Hours after United Kingdom did the unthinkable, voting to leave the European Union in a wave of populist vitriol unfairly directed at immigrants, Vice President Joe Biden took a moment during his visit to Ireland to say what so many Americans were surely thinking.
“All this,” he said of globalization, terrorism and mass migration, “provides fertile terrain for reactionary politicians and demagogues peddling xenophobia, nationalism and isolationism. We see it in Europe. We see it in other parts of the world and we see it in my home country, where some politicians find it convenient to scapegoat immigrants instead of welcoming them.”
And, as if on cue, Donald Trump tweeted: “Just arrived in Scotland. Place is going wild over the vote. They took their country back, just like we will take America back.”
(Never mind that Scotland overwhelmingly voted to remain in the EU.)
It’s hard not to draw parallels between the U.K.’s decision to leave the EU and the support on this side of the pond for Trump, the xenophobic presumptive Republican nominee, and, to a lesser extent, Democratic rabble-rouser Bernie Sanders.
Trump’s promises to “make America great again” and Sanders’ desire to shift money from “foreign wars” back to domestic spending reek of the same isolationism that carried the day in Britain.
The Britons who voted to leave the EU were from predominantly white, working-class communities, as well as residents of small seaside towns and former industrial cities devastated by globalization.
In the United States, it’s the same demographic that loves Trump and supports his calls to build a wall along the Mexican border and ban Muslims. Trump was certainly crassly playing up this angle on Friday, in a bizarre, infomercial-style news conference from his new golf course.
But, in truth, it’s not a clear analogy comparing the politics of the United States and the United Kingdom. Our country is vastly different, particularly when it comes to diversity.
Almost 90 percent of the population is white in the U.K., which explains the widespread fears about immigrants. Here, the hatred is more confined. But it does exist, as does rage over the economically disastrous side of globalization.
If the United States learns anything from the U.K., it should be to not underestimate the power of that populist hatred and rage.
The U.K.’s referendum was sold to voters as a statement about restoring Britain’s economic strength. In truth, it was a statement about a tolerance for xenophobia that likely will end up making Britain less than great.
The U.S. can’t afford to make the same mistake.