Brexit and Trump

It doesn’t matter if you’re not personally a violent racist. Validating campaigns that pander to those who are is dangerous.

Britain voted to leave the European Union on June 23rd of this year. On June 24th, the top Google searches in the UK were “What is the EU” and “What does it mean if we leave the EU?”

Four months on, and the country’s leaders are still trying to answer those questions. The referendum was called to settle an internal dispute within the ruling Conservative party — with little thought that it would actually pass.

The voting public had even less hope of deciphering all its ramifications. So the leaders of the “Leave” campaign relied on false promises and anti-establishment sentiment — but most heavily on inflaming and stoking anti-immigrant fears and racist sentiment to garner support. A steady drumbeat of inflammatory xenophobia was served up through willing right-wing media and a dirty underbelly of society was summoned to surface.

Most Brexit leaders weren’t primarily motivated by racism. They just saw an opportunity to gain power for themselves. But they had no qualms about whipping up racism and xenophobia to acquire it. It was the same simple divide-and-rule tactic utilised by unscrupulous politicians for millennia.

But those their darker messages appealed to didn’t appreciate that distinction.

In the throes of the campaign, a 41-year old Member of Parliament and mother of two, Jo Cox, was murdered by a man with ties to right-wing extremist groups who gave his name as “death to traitors, freedom for Britain.” Cox, who had previously worked for Oxfam (a global charity) was most well known for her outspoken advocacy in support of Syrian refugees.

What might have served as a warning to those who would listen was ignored by too many, with Brexit passing by the narrowest of margins. Most Brexit voters weren’t racists, as one friend put it, “but all racists were Brexit voters.” With their hatred pandered to over the course of the campaign, the nastiest elements of society now viewed themselves as validated by a majority of the voting public. And that validation has had consequences.

Post-Brexit, the UK saw hate crimes spike five-fold. Recorded statistics show a longer-run 44% increase over last year — including the racially motivated killing of a Polish man, leaflets calling immigrants “vermin” pushed through mailslots in immigrant neighborhoods, and even public displays of nazi symbols. Law enforcement continues to prosecute these crimes. But as one BBC journalist noted, “the Brexit vote seemed to unleash something in people — they felt they had a license to attack Polish people and insult Muslims.”

Anecdotal evidence suggests the problem is more pervasive than statistics indicate. My close friends have witnessed racial abuse hurled at black American tourists in London who were told to “go back to your country”. They have a headscarf-wearing friend that someone tried to shove in front of an oncoming subway car. They’ve seen people scream at Polish construction workers on a smoke break to “speak English.”

Incidents like this don’t generally make the news or into crime statistics. But they leave lasting scars on their victims. They tear down people’s sense of security. Damage their sense of belonging. Create lasting and traumatic fears around their own personal safety. They rip apart the social bonds that allow us to peacefully live side-by-side with others in a crowded and stressful world.

And this is in a country so famously reserved that a professor saying your paper “might need some work” likely means you should burn it and ritualistically cleanse yourself.

America suffers from no such understatement. America is as brash and outspoken as Britain is reserved. And Trump’s consistent appeals to violence, racism and xenophobia exceed those used by Brexit leaders by orders of magnitude.

We’ve all heard Trump’s derogatory, xenophobic statements about Mexicans and Muslims so many times there’s no need to repeat them. Is it a coincidence that the elevation of this type of dialogue into mainstream politics coincides with a terror plot (uncovered just yesterday) of anti-Muslim “Crusaders” who were preparing to carry out massive car bombings of Somali immigrant neighborhoods in Kansas in order to start a religious war and “get their country back”?

Trump isn’t satisfied to simply defame those who would come to the United States. When he tells an audience in the South — only a half-century removed from quasi-legal lynchings and Jim Crow — that “back in the good old days, protestors would be treated much, much more harshly” and offers to pay the legal bills of those who attack the (predominantly black) protestors, he’s blatantly appealing — and promising his protection — to those who’d like to revisit the darkest elements of our nations past.

Validating those demons through a general election — in a brash country with as many guns as people — would almost certainly have more severe consequences than those seen in the UK.

Some may write off Trump’s unprecedented appeals to violence and racism as an unfortunate side effect of his personality. Rest assured that violent racists don’t. If Trump is elected President, we’ll have someone in the White House who has already offered them his permission — and protection.

Perhaps only a small percentage would act out on this permission. But with tensions already running high and every violent episode captured on a cell phone and transmitted virally around the world, it wouldn’t take much to rip apart the social fabric. The veneer of civilization that enables us able to coexist (relatively) harmoniously is thinner than we’d care to realize.

Trump supporters (and Brexit voters) often reiterate that their support isn’t driven by racism or xenophobia. It doesn’t matter. A vote for Trump is a vote for the full package. If your values or politics don’t allow a vote for Hillary, vote third party. If Trump is elected after pandering and offering protection to the most vile and dangerous elements in society, they will go from being social pariahs to being validated by the electorate of world’s most powerful country. It’s an incredibly dangerous prospect — one we simply can’t allow to happen.