Listen to this article
Why is America so alarmed by Brexit? Lest the reader be in doubt, remind yourself of this. Never before has a sitting US president visited a fellow democracy in a bid to sway an election. Nor, until now, have 13 former US secretaries of state and defence risked addressing a letter to a foreign electorate with the same motive. Ditto eight former Treasury secretaries and five former supreme commanders of Nato. Not only has the US establishment broken its non-interference rule over Brexit, it is stamping on its smithereens. If we did not know better, it might seem the UK was uniquely important to the future of the world.
Seductive though that thought may be — particularly for a Brit living in Washington — there is a domestic subtext that can be summarised in two words: Donald Trump. If the British are foolish enough to leave Europe, perhaps Americans are crazy enough to elect Mr Trump. Of course, no one would claim a causal link between what happens in Britain on June 23 and the US presidential election in November. Most American voters have never heard of Brexit. Nor would most feel strongly either way if they had.
Yet there are sufficient echoes to trouble America’s besieged elites. In much the same way US music companies test products in the British market, or TV production companies simply borrow what works, the Brexit referendum has become a trial balloon for the health of western democracy. Think of The Office, that dystopian Slough-set comedy that captivated British viewers. Not long after, the US Scranton-based version pulled off a similar hit. For decades, US and UK political trends have tracked each other. Margaret Thatcher swept to power in 1979, the year before Ronald Reagan was elected president. Bill Clinton’s New Democrats paved the way in 1992 for Tony Blair’s New Labour five years later.
The demographic parallels between those backing Brexit and Mr Trump’s supporters are too close to ignore — almost eerily so. Their motives are equally simplistic. Leaving Europe is to Brexiters what building a wall with Mexico is to Trumpians — a guillotine on the cacophonous multiculturalism of 21st-century life. From an empirical point of view, Mr Trump’s beautiful wall is no different to the splendid isolation of Boris Johnson, the leading Brexit campaigner: both are reckless illusions. From a poetic standpoint, however, they offer a clean solution to the alienations of the postmodern society. Winston Churchill joked that Britain and America were divided by a common language. Today blue-collar whites on both sides of the Atlantic are speaking in the same idiom. They both yearn for the certainties of a lost age.
Both also rely on the specious legalese of their plutocratic champions. Mr Johnson wants to liberate the UK from an often fictitious web of European regulations. Mr Trump insists he is opposed only to illegal Hispanics. Legal ones are apparently welcome. Their true appeal, however, is based on nationalist populism. Both can legitimately point to the hypocrisy of the elites they campaign against. Mr Cameron vowed to cap net UK immigration at 100,000 a year — a promise he failed to keep. Successive US administrations have promised to enforce America’s borders before offering amnesty. As a test of market conditions, Britain’s contest between elite hypocrisy and populist sincerity could not be bettered.
Then there is the future of the west. On his UK visit in April, Barack Obama made an eloquent pitch for Britain’s role in Europe. He reminded Britons that the vision of a united Europe was conceived by Churchill as a means to prevent a recurrence of humanity’s two bloodiest wars. There was a grander context, even romance, to the President’s words that Mr Cameron could never emulate. Britain’s prime minister has spent too long denigrating Europe — and validating the concerns of those against immigration — to make a positive case, which is why he asked Mr Obama to do it for him. It is worth noting that Mr Cameron hired Jim Messina, the manager of Mr Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, to help make his fear-based economic case against Brexit; even the product managers are interchangeable.
Beyond doing a favour for a friend, Mr Obama had larger motives. Washington’s elites rightly fear that Brexit could spark a chain reaction that could lead to the disintegration of the EU. That, in turn, could trigger the collapse of the transatlantic alliance. US global power has always been magnified by the strength of its alliances. The self-inflicted isolation of America’s closest European ally could be the start of a great unravelling.
Here, too, Mr Trump plays the ghost at the banquet. For the first time since Nato was formed, the US is fielding a presidential candidate who would be indifferent to the demise of the military alliance. Moreover, Mr Trump stands alone among US public figures in supporting Britain’s exit from the EU. “Oh yeah, I think they should leave,” he said recently. He added that it would be Britain’s decision to make alone. The latter was true enough. But Mr Trump’s insouciance crystallised what troubles Washington. There are points in history when all that is solid melts into air. Will 2016 be one of those moments?
Get alerts on Brexit when a new story is published