The British culture war: Brexit is the new Trump

"The Brexiteers have been inspired by Trump's relentless use of immigration to attract vulnerable workers and outright racists to simple solutions"
"The Brexiteers have been inspired by Trump's relentless use of immigration to attract vulnerable workers and outright racists to simple solutions"
Ian Dunt By

It should come as no surprise that Donald Trump arrives in the UK the day before the EU referendum. The rhetoric of the Brexiteers has become so similar to his own that it must function as some sort of mermaids' song.

There was a time, back at the start of the campaign, when you could imagine parts of the liberal left getting on board with Brexit. After all, the grotesque spectacle of Germany acting as the enforcer of Greece's indefinite financial punishment had finally woken many up to what the project entailed in practical terms. There is a strong argument against the centralisation of power, lack of accountability and enforcement of privatisation which the EU entails. That was starting to be understood across the political spectrum, rather than just on the little Englander right and the further reaches of the trade union left.

Vote Leave once seemed to recognise this and split from Leave.EU in order to deliver a broader, more inclusive brand of euroscepticism than what Nigel Farage had to offer. And even Farage once recognised that a referendum on the EU couldn't be won unless the left was on board.

But they've given that up. Brexit is now the new Trump. It is a culture war against globalisation into closed regional identity: exactly as we see in the US, or in countless European countries experiencing a rise in the far right. It is part of the great political issue of our age: the backlash against the global movement of ideas, people and products.


Iain Duncan Smith even laid the groundwork for future cooperation with Trump in a radio interview last week. He cited the Republican party's Paul Ryan as thinking Trump was a "very decent man" and strongly implied he'd vote for him over Clinton. These are the first tentative steps towards a common ground between his brand of demagoguery and British Conservatism.

The Brexiteers have been inspired by Trump's relentless use of immigration to attract vulnerable workers and outright racists to simple solutions. The idea of a positive, upbeat message is gone. Every event, every speech, every media comment is about immigration. Yesterday, Farage was highlighting the "very big cultural" issues around migration and women, suggesting that Britain could be in for a wave of sexual assaults because of immigration. This is precisely the message the far right have been delivering on social media since the New Year Cologne attacks.

The prospect of Turkey joining the EU is spoken of in the most appallingly snide, knowing way. It doesn't matter that Turkey is years from joining the EU and probably never will. It offers the opportunity to combine massive population 'estimates' (they are estimates in the way a child might count trees in a forest) with a nudge-nudge fear of Muslims.

The phrase 'take back control' is now the dominant one in all Brexit rhetoric. It's emotionally equivalent to Trump's promise to build a wall on the border with Mexico or the "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States". The task is to give people who are scared of their economic future and feel vulnerable to the chill winds of economic globalisation a sense of security: the language of control, the erecting of borders wherever possible, and very simple, tough-sounding policies.

They've also imported Trump's constant lies. "Turkey (population 76 million) is joining the EU," a recent poster says. It's a lie. It's nothing more or less than that. Turkey isn't joining the EU, it's not even close to doing so. In a decade's time, Turkey still won't be in the EU. Turkey needs to implement EU rules on 35 policy areas to be eligible to join. In the last ten years, it managed one. The Cyprus mess is a massive - possibly insurmountable - barrier to progress. And all member states, including the UK, would need to support accension in order for it to happen.

Another Vote Leave poster says: "Let’s give our NHS the £350 million the EU takes every day." It's a figure which ignores all the money which flows to the UK from the EU every day: in the rebate, in payments to farmers and universities. It's a number stripped of any meaning.

And that's just the official material. There's far worse being put out there by Ukip officials and their assorted allies, including this remarkable leaflet, apparently put out by a local Ukip branch, in which the Queen and the UK itself will die off in the event of a Remain vote.

But when anyone calls the Brexiteers on a lie, they respond as Trump does: by alleging conspiracy theory. This is precisely what Vote Leave did when the respected economic think tank the IFS put out a report evaluating serious forecasts of the consequences of Brexit. Vote Leave branded them "a paid-up propaganda arm of the European Commission". When ITV arranged an interview between David Cameron and Nigel Farage, Vote Leave said they'd "effectively joined the official IN campaign".

This is the crazed world of the Brexiteers, where inviting Farage to debate the prime minister is evidence of bias against euroscepticism. They're replicating the Trump model,  that of a thin-skinned authoritarian simpleton: agree with me or be libelled a crook. Trump is currently telling audiences that Hispanic or Muslim judges cannot preside over cases in which he is involved because they are biased against him. He's been using this construction - all critics are corrupt - for his entire run. And now we've got it too.

When the evidence and the experts refuse to say that black is white and up is down, they are rejected as a class. Trump does this with his 'common sense', 'plain talking' routine - the normal guy taking on the establishment, as laughable for a man of his wealth as it is when someone like Iain Duncan Smith does it. Now we see even respectable, intelligent British Brexiteers doing it too.

"People in this country have had enough of experts," Michael Gove said during his Sky debate on Friday night. What a disreputable thing to say. Let's see him stick to it next time he has a medical emergency. How sick of experts will he be then? Or will he in fact want the very best expert with the most experience to do whatever operation might be necessary? At least when Trump does it he has the virtue of genuine stupidity. Gove is extremely intelligent. In his case, it's outright cynicism.

What a useful little conspiracy theory to 'hate-the-experts' trope is. It allows you to selectively dispel whatever evidence contradicts your claims. So it is enthusiastically taken up by the Brexiteers, another exciting new hand-me-down from uncle Trump over the pond. The same tactics are used by referencing the "elite" and the "establishment". Trump - heir to a fortune, rich beyond most people's imaginations - pretends to be opposed to them. And the big beasts of Brexit claim the same, despite their front bench positions, their high powered friends, their robes and ministerial cars and influence and, in many cases, their extraordinary wealth.

And then finally there are the women, or rather there aren't. The white, middle aged male dominance in Brexit reflects a similar culture war tone in Trump's campaign. The soon-to-be Republican candidate trades in the easy swagger of wealthy male confidence, with occasional forays into strange, almost Biblical, expressions of hatred towards women ("You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever").

Brexiteers avoid the Biblical parts - for now - but they appear to be almost exclusively white and male. Apart from a Priti Patel speech on the Remain threat to curry restaurants (not a joke), women have been almost invisible from the campaign. Gisela Stuart is a brilliant eurosceptic Labour MP whose German origin would help placate fears some might have about Brexit xenophobia. She has been entirely absent. Labour's Kate Hoey could tempt over some centrist and left-wing voters. Not only has she been absent, but her own camp are briefing against her. "I'm not sure what she's doing here," a Vote Leave campaign manager told the Guardian's sketch writer in the spin room on Friday night. "We were trying to keep her out of sight."

That's what Brexit has become: a nativist male culture war in which you either agree with their lies or you're in on the conspiracy. It’s the Trump model, replicated almost line-by-line. A victory for this style of campaigning would be a disaster for Britain and the way it conducts political debate.

Ian Dunt is the editor of Politics.co.uk

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners

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