Something similar has happened in the United States. Not only were even the least privileged Americans told that they lived in God’s own country, but white Americans, however impoverished and undereducated, had the comforting sense that there was always a group beneath them, who did not share their entitlement, or claim to greatness, a class of people with a darker skin. With a Harvard-educated black president, this fiction became increasingly difficult to sustain.
Trump and the leaders of Brexit had a fine instinct for these popular feelings. In a way, Trump is a Gatsby gone sour. He played on the wounded pride of large communities and inflamed the passions of people who fear the changes that make them feel abandoned. In the United States, this brought out old strains of nativism. In Britain, English nationalism is the main force behind Brexit. But in both cases, “taking back our country” means a retreat from the world that the Anglo-Americans envisaged after 1945. English nationalists have opted for a modern version of Splendid Isolation (paradoxically, a term coined to describe British foreign policy under Benjamin Disraeli). Trump wants to put America First.
Brexit Britain and Trump’s America are linked in their desire to pull down the pillars of Pax Americana and European unification. In a perverse way, this may herald a revival of a “special relationship” between Britain and the United States, a case of history repeating itself not exactly as farce but as tragi-farce. Trump told Theresa May that he would like to have the same relationship with her that Ronald Reagan had with Margaret Thatcher. But the first British politician to arrive at Trump Tower to congratulate the president-elect was not the prime minister or even the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, but Nigel Farage.
Trump and Farage, beaming like schoolboys in front of Trump’s gilded elevator, gloated over their victories by repeating the same word that once made their respective countries exceptional: “freedom.” In the privacy of Trump’s home, Farage suggested that the new president should move Winston Churchill’s bust back into the Oval Office. Trump thought this a splendid idea.