If there’s a dominant narrative in the story of the Brexit referendum, it’s the anger and disenchantment of working-class voters, who largely backed the “Leave” campaign and by extension its most vocal advocate, Nigel Farage, leader of the U.K. Independence Party. UKIP is Euroskeptic and anti-immigration, a party that caters to racism and xenophobia, especially in the face of rapid and rising immigration to the United Kingdom. Immigration has altered the social fabric of the country at the same time that globalization, austerity, and financial capitalism have undermined the industries and institutions of working-class life.
Farage speaks the language of the anxious to Britons who feel threatened and dislocated. And immigrants are his chief target. It’s why, for instance, he warned that Muslim migrants were a potential “fifth column” that threatened British society. “There is an especial problem with some of the people who’ve come here and who are of the Muslim religion who don’t want to become part of our culture,” he said in a 2015 interview. “People do see a fifth column living within our country, who hate us and want to kill us.”
All of this carried over to the “Leave” campaign. In the course of his advocacy, Farage warned Britons that continued European integration would bring waves of Turkish immigrants and Syrian migrants. He claimed that the EU had all but stolen from British workers by channeling to the continent funds that could be used to fix the National Health Service. Last week, he unveiled a poster that echoed the racist imagery of fascist propaganda, with its specter of a Britain overtaken by impoverished, brown-skinned refugees. And actual British voters identified the “Leave” campaign with efforts to stop or curtail immigration to the United Kingdom. The results—a win for “Leave” and for Farage—speak for themselves. “This will be a victory for real, decent people,” Farage said when it was clear his side would carry the day in the referendum. In the final result, the oldest Britons—those most dismayed by the economic and social changes in British society—backed “Leave.” The youngest rejected it.
It’s not hard to see why Americans would watch this with fascination. For the past year, we’ve been transfixed with our own version of this right-wing, anti-immigrant backlash in the form of Donald Trump, who will be the Republican Party’s nominee for president of the United States. Trump hopes to get to the White House by riding the anger of working- and middle-class whites—or at least a substantial portion of them—who oppose mass immigration and feel similarly alienated from the rapid shifts in American culture. Some, like their counterparts in the U.K., are the victims of globalization and the financialization of American capitalism. There’s no place for their labor and no substitute for their work. Others have prospered but still feel the sting of alienation. Either way, their political lives are increasingly defined by anti-elite anger, perceived racial threat (from Muslims and from immigrants), and profound cultural loss, all tied together by a sense of deep betrayal by their leaders. It’s what Farage has tapped into, and it’s what Trump has tapped into. Both have used it to their advantage.
What Brexit suggests, to many American commentators, is that Trump could in fact win. Despite our differences with the U.K., writes Andrew Prokop for Vox, “the Brexit result should jolt American liberals out of any complacence they may feel about Trump’s candidacy.” Amy Davidson echoed this in the New Yorker. “The Brexit results are a strong warning for anyone complacent about Donald Trump,” she wrote. I’m skeptical. What’s striking about the results of the EU referendum is the extent to which they matched the polls. Every survey of Brexit showed a close race between the two sides—a coin toss. The balance of the polls suggested a narrow—but far from dispositive—lead for “Remain.” The final result was in line with the projection: a contest with no clear advantage for either side in which “Leave” won an extremely modest victory. Here in the United States, our polls show a substantial Trump loss in the general election against Hillary Clinton, just as they showed a substantial Trump win in the Republican presidential primaries. The chief reason is that, unlike the U.K., the U.S. has a large voting population of nonwhites: Latinos, black Americans, Asian Americans, etc. In Britain, “black and minority ethnic” people make up about 8 percent of the electorate. By contrast, people of color account for nearly 1 in 3 American voters. In practice, this means that in the past two national elections, there has been an electoral penalty for embracing the most reactionary elements of national life. And we see this in the polling between Trump and Clinton. If the United States were largely white—if its electorate were as monochromatic as Britain’s—then Trump might have the advantage. As it stands, people of color in America are acting as a firewall for liberalism—an indispensable barrier to this surge of ethno-nationalism. Complacency isn’t called for, but confidence isn’t wrong either.
But the success of Brexit demonstrates the degree to which “Trumpism”—the anger and resentment stemming from a mixture of xenophobia, racism, and economic dislocation—is a global phenomenon, and one that won’t subside even if he loses in November. That toxic stew will still simmer. It’s tempting to view it all through a lens of ideology, where these battles represent an ascending movement of the right, a backlash against neoliberal economics, and a failure of left-wing politics to forge solidarity among working people. All of these are true in their own ways and play a part in the story. But just as vital is the role of race and, specifically, “whiteness” as a political category.
The development of Western society over the past 300 years has occurred against a backdrop of racist domination, in which people of color were (and are) deliberately excluded from political and economic rights reserved for those persons deemed “white” (as distinct from European ancestry). All men might be created equal, but this normative equality didn’t extend to black or native Americans, just as it didn’t extend to those in South America, just as it didn’t extend to Africans or South Asians under colonial rule, just as it didn’t extend to Southeast Asians under the same. It’s how the same men who preached freedom could justify slavery and native extermination, how those who defended liberty could starve millions.
This racial hierarchy is still with us and still powerful, albeit attenuated in the face of broad taboos and the dismantling of official white supremacy. It continues to shape larger beliefs about citizenship and inclusion. Who really counts as an American? Who really counts as a Briton? Look no further than Trump’s attacks on Gonzalo Curiel, the American-born judge in the case against Trump University. For Trump, Curiel is a “Mexican,” and thus not American enough to be dispassionate in his judgment. Or, for an older vintage, see the brief right-wing push to end “birthright citizenship” in the United States.
In the United States, “whiteness” was the key to unlocking a broad array of social and economic benefits, provided to you as long as you could find the door (this despite the courageous work of leftists and radicals, black and white, in challenging those racial barriers). The same was true of other Western nations, where whiteness was a necessary (but not the only) factor in gaining access to new entitlements of citizenship.
It’s not hard to see how global capitalism and the elevation of financial markets have transformed the world over the past 30 years, upending our societies in ways we’re still trying to grapple with. What’s less obvious is the extent to which global capitalism has also upended racial hierarchies by degrading whatever material benefits accrue to those deemed “white.” For as much as capitalist economies entrench racial inequality, the logic of capital doesn’t especially care. It will impoverish black, white, and brown all the same.
Trump supporters are largely white Americans. Brexit backers are largely white Britons. And on both sides, they’re older, often elderly. In addition to everything else—all of the particular concerns of particular communities in the United States and the United Kingdom—we are witnessing a backlash to the weakening of a hierarchy that gave real status to people at the top, that protected them from the whims of capital or gave them prime social status as the expense of nonwhites.
There are a million caveats here, and I’m obviously flattening too many dynamics to name. But it’s important to place race at the center of this story, as part of the bundle of factors and trends and stories that are driving a new wave of nationalist anger from whites—or people deemed “white”—on both sides of the Atlantic. Both Trump and Brexit are part of an anti-elite backlash. But it’s not a backlash against the economic arrangement, per se. The older workers and pensioners who backed “Leave” are handing power to men of capital like Boris Johnson and Farage, a former commodities trader; the working and middle-class whites who back Trump, if they succeed, will hand power to a longtime financial elite, leading a party that bends fully to the prerogatives of financial elites. No, this is a backlash against the cosmopolitanism of those elites, against the belief that they broke the contract that upheld the relative social and economic status of people like them. If you’re on the left, this is a backlash for all the wrong reasons.
This is critical. In our fixation on these dislocated whites, we forget those that haven’t embraced backlash. And in the United States, at least, we forget that the world of disadvantaged working people includes millions of people of color. They too have been harmed—often irreparably—by the march of financial capitalism and the weakening of the social safety net (if they even had access to it). But they reject the overtures of demagogues. Which is a reminder that, for as much as workers are circumscribed by forces out of their control, they aren’t pawns of history. They can still make choices. Nativism is one choice. We don’t have to respect it.