and financial cartel acting in accordance with a set of ideas that go against the interests of the people and the country. It is resented for riding roughshod over the public’s desire to live in an independent nation with whose culture they identify and which they feel they share.
Conservatively-minded Americans feel abandoned by a Republican party that seems to have junked conservative instincts and values. It seems indifferent to the precarious job market, low incomes and family breakdown. It joins the Democrats in smearing concerns about high levels of immigration as racist. It is hawkish for wars which seem to have more to do with reshaping the political landscape in unwilling lands than defending America.
Just as in Britain and Europe, these attitudes are rooted in an attack on the very idea of the western nation itself. A nation is formed from cultural attributes: history, language, religion, law, institutions. Western elites, however, have decided that their own national attributes are exclusive and imperialist, leading to nationalism and xenophobia.
Legitimacy is deemed to rest instead in transnational institutions. Multiculturalism thus became sacrosanct. Immigration couldn’t be opposed. Putting the nation’s interests first became seen as an act of global selfishness.
In America, the downside of Trump is obvious. He is a crude populist demagogue. He changes his position with bewildering frequency. Not only is he ignorant but he shows scant interest in educating himself.
Despite all this, many Americans believe his heart beats with theirs. They don’t care that he doesn’t know about stuff. They think he is principally a deal-maker and that he will make deals in America’s interests.
Even his admiration for President Putin doesn’t worry them. General Mike Flynn, former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and a Trump adviser, says: “He respects people who are selfish about their country.” This makes people think that Trump will similarly champion his own country against its enemies.
They don’t believe Hillary will see off America’s enemies. They saw how she tried to evade the scandal of a murdered US diplomat in Benghazi. They think she and her husband constitute a vast money-making machine. They think she has managed to suborn the constitution through dodging prosecution over her dodgy emails. Disillusioned by Obama, they fear she will just be more of the same.
Trump v Hillary is, at root, the same as Brexit v Remain. Remainers swallowed their dislike of the EU because they didn’t think Britain could overturn the status quo and survive. Those who voted Brexit did so because the continued loss of national self-government was so intolerable it made the risks of leaving the EU worth taking.
The choice facing Americans is between, on the one hand, the known quantity of an experienced and savvy operator within an established cartel of political and financial interests and, on the other, an erratic governmental neophyte who stands for busting that cartel to put America first and make it again a power to be feared in an increasingly menacing world.
If Americans value predictability and the status quo over everything, they’ll vote Hillary, just as Remainers did in Britain. If they decide that despite Trump’s likely white-knuckle ride it’s overwhelmingly important to break a political order they see as corrupt and dysfunctional, they’ll vote for him in an echo of our Brexiteers.
Brexit was the moment when the western nation gathered its courage and started to fight back. That’s why they’re so gripped in America by what their cousins have just done across the pond.