The discussion on the cultural link between Brexit and Trump needs necessarily to start off with a clarification on what we mean by culture. This is usually defined as a set of ideas and discourses that are associated with a given society at a given time. But how do we recognise these discourses? A culture is what seems to express the sentiment of a group. But this sentiment needs to be interpreted: politicians, intellectuals, social media, newspapers all concur in proposing interpretations. Some of them take over, some others are disqualified. We will first look at the majoritarian or dominant interpretation of the cultural link between Brexit and Trump and we will then look at its contradictions and its potential openings.
The results of the British referendum on the permanence in the EU has been widely described as the response to two contemporary phenomena: austerity and migration. Already in the campaign preceding the referendum, these two questions have been somehow related with each other. Firstly, the harsh effects of the financial crisis of 2007-2008 and the austerity measures that followed have been interpreted as the result of impositions coming from Brussels under the occult guidance of banks and financial institutions. However, there has been a growing tendency to associate the austerity as worsened or even provoked by migrants. European migrants? Not only. The problem of migration has gradually become the epicentre of the discussion on Brexit, subordinating the focus on austerity. It rapidly connected two very distinct problems: one in relation to the job market (with migrants accused of stealing jobs from the local workforce) and another in relation to the terrorist threat.
Trump endorses Brexit and creates himself a cultural link with it. On which aspects? The fight against migration is again the privileged ground. The threat comes from two sides: the poorer neighbour hungry for jobs and the Muslim terrorist. In the background, there is the economic motive: crisis, unfair global competition, high rates of unemployment are interpreted as the effect of the neoliberalism failure. The medicine is a nostalgic return to a protectionism that privileges American enterprises.
From this dominant interpretation of Brexit and Trump, we have the resurgence of all the worst the last century had to offer: xenophobia, the resurgence of the nation state and nationalistic pride stimulating racism, the identification of an Enemy with the capital letter. These lines resume what Foucault placed at the intersection of two distinct modalities of power: a disciplinary mechanism based on exclusion and a biopower based on race. These found its maximum realisation in the Nazist regime. This is not to say that Trump and Brexit represent a continuation of Nazism, but there are arguably cultural dynamic and political practices that allow for a possible comparison.
What is interesting is that these cultural associations between Brexit, Trump and this xenophobic populism with some traces of fascism have been produced from two opposite sides: on the one hand, the critique to Brexit and Trump have emphasised these xenophobic and racist elements; on the other hand, this intolerant struggle against migration has increasingly become a matter of pride for the advocates of Brexit and Trump.
But what happened to the other line of critique that somehow animated the cultural discourse of Trump and Brexit? Is the struggle against neoliberalism, the financial world, the banks and the market still urgent? The recent talks between Trump and Theresa May mainly revolve around new trade agreements between US and UK. This ultimately does not represent a critique of neoliberalism, but an internal reorganisation of capitalism and its global dynamics. This has the effect to eliminate or silence the contribution of the critique to neoliberalism and austerity to the majoritarian cultural ground of Brexit and Trump. Migration becomes the only manifest focus of both political trajectories.
On the other hand, if we come back from the initial discussion and we understand that this is nothing but what has become the majoritarian interpretation of the social and political movements that led to Brexit and to the election of Trump, we can engage with a different perspective, a different interpretation. The social experience of the crisis of 2007-2008 and the austerity that followed can be understood as the main drive of these two phenomena. At the very foundation, there is a diffuse sentiment of opposition to the growing inequality historically produced by capitalism that becomes even more acute in times of crisis and recession. This is the primary cultural link between the social movements that have been deviated and captured by Brexit and Trump. We need in fact to recognise how their ultimately racist discourse has been used to manipulate and steer a sentiment of critique to capitalism. This general sentiment of resistance to capitalism did not find alternative discourses in which it could be articulated. Neither the campaign to remain in a neoliberal EU, nor Hillary Clinton could even come close to install themselves on this social need for resistance. In this void, those (among many) that could have been held responsible for the crisis and austerity (the Tories with their austerity, Trump as an organic expression of American capitalism) have paradoxically been the only ones to fully intercept this need. The result is a fundamental betrayal of the original foundation and the creation of an artificial cultural link revolving almost exclusively around a reactionary racist response to migration that, in turn, allows the pacific continuation of those same neoliberal and capitalist dynamics that will inevitably reproduce crisis and inequality.