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Foreign Affairs

Brexit, Trump and My Summer in London

Politics are like the Kardashians: one of those topics that no one really wants to talk about but everyone wants to know about.

This was especially true for me this past summer, when I studied abroad in London during the Brexit vote and its immediate aftermath. Naturally, politics — European, British and American — became a part of nearly every conversation I had. I lived in a University College London residential hall, where I was able to meet students from all over the world.

Moreover, I was fortunate enough to be able to travel to Switzerland, Paris, Amsterdam and around England, where I met an even more diverse set of people. Whenever politics would enter a conversation, Donald Trump would almost inevitably come up.

A lot of what I heard was what you’d expect: “No one I know in Spain thinks Trump is a good idea,” a friend from Barcelona told me. Many people found Trump’s personality entertaining, refusing to take him seriously and relegating him to a role of only comedic significance. But one mundane question that I received from every single person I discussed politics with in Europe has stuck with me: “Why is Trump so appealing to Americans?”

It’s a question we’ve been trying to answer in the United States for a while now. Trump has struck a nerve within the nation, promising a disaffected segment of the population protection from threat and a new, greater America. His use of mass media to enhance his visibility is a marketer’s dream.

What I found particularly interesting about the question is how many Europeans didn’t seem to draw the parallel between what was going on in their own countries and what was happening in the U.S.

Populism has been on the rise in Europe, with far-right parties comprising a significant threat to the re-election prospects of mainstream parties in Germany, Austria, Finland and Switzerland. We’ve already seen what this rise in populism has meant in the United Kingdom, where a majority of voters opted in June to leave the European Union. Many voters in the Brexit referendum based their vote on an aversion to increased immigration to the UK.

But while there are parallels, European and American populism, at least anecdotally, feel very different to me. In Europe, populism is also very nationalistic; many of the conversations I had with people from two different countries involved at least a joking, “Well, Switzerland is better than the Netherlands because…” We’ve seen this magnified in the burkini ban in some French cities, and while anti-Middle Eastern sentiment is present in both the U.S. and in Europe, it felt much more overt in Europe.

On the other hand, American populism hasn’t felt so much as a rejection of other cultures as it has been an issue driven by sluggish economic growth. While a Pew Research poll found that most Europeans (of the nations surveyed) support their policymakers looking inward, American ‘isolationism’ seems to exist at a lesser magnitude. Perhaps this is due to structural differences between Europe and the United States; in any case, it would be remiss to call the nature of the populism in both regions exactly identical.

So why is Trump so appealing? My answer in Europe included something about far-right Americans feeling the same way far-right Europeans did, but I’m not so sure that’s the right answer, either. As easy as it is to draw comparisons between Trump and France’s far-right National Front party leader Marine Le Pen, or Trump and prominent Brexit supporter Nigel Farage, it’s important to remember there are also distinct differences. These men are appealing to distinct audiences whose ostensibly similar plight originates from different places, and manifests itself in different ways.

Differences aside, populism is a trend that’s here to stay, at least for now. It’s important we understand it.

Nikita Gawande is a junior at Duke from San Francisco, studying economics and public policy.


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