Living in London, I must confess, I never thought Britain would opt to leave the European Union, not until a couple of days prior to the 23 June referendum, when all the polls switched and the betting markets suddenly increased the odds of a ‘Leave’ vote, making Brexit a reality. Reading the Guardian, relying on my liberal-minded twitter feed, and interacting with our cosmopolitan friends, we didn’t realise that there was a whole other world out there. That London, with its myriad of nationalities, a Muslim mayor of Pakistani origin, public services offering linguistic assistance to persons of every racial background, wasn’t necessarily representative of the rest of the country.
In fact, a large chunk of the rest of England, was perhaps quite resentful of this diversity, disturbed by how their pristine white neighbourhoods had become unrecognisable with the influx of migrants, angered by the willingness of those migrants to work harder for less money. And so, “I want my country back” became a rallying cry for the likes of Nigel Farage, whose UK Independence Party (UKIP), a fringe on the far-right of the political spectrum that was never before taken too seriously, managed to influence a boisterous coterie of mainstream Conservative politicians, populist demagogues riding on the wave of fear that Farage had introduced to their base. Something similar, and scarier, happened in the US. Donald Trump, an outsider to politics, known previously as a real estate developer and reality TV star, defeated sixteen other candidates in the Republican primaries to become the nominee for President and essentially took over the party despite the opposition of key members of the Republican establishment.
Just as Republican stalwarts, like the Bush dynasty, had denounced Donald Trump, so in Britain too, key politicians across the right-left divide, including then Prime Minister David Cameron, had campaigned for Britain to remain in the European Union. But the voters manifested a resentment towards the established political class. And hence, Britain opted to leave the EU and “Donald Trump surfed public anger to the Presidency”, as Newsweek described it. Hillary Clinton had several disadvantages in this race, despite endorsements from nearly all major news publications (including Foreign Policy, The New York Times, USA Today, etc, the “biased media”, as Donald Trump referred to it), Hillary was viewed as the quintessential “corrupt establishment candidate”. In reality, she is probably a lot less corrupt than Donald Trump, but she had been in public office for three decades, had a husband who was a two term President, and was trying to retain the presidency for the Democrats after two terms of the incumbent, Barack Obama. She could scarcely present herself as the candidate who would “change” Washington.
‘But I am a better candidate than my opponent’ is never a winning strategy in politics, where elections are won on passion, not rationality. Throughout this election cycle, those reporting from the campaigns regularly talked about how fired up the Trump supporters were. Meanwhile, many voting for Hillary seemed to choose her only because “she was better than Trump”. Add to that the handicap of being a woman in politics. In a presidential system of government, like that in the US, the handicap is particularly acute. In the parliamentary system, as in the UK, the executive and the legislature are not elected independent of each other and thus Theresa May could replace David Cameron. The reduced focus, and scrutiny, on the executive thus makes it more conducive for women to end up in leadership roles.
But now that women and minorities of every shade and creed in America have been insulted with Donald Trump’s victory, what next? Will Trump, the President, really re-negotiate NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) or slap a 35 per cent tariff on businesses that produce goods outside of the US? Unlikely. Trump, the businessman, knows that’s a non-starter. Our world today is too global for such protectionism to work. Businesses just can’t afford to pay $15 an hour wage and remain competitive in today’s world. If those Apple iPhones aren’t made in China, but in countries like the US and UK, then they would cost many multiples of what they do today. The increased cost of production would either have to be passed on to the consumer or businesses would shutter.
It’s far easier to scapegoat immigrants and use the anxiety of the white working class and its downward economic trajectory for one’s political advantage, but not so easy to bring those jobs back from Mexico or China. Legal workers in the West are too expensive for any meaningful manufacturing jobs to be created there. For many, this grim reality means their lives will be harder than those of their parents and grandparents, who lived in a less competitive time. What happens then if Donald Trump cannot “make America great again”? Will the emboldened white nationalists, with their history of segregation and disenfranchising black voters, take their anger out on the minorities? Will nationalism and yearning for a bygone era of white entitlement play out as bigotry against blacks, Mexicans and Muslims?
Increasingly, elections in western democracies are being decided on demographics. So far, whites are in the majority, but that will not be the case for long. When Barack Obama was elected President in 2008, get used to “America, the Remix” read one oped in The New York Times, but eight years on, it looks like a cross-section of white voters never could get used to it. The electorate is extremely polarised, as reflected by the fact that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote but lost the electoral college vote. In Britain, where the Brexit vote was also narrowly decided, the Court has ruled Brexit requires parliamentary approval. Nigel Farage vows a protest march in response.
In the long run, the demographics are on the side of the minorities, but in the short run, white supremacists are emboldened by friends in powerful positions. In such charged times, there is bound to be resistance and a fight-back. Hopefully, it will not result in violence.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 17th, 2016.