History seems to be repeating itself. When I got up on the morning of the 24th of June, I fully expected that the main news headline was going to be that the UK had voted to remain in the EU. To my surprise, I discovered that it had voted to leave.
When I got up on the 9th of November, I fully expected that the main news headline would be that Hillary Clinton had been elected President of the USA. To my surprise, I discovered that, while the counting of votes was still going on, it looked like Donald Trump would be elected – and shortly afterwards, it was confirmed that he was.
My expectations had been based on opinion polls and the forecasts of experts. In both cases, they turned out to be wrong. But the similarity between the two votes does not end there. Not only were both results unexpected – but both results got similar reactions. In both cases, there was fear and horror – and not just in America. Throughout Europe, there has been widespread apprehension, even among children.
And the similarities go on. Donald Trump supported Brexit; Nigel Farage of UKIP supported Trump. Just as ethnic minorities were much less likely than whites to support Brexit, they were also much less likely to support Trump. Just as rural voters were much more likely to support Brexit than urban voters, they were also much more likely to support Trump. Similarly, support for both Brexit and Trump came disproportionately from older voters, and from voters with less formal education. And one could continue (see, for example Glenn Greenwald’s recent article).
And for that reason, the people who were fearful about Brexit tend to be almost exactly the same people that are fearful about Trump.
There is, however, an important difference between Britain’s decision to leave the EU, and America’s election of Donald Trump as President.
Suppose that Donald Trump had been elected, not as President of the USA, but as president of Senegal, or Sri Lanka, or Suriname. Or, since Trump is not a citizen of those countries, suppose that someone from one of those countries who was exactly like Trump was elected president. My guess is that the reaction in America and Europe would be pretty muted. Indeed, it probably would not be reported widely in the media, and few people would have been aware of it. But even if it did receive media coverage, and people knew about it, I suspect that few people would be worried. And the reason for that is that Senegal, Sri Lanka, and Suriname are small countries whose rulers have little impact beyond their borders.
The reason that people are apprehensive, or even terrified, by the prospect of a Trump presidency, is that, by virtue of being president of America, Trump will be the world’s most powerful man. The decisions of American presidents have enormous impact outside America – for good or ill.
And that is the case for two reasons.
First, America is an enormously powerful nation. A quick google indicates that while American has less than 5% of the world’s population, its military spending accounts for 34% of the world’s total. America currently has troops on active duty stationed in 150 countries around the world. And under the presidency of Barack Obama, America bombed seven different countries. As president, Trump will have a lot of firepower under his control.
The second reason that Trump, as president of America, will be enormously powerful, is simply that America gives a large amount of power to its president. In 1973, historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., wrote a book entitled The Imperial Presidency out of his concerns that a) the US presidency was uncontrollable and b) it had exceeded the constitutional limits.
Is Schlesinger right? Not everyone thinks so. The American political system has checks and balances built into it. However, there is no doubt that the American president does, personally, wield considerable power – and the fact that a lot of knowledgeable and intelligent people are very concerned about Trump’s election, suggests that perhaps there are not enough checks and balances in the system, and that the president does have too much power.
The obvious solution is for America to amend its laws so that less power is vested in the hands of the president. Clip Trump’s wings, and there is much less to be scared of.
Make America great again???
But there is another answer to the problem. A much more radical answer. It is about the fact that America is an enormously powerful nation. This is something that most Americans think is a good thing. The fact that America is the most powerful nation on the face of the earth is a source of much pride to many Americans – and also gives them a sense of security. But whether it should be a source of pride to them, and whether it gives them real security is extremely questionable.
And this brings us back to Brexit. In May, concerning Britain’s referendum on leaving the EU, I wrote:
I think that a lot of people are attracted to the idea of being part of a large union because it feels ‘safer’ – remaining outside feels risky. This way of thinking believes that big is good – or at least that it is good to be part of something big – that a united Europe would be secure and strong in the big wide world out there.
I have to confess that I am uneasy with that view. In my opinion, the worst possible political arrangement for the world is a world with one central government exercising political control of the entire planet. It simply concentrates far too much power in one place. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
And it seems to me that the second worst option is a world divided into a small handful of powerful blocks. Again, far too much power would be concentrated in only a handful of places. What I would prefer to see is a large number of independent countries – the more the merrier. That would share power out, and provide diversity instead of uniformity.
And that is basically why I would like to see Britain leaving the EU.
And I referred to the Biblical account of the building of the Tower of Babel, and in particular to words of the builders of the tower:
“Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth. ”
God clearly did not believe that this unity project was a good idea:
“The LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the LORD dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.”
The words “nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them” suggest that God did not think this huge amount of (political) power concentrated in one place was a good thing. And so he scattered them over the face of all the earth – in other words, into many smaller political units.
America, Trump, and Brexit
Which brings us back to America, and to Donald Trump.
If the country that Donald Trump was about to become president of was Senegal, Sri Lanka or Suriname, I think most of us would be a bit more comfortable. Part of the problem is that too much of the world’s power is concentrated in one country.
I supported Brexit because I believe that the EU is concentrating too much political power in one place. If that is true of the EU, it is even more true of the USA. It seems to me that America, to put it bluntly, is too powerful for its own good, and the good of the world.
The reason that I am concerned at seeing Donald Trump becoming President of the United States of America is precisely the reason that I supported Britain leaving the European Union.