Tomorrow morning, the United States will go to the polls to vote for their 44th president, choosing between the Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, and the Republican candidate Donald Trump. This election cycle has been more divisive and toxic than any other in living memory in the US; it has widened old conservative and liberal fault lines, and created new, even more dangerous ones with the potential to effect not just the US, but the whole world.
This entry, from Dan Fox, is one of a seven-part frieze.com series that has been published throughout October in anticipation of tomorrow's vote. The remaining entries, considering key issues such as gender, education, environment, race, paranoia and class, are available here.
I moved from the UK to the US seven years ago. This means I now have the politics of not one but two countries to despair of. Until this past summer, my gloom at the ineffectuality of the British left, and dominance of the cabinet of David Cameron and his band of Bullingdon Club bullies, had begun to resemble the feelings one has towards a low-level headache or cricked neck – a persistent yet dull ache you learn to live with. After all, the UK was on the other side of the ocean, and in the past 18 months the US presidential race was becoming far more ghoulishly compelling, in the same way that the discovery of a nasty rash compels you to keep looking at it and alarming oneself with a Googled self-diagnosis that the only cure is the amputation of a limb. Then, in June, came Brexit, and I found myself – in just the same way that US writer Andrew Hultkrans described in his contribution to the series last week, having to explain Donald Trump to his international friends – trying to parse for US friends the social, political and emotional conditions that led 52 percent of the UK to vote out of the EU.
The parallels were relatively easy to find; flipping the bird at the financial elites and their little helpers in government; xenophobic scapegoatism; class resentment; fresh geographic divisions between city and country. Then there were the specifics: Britain’s island mentality, the persistence of national narratives of victory in two world wars, new fissures redrawing the social topographies of England, Scotland and Wales, the potential re-opening of wounds in Northern Ireland over border issues.
Later in the summer I watched Trump introduce UKIP leader Nigel Farage as ‘Mr Brexit’ at a rally in Mississippi, and after the second presidential debate in October, cringed as Farage cast himself as Trump’s Lord Haw-Haw-in-waiting, fawningly describing the Republican candidate as a ‘silverback gorilla.’ I got into maddening arguments with Americans telling me I should ‘let England be England’, echoing former Republican campaign manager Cory Lewandowski’s motto for handling Trump, and a line that could’ve been lifted straight from the websites of the British far-right. I saw how the self-serving, back-stabbing antics of establishment Brexiteers such as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove were as bad as the mendacious maneuverings that the Democratic Party used to elbow Bernie Sanders out of the way. It seemed that taking an interest in the ‘special relationship’ between our countries now meant double trouble.
I began to feel a sense of dread for family and friends back home awaiting the unknown aftershocks that triggering Article 50 will bring, and for what the 8 November election results will have here, despite who wins. I retched at the stench of toxic racism rising rapidly on both sides of the Atlantic, and experienced incredulity that there could still be new and frightening ways for the language of political discourse to even further untether itself from reality in the scrabble for power and for craven party candidates to abusively gaslight the electorate.
On a visit to the UK at the start of October I picked up a copy of It Can’t Happen Here, a satirical novel written by Sinclair Lewis in 1935 as a warning that ultra-nationalist, strong-man authoritarianism could take hold in the US as it had in Europe. (Just four years after It Can’t Happen Here was published, 20,000 people would attend a rally at Madison Square Gardens organised by the pro-Nazi German American Bund.) I began reading Lewis’s story of American dictator Berzelius ‘Buzz’ Windrip the same week that commemorations were held in East London for the 80th anniversary of The Battle of Cable Street – a violent clash between the British Union of Fascists, led by Oswald Mosley, and local residents, who successfully prevented Mosley’s blackshirts from marching through their community. I remembered that my dad had heckled Mosley one day in the street as a teenager in Manchester, when Mosley’s postwar Union Movement was campaigning on an anti-immigration platform during the 1959 general election. He tells me that his abiding memory of the event was not Mosley’s stump speech, nor the goon squad that flanked him, but the look of hatred in the eyes of an elderly woman who jabbed my dad with her umbrella as he and his friends tried to shout down the fascists.
Brexit should have come as no surprise and nor should Trump. Both countries have long and deep strains of nationalism, violence, and xenophobia that flare up in reaction against the political status quo and it’s worth remembering that these are, in their screwed up way, intertwined with other histories our countries have of recusancy and protest such as those in the name of civil rights, the labour movement, feminism, pacifism, and attempts to dismantle established forms of government in order to organize society in new, fairer ways.
The alternative to Trump is Clinton, whose win is likely to mean that business remains as usual (whatever ‘usual’ means in our present global tailspin). Little will change and Trump’s alt-right paranoid poison will also still be circulating through the system, just as post-Brexit feelings of anger continue to taint civic discourse in Britain under Theresa May’s government. Double the trouble. Yet the opportunity now is that the spirit of protest the US people can draw up is, like the residents of Cable Street, against hatred, against populism, against xenophobia. The opportunity is for this form of resistance to stretch far beyond 8 November, no matter who gets into the White House.
Main image: Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump invites United Kingdom Independence Party leader Nigel Farage to speak during a campaign rally at the Mississippi Coliseum on August 24, 2016 in Jackson, Mississippi. Photograph: Jonathan Bachman / Getty Images