It’s been a long time since I’ve read anything as good as this Boston Globe essay by correspondent Albert Brown about the discontent sweeping the West, typified by the presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump and Britain’s Brexit referendum:
Three dates are useful in understanding the deeper roots of what is happening to this country — 1945, 1956, and 1966. 1945, when the Second World War ended, still feels like yesterday in the English imagination. We were bankrupt, with our cities bombed to rubble and hundreds of thousands of young men killed or wounded. Food, clothing, and petrol were all rationed and would be for another five years. But when you ask if British society was better then, a huge majority of the English people think it was. The overall figure is 51 percent worse today to 27 percent better, and when you break it down it is only those under 24 or nonwhite who think things have really gotten better since the war. Otherwise men and women from every region of the country believe that British society has got worse in the 70 years of European peace and unimaginable prosperity since the war.
In 1945, things were dreadful, but everyone knew their role and knew what their country should do. Now things are very much better, but no one knows where they belong. The post-war consensus and much of the optimism lasted until about 1973 but collapsed altogether under Margaret Thatcher. In a sense, this campaign is the last outworking of her legacy. Both sides of the argument are the children of Thatcher, who opposed the European Union rhetorically and emotionally but did as much as any political leader to knit us into the single market.
I don’t think there’s any underestimating the effects of this collapse not just of a sense of order but a sense of shared purpose. And that collapse of shared meaning and purpose, on both side of the Atlantic, has hurt the white working classes the most (because they were the people who benefitted the most from the New Deal — in the US — and the post war welfare state in both the US and Great Britain). Yes, it is taken out on immigrants in both places, largely because they are seen benefitting from the new social order of globalization in the ways the declining white proletariat is not (and this includes receiving benefits from those in power, including a rewriting of social rules in their favor).
Trump could be seen as a logical outcome of the Reagan revolution, of a Republican Party that — like Thatcher’s Conservatives — publicly ran on nostalgia while governing in ways that benefited and entrenched globalism and internationalism. Brown gives Bill Clinton kudos for feeling pain, but honestly, what he says here about Brexit supporters could also be said about much of Donald Trumps’ base and America in the 1990s:
The Leavers [those supporting Britain leaving the European Union] are mostly those who lost out from what Mrs Thatcher did but drew nourishment by what she said. So they felt doubly betrayed in the post-Blair era, when the economics of the new order went on hurting them, and the rhetoric turned against them, too.
A very important part of the Leave campaign is the rebellion against authorities of any sort, whether these are experts or politicians. It is assumed that they act only from self-interest and that this never or very seldom corresponds to the self-interest of the ordinary person. This is a general phenomenon across the Western world, of course, but it is rendered particularly acute in England by the collapse of the old Imperial state and the eclipse of traditional patriotism.
The extraordinary militarism of English society had obvious drawbacks, for us as well as for the rest of the world, but it did promote social cohesion as nothing else could. If you look at the war memorials that stand at the center of almost every village in the countryside, there will be names from every social class. The upper classes will have been the officers, and the poor will have been the ordinary soldiers, but they are all just as dead, and they are remembered side-by-side because they all acknowledged the common authority of a particular kind of patriotism.
Nothing in my lifetime has come near to replacing that as a narrative to hold the country together.
While there is a distinct and very overt White Nationalist element to the Trump campaign (Note to progressives: careful what you wish for when you label white people; you might just get it), I suspect a majority of Trump supporters miss what they believed was America and feel a deep nostalgia for a “better” time when the country was much more overtly unified in meaning and purpose. They miss the America that was in the three decades following the Second World War. (Or they miss the idea of that America.) They miss having a country where we are all in it together, as opposed to diverse groups set apart by skin color, ethnicity, and sexual orientation that all seem — to them — to be seeking power and position at their expense in a world that no longer makes sense or has much meaning.
Yes, their remembered America was a lousy place to be brown and queer. But there is little chance of restoring even an echo of a shadow of that post-war world. There are no factories, no world in need of what the US and Britain can make, and the decades have shattered any cultural consensus that could create a broadly shared national meaning and purpose. In many ways, I envy Grandpa Featherstone and the life and opportunities he had, but his world is gone. All we have is this one.
The terrible, awful, horrible truth is, people will be left behind, abandoned, cast off at the side of the road, to fend for themselves as events and progress pass them by. The Trump and Brexit campaigns cannot change this awful reality, whatever they might promise.
But neither should we ignore it. Because in a world that at least aspires to democratic rule, to giving people a voice, there will a price paid when people are left behind. Do not expect anyone to ever vote for their own marginalization or destruction.
And do not ever expect anyone to go quietly either.