Camera crews from the around the world waited Friday morning for Donald Trump to speak from Scotland on the massive Brexit vote that broke up the EU.
Global markets were tanking and the British Prime Minister had resigned, but it was in many ways a victory for The Donald and his overseas conservative populist allies who argue that Muslim immigration, pushed by distant elites, was killing local jobs. Trump’s “America First” slogan and the Brexit crews’ Britain First sentiment seemed ascendant, the right message at the right time from the right wing.
Then Donald strode to his white Trump podium and began to speak… about his newly refurbished golf resort.
For eight minutes, he bragged about the sizes of the suites, the seaside holes and the majestic par threes. It was, predictably, “the best” —an amazing feat of engineering and commitment to the gilded lux-life, which the presidential campaign press corps would now experience for themselves by paying him for the privilege. To Donald, the collapse of the British Pound meant primarily that this was a great time for an overseas trip to play at Trump’s Scottish golf palace.
This is a deeply unserious man in serious times. Confronted with a momentous event that could coax a semblance of statesmanship from a game show host, Donald couldn’t resist making it all about himself, gleefully blurring his business and Brexit, personal profit and a presidential campaign. The instinctive question for this Republican nominee in any situation is whether it is good for Trump. He is a huckster at heart. There is no impulse toward public service, only self-service.
Trump’s commitment to acting like a cartoonish Bond villain would be funnier if the stakes weren’t so high. This surprise vote represents more than an angry rejection of the establishment. There are cascading consequences that will cause protracted economic pain to our closest ally, masked by the guttural appeal of national pride. Among other things, the Brexit vote reflects the death of historical memory—the reason why a European Union was originally embraced was as an attempt to reverse the fractious nationalist forces that led to mass slaughters in World Wars One and Two. But those hard-won gains are now unwisely taken for granted.
The happiest man on the broader continent today might be Vladimir Putin. European alliances of liberal democracies are crumbling and the Republican nominee wants to abandon NATO and Asian allies alike, which is great news for expansionist powers. When Putin is cheerleading your policies, you might want to reconsider your position. Going forward, the burden of association on Trump and conservative populists will also now include formerly fringe far-right figures like Marine LePen and Geert Wilders, whose ideas cannot be dissembled from white nationalist bigotry. You will be known by the company you keep.
Which is why Trump’s impulse to greet geo-political upheaval as a moment to advertise his business interests does a deep disservice to his supporters.
Trump and Bernie Sanders could not be more different men in terms of philosophy and temperament. But their ideologically opposite populist campaigns tapped into common themes of frustration with jobs being squeezed amid unfair foreign trade deals and undocumented immigration. The anger at distant bureaucracies and burdensome regulation is real. But if you believe, as I do, that the deeper divisions in politics are between radicals, reactionaries and reformers, then the reform forces need to address the anxieties of a squeezed patriotic middle class more aggressively.
Globalization means change and that spurs discontent among the dislocated. This includes fundamentalist forces and ethnic nationalist politicians, both of whom are locked in a defensive crouch, wanting to lash out. But anger offers bad counsel and it ignores real world consequences. Witness a stunned Brexit voter interviewed by the BBC today: “I’m shocked & worried. I voted Leave but didn’t think my vote would count—I never thought it would actually happen.” That could be us on the morning of November 9th if we aren’t careful about balancing our power with responsibility.