Like many across the UK – 48 percent of the population, to be precise – I was devastated this morning, at 4:40 am, when the BBC called the EU referendum results in favour of Leave. The country I have come to love as much as my country of birth had swiftly rejected decades of efforts to establish peace and prosperity in Europe.
I am an immigrant to the UK, originally from the United States. I moved here seven and a half years ago, married a British citizen, and got my own citizenship as soon as I could, three years later. Until recent weeks, I have always felt welcome here, and have done my best to contribute to British society. I have three children who are British citizens, have worked and paid taxes, been politically active, volunteered in my local community, and given money to charity.
The Britain that I chose to embrace reflected my own values, and was part of Europe. I believed it was a place where my children would have every opportunity to flourish and be part of this globalised world. The referendum results threaten the very values that drew me here in the first place, and make me call into question everything I believed to be true about this country. When I posted today on Twitter that I had broken down explaining to my kid what had happened to his country and his future, for the first time in seven years of living here I was told to “go home”.
As a dual US/UK national, my nightmare is not confined to Brexit. Both of my countries are at risk of succumbing to this dangerous brand of populism. The same politics of hate that have divided British society and are unravelling Europe are also rearing their ugly head in the US. Following a campaign similarly vitriolic to the Brexit debate in the UK, in November, Americans will go to the polls for the most divisive presidential election in modern US history, with their choice almost certainly now narrowed down to Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.
Watching from a distance, I – along with much of the world – have been baffled as Trump, who first seemed to be somewhat of a bad joke, grew in popularity month after month. We wondered how this could happen – how someone whose talking points have been little more than venomous sound bites, whose platform has lacked coherence and plausibility, could possibly gain this much support in a country built on the values of civil rights and fundamental freedoms.
Now, sadly, the UK has experienced firsthand how that can happen – how hateful and divisive rhetoric can appeal to the disaffected, how the protest vote, however irrational, can win. To add insult to injury, today Trump himself arrived in Scotland – now likely facing another referendum to leave the UK as Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU – insensitively proclaiming that it was a “great thing” that the British people have “taken back their country”, adding on Twitter: “They took their country back, just like we will take America back. No games!”.
As I grieve for the loss of the future I had planned for my children in a UK that was part of Europe, Trump’s comments on my country of birth – a place where I wish to live again – strike me as a threat. He is tauntingly suggesting that the US will be the next domino to topple in a chain with potentially enormous repercussions. Populist politicians in France, the Netherlands, Italy, Sweden, and Denmark have already commended the UK referendum results and suggested that they should hold their own votes. The stability of Europe is at stake.
The political mood in both the UK and the US has become decidedly anti-establishment, leading voters to make reckless decisions as a form of protest, goaded by populist politicians who will seemingly do or say anything to win votes from the disaffected. The EU referendum vote struck me not as a vote for anything in particular, but a vote for ‘not EU’ at any cost. Before the dust has even settled, campaign promises have already been broken – such as the £350 million UKIP leader Nigel Farage suggested should be spent on the NHS instead of the EU, which he has now said was “a mistake”.
For many Trump supporters in the US, it seems that he is also the protest vote. Despite his elite status, immense wealth, and now endorsement by the Republican establishment, somehow Trump comes off as the “anti-establishment” candidate, while Clinton is villainised for the very experience that qualifies her for the office. No matter how outrageous Trump’s proposals, no matter how offensive – or even downright dangerous – his statements, he continues to grow in popularity.
Now, with Europe beginning to unravel, a stable US is even more vital than before. American politicians should take heed of the lesson of Brexit, and address the very real concerns of the masses who feel so disenfranchised that they are fighting the system at any cost. American voters should seriously consider the precious freedoms that are at stake, and choose carefully – not just for their present, but for their future, and for that of the whole world.
As an American voter, I feel the weight of that responsibility now more than ever before. Watching the election from across the Atlantic, and considering the prospect of returning to the US in the wake of Brexit, I seriously hope that my land of the free will remain just that after November.