Jun 27th 2016

Brexit: A Cousin Of Trumpism? A Distant Cousin Of Fascism?

by Lawrence Rosenthal

Co-Editor of “Steep: The Precipitous Rise of the Tea Party”, published in August 2012. Executive Director, Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies


"........the point is that whatever has led to Brexit and whatever has led to Trump has roots in the social structure of today’s democracies. Which means that these are not issues that are going to go away in a single election year. And the threat of right-wing extremism coming to power is likely to be with us for some time to come."

June 24, 2016: I spoke to my friend in Britain this morning. Still absorbing the shock that her nation had voted itself out of Europe, she said, “Today I live in a different country.” I recognized the sentiment. It was widespread in this country, the USA, in the wake of 9-11. When people said, “Everything has changed.”

Practical things will be different in Britain. Companies will migrate to the continent for free access to the larger market. Border crossings coming and going will become cumbersome. What will happen when passport control is reinstituted to move between Northern Ireland and the Republic, which is an EU member? Scotland, with a population already feeling largely alienated from the UK, voted 62% to remain in the EU. Will the desire to rejoin Europe lead to a new referendum to separate from the UK?

But of course my friend meant more than practical questions. Already there is a mood that has set in. A new mood. One that recognizes that not only is today fundamentally different than yesterday, but that the difference will go forward for decades. Again the 9-11 analogy presents itself—in this country we are already fifteen contentious years into war footing.

There is an irony in this referendum having stamped the British future so heavily. It is disproportionately the work of an older generation that will not have to live with its long-term consequences.

According to a YouGov poll, a huge majority of people under 50 voted to Remain. Among 18-24-year-olds, the age category that’s going to have to live with the consequences of this vote for all of their working lives, 75 percent voted to stay.

The vote is not just a clash of different ages, but of urban versus suburban and rural. The only region in all of England and Wales to vote in favor of remaining in the EU was Greater London. And that by a twenty percent margin. This cosmopolitan/provincial division will be familiar to Americans who have been paying attention to the Tea Party since 2009, and this year to Donald Trump’s candidacy for the presidency.

Trump himself certainly sees the connection. Here’s what he wrote in an email to his followers this morning:

Last night UK voters shocked the world...reassert[ed] control over their borders, politics and economy...put the United Kingdom first and they took their country back. [T]he political elites didn’t see this coming. Let’s send another shockwave around the world.

Commentators have been pointing out the similarities between the politics of Trump’s rise to the Republican nomination and the anti-immigrant politics of the far-right parties that have mounted increasingly strong electoral showings in recent years throughout Europe. In Britain, that party, the UK Independence Party (UKIP), is the big winner in the Brexit vote. Today UKIP’s leader, Nigel Farage, argued that June 23 should become a national holiday which would be called Independence Day. Sounding like Trump supporter Sarah Palin talking about the “real Americans,” Farage boasted, “This is a victory for real people, a victory for ordinary people, a victory for decent people.” He also claimed, probably correctly, that anti-immigrant parties across Europe, like the Marine LePen’s National Front in France, will put EU-exit referenda before their national constituencies before long.

UKIP had forced the hand of Conservative Party Prime Minister David Cameron to put Brexit up for referendum in the first place. Here too we find echoes of the Tea Party and Trump in their fraught relations with the establishment Republican Party. Far right Euroskeptic members of the Conservative Party had long been troubled by the growth of power and bureaucracy in Brussels. Increasingly, these members sounded like UKIP on the EU question. The pressure they brought to bear on the Conservative establishment resembled the demands of the Tea Partiers among the House Republicans who primaried Eric Cantor, the party’s number two, out of office and brought down Speaker John Boehner after years of legislative obstructionism. All this, of course, turned out to be a prelude to Donald Trump’s routing of the Republican establishment this primary season, based on an anti-immigrant appeal even more radical than UKIP’s. In the UK the radicals forced Cameron to call for a referendum that he would finally campaign against.

Cameron might never have called the referendum had it not been for the rise and rise of Nigel Farage and Ukip. By January 2013, when the prime minister called the EU vote, Ukip had started to gain traction in local elections and was polling in double digits for the first time. There was a feeling that several Tory backbenchers could defect if Cameron failed to heed their calls for a plebiscite.

In the US, the Trump campaign has elicited the most serious discussion of the threat of fascism—even among conservatives—in modern memory. Wherever fascism has come to power, it has benefited from a conservative establishment that believed it could make use of a rising and obstreperous movement on its right to do in its liberal opposition. Conservatives believed they could ride out the vulgarity and extremism of the upstarts and maintain control. This, despite the movement’s explicit opposition to established power wherever it lay on the political spectrum. In Italy, collaborating with Mussolini’s Fascist Party, the country’s most important conservative politician, Antonio Salandra, continued to call himself an “honorary Fascist” until shortly before Mussolini made his party illegal.

In Britain and the USA, conservatives believing they could control the extremists to their right have both come a cropper this year. In the US, this comes after decades of far-right Republicans suppressing their resentment at the party’s establishment for never quite coming through in office with promises—like getting rid of Obamacare—they made soliciting votes. Cameron announcing in 2013 he would have a referendum on leaving the EU; Trump riding down his escalator to announce his run for the presidency: in each case both media and political elites saw these moves as fancifully playing to small audiences. Conventional political wisdom failed to grasp the gravity of what was being launched.

Trump’s success among the white male working class has been a dominant theme of the primary campaign in the US. The wave of immiseration in post-Reagan deindustrialized America was described in a widely publicized study published last December that showed that epidemic rates of suicide and substance abuse—alcohol, heroin and prescription opiods—have combined to increase the mortality rate for whites between the ages of 45 and 54, with high-school education or less, in a manner paralleled “only [by] HIV/AIDS in contemporary times.” A more robust welfare state has mitigated the worst health consequences of a similar development in post-Thatcher Britain. But the Brexit working class anti-EU voters seem to carry a similar resentment sensing themselves a class being left behind amidst flourishing tech and financial sectors. And in both countries, immigration has provided a ready-to-hand explanation of the dysfunctions of contemporary working-class life chances and the betrayal of the ruling elites.

In the 1960s and 1970s writers like Thomas Bottomore, Nicos Poulantzas and A. F. K. Organski analyzed the conditions which made societies ripe for successful fascist movements. Fundamental to these theories was citing a national economic structure that had a great disparity in terms of modernization. Post-World War I Italy and Germany both had systems of agricultural land holdings (latifondisti and Junkers) largely unchanged since feudalism. This was in contrast to highly developed economic sectors like automotive and aeronautics. The coexistence of such mismatched sectors in a country created a “fascistogenic” potential, and much of this thinking gave rise to a functionalist view of fascism that saw it as a mechanism for rapidly developing countries into full modernization.

Structurally, something similar seems to be happening in reverse. That is, instead of a situation in which structural disparity results from some sectors failing to develop while other sectors raced ahead, we now are fostering structural disparities owing to sectors that are falling backwards, out of the modern (or post-modern) world. Are we coming to another situation where economic-stage disparity puts societies at risk for fascist-like irruptions? This is not a question which can be answered here, but the point is that whatever has led to Brexit and whatever has led to Trump has roots in the social structure of today’s democracies. Which means that these are not issues that are going to go away in a single election year. And the threat of right-wing extremism coming to power is likely to be with us for some time to come.




Dr. Lawrence Rosenthal is Chair and Lead Researcher of the Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies. He was a Visiting Scholar at the Institute for the Study of Social Change for a dozen years before founding the Center in 2009. He has taught at UC Berkeley in the Sociology and Italian Studies Departments and was a Fulbright Professor at the University of Naples in Italy.  He has studied the Right in the United States and in Italy and is currently working on a study of the contemporary American Right in comparison to movements of the Right in 20th century Europe.




Browse articles by author

More Essays

Feb 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "The art historian George Kubler observed that scholars in the humanities “pretend to despise measurement because of its ‘scientific’ nature.” As if to illustrate his point Robert Storr, former dean of Yale’s School of Art, declared that artistic success is “completely unquantifiable.” In fact, however, artistic success can be quantified, in several ways. One of these is based on the analysis of texts produced by art scholars, and this measure can give us a systematic understanding of how changes in recent art have produced changes in the canon of art history."
Feb 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "The most politically sensitive option we looked at was the virus escaping from a laboratory. We concluded this was extremely unlikely."
Feb 16th 2021
EXTRACT: ".... these men were completely unaware that they had put their lives in the hands of doctors who not only had no intention of healing them but were committed to observing them until the final autopsy – since it was believed that an autopsy alone could scientifically confirm the study’s findings. As one researcher wrote in a 1933 letter to a colleague, “As I see, we have no further interest in these patients until they die.” ...... The unquestionable ethical failure of Tuskegee is one with which we must grapple, and of which we must never lose sight, lest we allow such moral disasters to repeat themselves. "
Feb 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "In 2010 Carlos Rodriguez, the president of Buenos Aires' Universidad del CEMA, created the world's first - and only - Center for Creativity Economics.  During the next ten years, the CCE presented a number of short courses and seminars.  But the most important of its events was an annual lecture by an Argentine artist, who was given a Creative Career Award."
Feb 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "It’s not hard to see why. Although AI systems outperform humans in tasks that are often associated with a “high level of intelligence” (playing chess, Go, or Jeopardy), they are nowhere close to excelling at tasks that humans can master with little to no training (such as understanding jokes). What we call “common sense” is actually a massive base of tacit knowledge – the cumulative effect of experiencing the world and learning about it since childhood. Coding common-sense knowledge and feeding it into AI systems is an unresolved challenge. Although AI will continue to solve some difficult problems, it is a long way from performing many tasks that children undertake as a matter of course."
Feb 7th 2021
EXTRACT: "When it comes to being fit and healthy, we’re often reminded to aim to walk 10,000 steps per day. This can be a frustrating target to achieve, especially when we’re busy with work and other commitments. Most of us know by now that 10,000 steps is recommended everywhere as a target to achieve – and yet where did this number actually come from?"
Feb 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "This so-called elite supposedly conspires to monopolise academic employment and research grants. Its alleged objective is to deny divine authority, and the ultimate beneficiary and prime mover is Satan.Such beliefs derive from the doctrine of biblical infallibility, long accepted as integral to the faith of numerous evangelical and Baptist churches throughout the world, including the Free Church of Scotland. But I would argue that the present-day creationist movement is a fully fledged conspiracy theory. It meets all the criteria, offering a complete parallel universe with its own organisations and rules of evidence, and claims that the scientific establishment promoting evolution is an arrogant and morally corrupt elite."
Jan 29th 2021
EXTRACT: "Ageing is so far known to be caused by nine biological mechanisms, sometimes called the “hallmarks of ageing”. In order to prevent ageing in our tissues, cells, and molecules, we need to be able to slow or prevent these hallmarks of ageing from taking place. While there are numerous treatments currently being investigated, two approaches currently show the most promise in slowing the development of age-related disease. .... One area researchers are investigating is looking at whether any medicines already exist which could tackle ageing. This method is advantageous in that billions of pounds have already been spent on testing the safety and efficacy of these drugs and they are already in routine clinical use in humans. Two in particular are promising candidates."
Jan 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "The ageing global population is the greatest challenge faced by 21st-century healthcare systems. Even COVID-19 is, in a sense, a disease of ageing. The risk of death from the virus roughly doubles for every nine years of life, a pattern that is almost identical to a host of other illnesses. But why are old people vulnerable to so many different things? It turns out that a major hallmark of the ageing process in many mammals is inflammation. By that, I don’t mean intense local response we typically associate with an infected wound, but a low grade, grinding, inflammatory background noise that grows louder the longer we live. This “inflammaging” has been shown to contribute to the development of atherosclerosis (the buildup of fat in arteries), diabetes, high blood pressure , frailty, cancer and cognitive decline."
Jan 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "Anthropos is Greek for human.... The term is used to convey how, for the first time in history, the Earth is being transformed by one species – homo sapiens. ...... The idea of the Anthropocene can seem overwhelming and can generate anxiety and fear. It can be hard to see past notions of imminent apocalypse or technological salvation. Both, in a sense, are equally paralysing – requiring us to do nothing. .. I consider the Anthropocene as an invitation to think differently about human relationships with nature and other species. Evidence suggests this reorientation is already happening and there are grounds for optimism."
Jan 7th 2021
EXTRACT: "During the second world war, Nazi Germany banned all listening to foreign radio stations. Germans who overlooked their duty to ignore foreign broadcasts faced penalties ranging from imprisonment to execution. The British government imposed no comparable ban which would have been incompatible with the principles for which it had gone to war. That’s not to say, though, that it wasn’t alarmed by the popularity of German stations. Most effective among the Nazis broadcasting to the UK was William Joyce. This Irish-American fascist, known in Britain as “Lord Haw-Haw”, won a large audience during the “phoney war” in 1939 and early 1940, with his trademark call sign delivered in his unmistakable accent: 'Jairmany calling, Jairmany calling'. "
Jan 6th 2021
EXTRACTS: "The revelation of Trump’s hour-long recorded call with Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s Secretary of State, over this past weekend crossed a new line – a line that not only set a high-water mark of moral reprehensibility, but a legal line as well, specifically in his pressuring Raffensperger to 'find the 11,780 votes' that would hand Trump the state and his veiled threat (' it’s going to be very costly…') if Raffensperger failed to comply. ........ Raffensperger – who has been forced to endure intense pressure, intimidation and threats – has proven himself to be a man of integrity and principle."
Jan 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "A final, perhaps more sinister, possibility is that Johnson knows exactly what he is doing. His political style evokes a unique blend of dishevelled buffoon and privileged Etonian. He is someone who likes to bring good news and doesn’t take life too seriously. Making tough, controversial decisions threatens this persona and so hiding in the shadows until his hand is forced helps him to reconcile his identity threat."
Dec 21st 2020
EXTRACT: "The resultant loss of land, the growing impoverishment of its citizens, and the hostile actions of Israeli occupation forces and settlers have forced many Bethlehemites to leave their beloved city and homeland. Given these accumulated violations of human rights and their impact on Christians and Muslims, alike, one might expect Christians in the West to speak out in defense of these residents of the little town they celebrate each year.  That, sadly, is not to be – most especially (and I might add ironically) among powerful Christian conservative groups in the US which, after all, claim to be the defenders of their co-religionists world-wide."
Dec 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "Worldwide, people donate hundreds of billions of dollars to charity. In the United States alone, charitable donations amounted to about $450 billion last year. As 2020 draws to a close, perhaps you or members of your family are considering giving to charity. But there are, literally, millions of charities. Which should you choose?"
Dec 1st 2020
EXTRACT: " The Museum of Modern Art is currently presenting Félix Fénéon: The Anarchist and the Avant-Garde – From Signac to Matisse and Beyond, examining the immense influence of this art critic, editor, publisher, collector and anarchist............A crucial feature of anarchism is the emphasis on the individual as the fundamental building block, the essential point of departure for any human association whatever. The individual was characterized by Grave in 1899 as a social creature who should be “left free to attach himself according to his tendencies, his affinities, free to seek out those with him whom his liberty and aptitudes can agree.” "
Nov 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "As the pandemic raged in April, churchgoers in Ohio defied warnings not to congregate. Some argued that their religion conferred them immunity from COVID-19. In one memorable CNN clip, a woman insisted she would not catch the virus because she was “covered in Jesus’ blood”. "
Nov 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "Here are just a few ways exercise changes the structure of our brain."
Nov 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "Perhaps it is Piller’s discovery that when it comes to war there is no such thing as innocence...."