The United Kingdom’s vote last week by 52 percent to 48 percent to leave the European Union promises to present a primer in the law of unintended consequences. From its economic and trade ramifications to the integrity of the U.K. itself, the referendum is leading the world into uncharted territory.
The vote highlighted a split in the country between young and old, the cosmopolitan and provincial and the economically well off and the economically struggling, and it exacerbated pre-existing fractures between the national power center of England and the lesser countries of Scotland, Wales and Northern Island. The less wealthy voters who opted to leave Europe appeared to be voting against their own economic interests when they voted to leave a system that has brought the continent peace, stability and prosperity for the first time ever. But people will vote against their economic interests if it supports a higher interest.
The higher interest among pro-Brexit voters appeared to be anger at a Brussels-centered system that was perceived to have enriched the few at the expense of the many. While some of those concerns may be justified, the politics of anger isn’t always carefully conceived. And in this instance, the fear is that the growing negativity reflected in the vote will continue to feed populist sentiment and energize extremist camps throughout the U.K. and the rest of Europe.
The Brexit vote dovetails with the similar politics of anger we see growing in the United States. It too is directed against so-called elites and is based upon a nativist hue of nostalgia for a better time that likely never existed. But once those “grievances” are voiced, someone needs to be identified to blame for the problems. And while Jews — and Israel — have historically been the bête noire of the political fringes, the role of scapegoat is also played today by immigrants and foreigners who are believed to have taken away jobs and diluted the purity of the nation’s way of life.
We have seen this movie before in Europe, and it gets ugly. And we have always thought that the United States was immune from what historian Robert Paxton defined as “a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity.” But we are seeing just such developments in this year’s presidential race, and it is a cause for concern. Indeed, Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, praised the Brexit vote as a “great thing,” because the people of the U.K. have “taken back their country.”
Trump’s view on the Brexit vote is the subject of legitimate debate. But that debate can’t ignore the many unintended consequences of the outcome — including whether the Brexit decision strengthens or weakens the politics of anger being expressed by Trump’s own campaign.