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Saturday, August 19, 2017

Many people see striking similarities between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and Great Britain’s vote to leave the European Union. One of those people is Donald Trump.

The presumptive Republican presidential nominee just happened to arrive in Scotland to reopen a golf resort as the news of the “Brexit,” or “British exit” vote, came in. Unsurprisingly he took him no time at all to make the story all about himself.

“They took back control of their country,” said Trump when asked about the British vote. “It’s a great thing.”

“People are angry, all over the world, they’re angry,” he said. “They’re angry over borders, they’re angry over people coming into the country and taking over. Nobody even knows who they are. They’re angry about many, many things.”

And Trump has been doing all he can to make them angrier by peppering his observations with outlandish exaggeration. But his notions that immigrants are “taking over” and “nobody even knows who they are” captures a widespread discontent that will not be constrained by mere facts.

Troubled by economic shocks in the Euro zone, waves of refugees from the Middle East, the resurgence of far-right xenophobic nationalism and resentments over seemingly being bossed around by the EU headquarters in Brussels, a new neo-tribal nationalism has boiled up in European politics and to a lesser degree in the United States since the global economic meltdown of 2008.

Trump’s signature issues (a wall on the Mexican border, higher tariffs and the expulsion of millions of undocumented immigrants, etc.) were widely viewed as loony beyond-the-fringe extremism when conservative columnist Patrick Buchanan voiced them in his 1992 Republican presidential campaign. Today, much to the consternation of the Grand Old Party’s more pragmatic leaders, the old Buchananism has become mainstream Republicanism — trumpeted by Trump.

What, we Americans wonder, does Brexit mean for us? Or for Trump or his presumptive Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton?

In the short term, expect the British pound to be buffeted amid global uncertainty, which financial markets hate. Flight from the pound inflates the value of the dollar, but that can dampen our trade advantage. The EU is like a marriage: hard to endure sometimes but also painful to leave.

Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to stay, a sign of how much they expected Brexit to hurt their economies. Prime Minister David Cameron, a strong opponent of Brexit, resigned after his anti-Brexit fight failed. He is expected to be replaced by another popular conservative, Boris Johnson, former mayor of London.

The former newspaper columnist raised a fuss in April with a newspaper column that described President Barack Obama as “the part-Kenyan president” who may have “an ancestral dislike of the British Empire.” That didn’t help his Brexit movement allies who were denying that racism had anything to do with their rejection of the EU. I am sure that Johnson and Trump would have a lot to share about race relations.

Economics matter, but racism and other xenophobia typically play a role whenever politics mix with questions of national ethnic identity.

Marine Le Pen of France’s far-right, anti-immigration National Front applauded the Brexit vote as signaling a “new air” of patriotism. She also called it a “springtime for the people,” which brings to my mind uncomfortable memories of Mel Brooks’ dark comedy “The Producers” and its signature song, “Springtime for Hitler.”

But if Boris Johnson does become prime minister, he faces big headaches from his fellow members of parliament who are furious with him and the Brexit movement for the economic chaos the vote is certain to bring. He also faces the demands of an impatient electorate that expects to see some positive long-term results from that short-term chaos.

We Americans look on, as the old understatement goes, with great interest. History often shows a remarkable similarity in the political trends of the U.S. and UK. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher sounded like soulmates as they led conservative swings in the 1980s. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair did the same in the other direction in the 1990s, promoting “third way” policies between the right and left.

Now we see Brexit rising simultaneously with Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Both can be seen as reactions to a changing world. Both are supported mainly by voters who are older, whiter, less urban and more likely to have been buffeted by wage stagnation and economic dislocation.

Those are issues that we hope will be addressed by traditional sensible politicians, before it’s too late.

 

E-mail Clarence Page at cpage@tribune.com.

Photo: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump waves as he arrives at his Turnberry golf course, in Turnberry, Scotland, Britain June 24, 2016. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

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