In 1935, as fascism was taking hold in Europe, renowned author Sinclair Lewis published his book “It Can’t Happen Here.” The plot centered on a nationalistic demagogue who imposes a tyrannical police state on America. Said to be modeled after Louisiana demagogue Huey Long before his assassination that same year, the book warned the U.S. that it is not immune to what was happening across the Atlantic. Eighty years later, there was no need for such a wake-up call when news arrived on Friday morning that the United Kingdom had voted to leave Europe. The alarm bells went off immediately.
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The eerie timing of Donald Trump’s golf-promoting visit to Scotland accentuated the obvious concern. The parallels with Britain were inevitable. The same elements of white resentment, fear of immigrants, anxiety over globalization, animosity towards cosmopolitan elites of every shape and kind and people’s wish “to take their country back in their hands,” as Trump said, could come together at just the right time to elect the GOP candidate as President as well. It can happen here, most Americans said this morning, some with hope, but most with dread.
This was perhaps the most immediate impact of the U.K. vote on Trump’s campaign: it made his election feasible again, after weeks in which his prospects seemed to grow ever more preposterous. Like the recent elections in Israel, the shock British results showed that experts and analysts suffer from groupthink, that purported opinion-makers are anything but, that polls increasingly fail to detect underwater currents that surface just in time to determine outcomes and that in politics, at least, yesterday’s unthinkable is today’s breaking news. If conservative Great Britain can ignore universal warnings and launch a process that most of the world considers catastrophic, then daredevil America can certainly follow in its footsteps, and more so.
The British vote is a setback for Barack Obama, who made the decision, possibly ill advised in retrospect, to use his April visit to the United Kingdom to call on its subjects to reject Brexit. Trump even pinned some of the responsibility for the outcome on Obama’s shoulders. In any case, there’s no doubt that Thursday was one of Obama’s worst as president, with the British vote preceded by the Supreme Court 4-4 tie that kept in place an appeals court decision to nix his executive actions on amnesty for undocumented immigrants. The New York Times couldn’t decide on Thursday night which was more important, so it gave both stories as main headlines, one beneath the other, on its front page on Friday. They could have emulated former Israeli President Zalman Shazar who as editor of the Davar newspaper, exasperated in 1938 by reports of Hitler’s Anschluss in Austria, a massive earthquake in China and deadly attacks on Jews in then-Palestine, simply wrote “The world is like a maelstrom” at the top of the newspaper’s front page.
Naturally, apprehension seemed to grip supporters of Hillary Clinton as well. Not only should she be wary of Trump’s backwind, she could be blown away by the potential economic downturn that might follow Brexit, as someone who is identified, for better but also for worse, with the Obama administration. Clinton’s campaign wisely opted for preemption, saying in a statement that the uncertainty created by Brexit "only underscores the need for calm, steady, experienced leadership in the White House to protect Americans' pocketbooks and livelihoods.”
She may be right. Rather than setting her back, in a few days or weeks it could emerge that Brexit is working in Clinton’s favor and boomeranging on Trump. Americans might very well be taken aback by the political turmoil about to descend on Europe and be deterred from instigating the same kind of turbulence that might ensue if they opt for Trump. And the blame for an economic crisis that could grip Britain and world markets in the wake of Thursday’s vote might not necessarily be ascribed to Obama and Clinton but to radical mavericks such as Trump and Britain’s Boris Johnson and their hare-brained ideas instead.
Beyond the immediate political ramifications, of course, the Brexit verdict could have long-term ramifications for U.S.-British relations. Obama and his successor, whoever it will be, may come to regret the departure of David Cameron, long considered the latest of a long line of British prime ministers who fostered the “special relationship” between the two countries. Though Obama and other American officials tried to reassure that the “special relationship” would continue as before, they are worried nonetheless. Cameron’s successor might find it difficult to emulate the intimacy of Cameron’s ties to Obama, troubled as their ties may have been. If it’s to be Johnson, who suggested that Obama’s intervention in the British debate had something to do with his Kenyan father, he’d probably do better to cool his heels altogether until the president leaves office in January.
The special relationship between Washington and London serves as a useful backchannel and potential emergency brake for the U.S. in its relations with the European Union as a whole. Like many in Israel, American officials will be sorry to lose the attentive ear of the British government and its balancing influence on decision makers in Brussels. Americans are also anxious about the consequences of the British vote on its German ally, Angela Merkel, largely identified today with the influx of refugees from Syria and North Africa that fueled anti-immigration and anti-EU sentiments in Britain as well. The ripple effects could weaken Merkel at home, along with other moderate European regimes.
The joy expressed by far right populists such as France’s Marine Le Pen and the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders and their demand to hold similar referendums gives rise to an even greater fear of an approaching wave of racist, anti-establishment neo-fascism that could infect other countries in Europe. Once again, there is an unavoidable and worrisome analogy to the 1930s, when fascism and totalitarianism spread from Italy to the National Socialist regime in Germany, Franco’s Phalanges in Spain, the Fourth of August Regime in Greece and similar intolerant and nationalistic governments in Poland, Romania, Croatia and Portugal.
In her well-known treatise on The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt devotes a significant chapter to the corrosive influence of the overwhelming refugee problem created in Europe in the wake of the First World War. Its echoes may be faint in today’s completely different reality, but distinct enough to alarm. The volkisch nation, Arendt states, defeated the formal state, which undermined itself when it deprived some of its subjects of equality under the law. The decision of various European governments, bowing to populist demands, to officially designate minority nationalities as second class citizens and to strip all rights from so-called stateless persons, made it difficult for countries “to resist the temptation to deprive all citizens of legal status and rule them with an omnipotent police.” It also paved the way for designating Jews as undeserving of any rights at all and justified the necessity of finding a “final solution” to their problem.
“It is almost impossible even now to describe what actually happened in Europe on August 4, 1914,” Arendt wrote. “The days before and the days after the First World War are separated not like the end of an old and the beginning of a new period, but like the day before and the day after an explosion. Yet this figure of speech is as inaccurate as are all the others, because the quiet of sorrow which settles down after a catastrophe has never come to pass. The first explosion seems to have touched off a chain reaction in which we have been caught ever since and which nobody seems able to stop.” Perhaps this is the essence of the fear that has gripped much of the world in the wake of the shock British vote: that we are once again caught in a chain reaction that could lead, among other things, to the election of an eminently unqualified candidate that many consider to be a dangerous demagogue as leader of the free world. And that it’s too late for anyone to stop.