Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

June 25, 2016

Brexit, Trump, and Idols of the Tribe

By David K. Shipler

            In 1975, Harold R. Isaacs began his book Idols of the Tribe this way:

            “We are experiencing on a massively universal scale a convulsive ingathering of people in their numberless grouping of kinds—tribal, racial, linguistic, religious, national. It is a great clustering into separateness that will, it is thought, improve, assure, or extend each group’s power or place, or keep it safe or safer from the power, threat, or hostility of others. This is obviously no new condition, only the latest and by far the most inclusive chapter of the old story in which after failing again to find how they can co-exist in sight of each other without tearing each other limb from limb, Isaac and Ishmael clash and part in panic and retreat once more into their caves.”

            Four decades later, supposedly civilized people are retreating once more into their caves to shear off the intricate connections with “them,” to escape from “others” who are “different,” and to celebrate their own group by denigrating those across the boundaries of race, religion, nationality—of tribe. Harold Isaacs, my father-in-law, would be appalled but surely not surprised, for his work on group identity drilled into the long human habit of self-definition that relied on stereotyping, categorizing, and rejecting whole peoples.
            As at certain earlier times in history, this bad habit is now translating itself into toxic politics. Make no mistake: The United Kingdom’s vote to exit the European Union—a departure that is expected to feed other ethnocentric moves on the Continent—was driven essentially by antipathy toward “others” who had paid the UK the highest regard by uprooting themselves and settling there.
There were the reasonable complaints about high-handed EU regulation of British consumer safety standards, for example, and the burden of rescuing economic basket cases like Greece. But immigration seemed the more animating issue: a revulsion toward those whose citizenship in EU member countries gave them free passes into the UK.
Close the Chunnel! Brick it up! A British woman shouted this week to a TV reporter on the street. It was no accident that London, a vibrantly multi-ethnic city with as many Muslim women in hijabs as any Western metropolis, voted 60-40 to remain in the EU, except in the predominantly white working-class neighborhoods, whose residents voted “Leave.” And it was no surprise that the vote to leave came amid a spasm of fear about terrorists in the wake of the attacks in Paris and Brussels.
Nor was it mere chance that Donald Trump, in Scotland to admire himself and his latest golf resort, hailed the exit. “Basically they took back their country,” he declared (he didn’t say from whom) while cheering the steep fall in the British pound as making it cheaper for tourists to visit his resort. (For a businessman, he sure doesn’t know much about business, economics, or the financial markets, which delivered their thumbs-down verdict globally as stock prices tanked and the dollar rose, which will be a negative for US exports.)
But Trump isn’t about business, actually. He’s about hatred and scapegoating, and the parallel he gleefully drew between Brexit and the resentment that’s fueling his popularity at home should be a cautionary tale. Retreating into your cave from the interconnected modern world might feel blessedly restorative, but it’s hazardous in the extreme. It also runs against your own interest.
 To mangle John Donne’s famous line, no modern economy is an island. Nor is the UK, except geographically. Every widget and gizmo contributing to ease and comfort has a snarl of supply lines stretching to the ends of the earth.
This has long been the case. About thirty years ago, I happened to see a graphic illustration at a Pentagon briefing, where a military officer projected a slide with a photo of a car against a map of the world. From each bumper, window, and engine part, a line went to a country that provided the raw materials. Cut enough lines, the briefer noted, and you can’t make automobiles. Add today’s cell phones, computers, and other essential gadgetry, and you have a global structure as symbiotic as an ecological system. The whole is equal to greater than the sum of its parts.
That Trump doesn’t understand this—or pretends not to—is a case of miseducation by the process of democratic debate. Free societies are meant to have enlightening discussions of difficult problems. But on both sides of the Atlantic, the tragic arguments for divorce fail to embrace the creative contradiction that a country can have both autonomy and community, that it can govern itself and also participate in the larger world.
Granted, the international flow of goods, jobs, and people is not beneficial for everyone, and it’s easy enough to list the downsides, which include the loss of certain work and the influx of competing foreign labor. Nevertheless, a flagging economy hurts the most vulnerable, so the struggling blue-collar workers who supported leaving the EU are likely to suffer if their vote brings the predicted recession in the UK.
In the end, both Trump enthusiasts and “Leave” voters seem to yearn for an era when their respective countries were mostly white and virtually devoid of the variegated complexion of their current populations. It’s bad enough to reject the energy and stimulation of a diverse society and, instead of taking pleasure from it, stoke only resentment. Then, because nostalgia cannot pull societies backwards in time, add fantasy to the lusty mix, and you have a tinderbox of ethno-nationalism ready for the spark.
Several years ago on a visit to London, I fell into conversation with a passport control officer at Heathrow Airport, a chatty gentleman in his fifties who gazed over the long lines of visitors, lowered his voice, and said to me, “I am philosophically opposed to borders.” I laughed that he might be in the wrong line of work. He twinkled a grin and stamped my passport. He will now have another border to oppose—philosophically.

A political cartoonist should draw the UK pulling up anchor and drifting away from mainland Europe, out toward the edge of a flat earth.


  1. What an amazing piece of writing, Dave! Right on target. Thanks for your thoughtful work.

  2. Yes! I completely agree with Candyce Fisher's comment. Beyond that, this whole thing terrifies me. Will a great preponderance of Ignoranti now vote Trump into office on similarly shallow, shoddy reasoning?! I'm scared! Trump's campaign has always brought to my mind the rise of Hitler. It's not that he has the same ideas, but the same thoughtless, hysterical, BRUTE crowd seems to have been reactivated - and a large enough number of them could conceivably thrust this super-narcissistic, psychopathic Carnival Barker to the Presidency of the United States. It's truly scary!

  3. P.S. Nice to see Harold Isaacs words in print once again!