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For decades, the United States and Britain’s vision of democracy and freedom defined the postwar world. What will happen in an age of Donald Trump and Nigel Farage?
By IAN BURUMA, "The End of the Anglo-American Order," Nov. 29, 2016 New York Times; re Germany (mentioned in last para of below article), see (1) (2); JB note: Russia's role (in any?) in this post-Anglo-Saxon order is not covered by the author.
From the article: "In a way, Trump is a Gatsby gone sour."
One of the strangest episodes in Donald Trump’s very weird campaign was the
appearance of an Englishman looking rather pleased with himself at a rally on Aug.
24 in Jackson, Miss. The Englishman was Nigel Farage, introduced by Trump as “the
Man Behind Brexit.” Most people in the crowd probably didn’t have a clue who
Farage — the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party — actually was. Yet
there he stood, grinning and hollering about “our independence day” and the “real
people,” the “decent people,” the “ordinary people” who took on the banks, the
liberal media and the political establishment. Trump pulled his face into a crocodile
smile, clapped his hands and promised, “Brexit plus plus plus!”
Brexit itself — the decision to withdraw Britain from the European Union,
notwithstanding the almost universal opposition from British banking, business,
political and intellectual elites — was not the main point here. In his rasping
delivery, Trump roared about Farage’s great victory, “despite horrible name-calling,
despite all obstacles.” Quite what name-calling he had in mind was fuzzy, but the
message was clear. His own victory would be like that of the Brexiteers, only more
so. He even called himself Mr. Brexit.
Many friends and experts I spoke to in Britain resisted the comparison between
Trumpism and Brexit. In London, the distinguished conservative historian Noel
Malcolm told me that his heart sank when I compared the two. Brexit, he said, was
all about sovereignty. British democracy, in his view, would be undermined if the
British had to abide by laws passed by foreigners they didn’t vote for. (He was
referring to the European Union.) The Brexit vote, he maintained, had little to do
with globalization or immigration or working-class people feeling left behind by the
elites. It was primarily a matter of democratic principle.
Malcolm seemed to think that Brexit voters, including former industrial workers
in Britain’s rust-belt cities, were moved by the same high-minded principles that had
made him a convinced Brexiteer. I had my doubts. Resentment about Polish,
Romanian and other European Union citizens coming to Britain to work harder for
less money played an important part. As did the desire to poke the eye of an
unpopular elite, held responsible for the economic stagnation in busted industrial
cities. And the simple dislike of foreigners in Britain should never be
In the United States, too, I found resistance to the idea that Brexit was a harbinger of
a Trump victory. I was assured over and over by liberal friends that Trump would
never be president. American voters were too sensible to fall for his hateful
demagogy. Trump, I was told, was a product of peculiarly American strains of
populism that flare up periodically, like the anti-immigrant nativism in the 1920s or
Huey P. Long in 1930s Louisiana, but would never reach as far as the White House.
Traditional American populism of this kind, directed at the rich, bankers,
immigrants or big business, could, in any case, not be usefully compared with
English hostility to the European Union, because there was no supranational
political union the United States belonged to.
And yet Trump and Farage quickly recognized what they shared. In Scotland,
where Trump happened to be reopening a golf resort the day after the Brexit vote, he
pointed out the parallels. Brexit, Trump said to the Scots who voted overwhelmingly
against it, was “a great thing”: The British had “taken back their country.” Phrases
like “sovereignty,” “control” and “greatness” fired up the crowds in both Trump’s
and Farage’s campaigns. You might think they meant something different by those
words. Farage and his allies, many of them English nationalists, wanted to wrest
national sovereignty from the European Union. But from whom or what does Trump
want to take his country back? Trump has gestured at the International Monetary
Fund and the World Trade Organization as noxious elements run by international
elites to the detriment of the American working man. But I can’t imagine that these
institutions fill most of his followers with rage.
In fact, most international institutions, including the I.M.F. and NATO, were set
up under American auspices, to promote the interests of the United States and its
allies. European unification, and the resulting European Union, too, have not only
been approved of but also vociferously encouraged by American presidents before
Trump. But his America First sentiments — for that is what they are at this point,
more than a policy — are hostile to these organizations. And so, by and large, are the
likes of Nigel Farage.
So Farage and Trump were speaking about the same thing. But they have more
in common than distaste for international or supranational institutions. When
Farage, in his speech in Jackson, fulminated against the banks, the liberal media and
the political establishment, he was not talking about foreign bodies but about the
aliens in our midst, as it were, our own elites who are, by implication, not “real,
“ordinary” or “decent.” And not only Farage. The British prime minister, Theresa
May, not a Brexiteer before the referendum, called members of international-minded
elites “citizens of nowhere.” When three High Court judges in Britain ruled
that Parliament, and not just the prime minister’s cabinet, should decide when to
trigger the legal mechanism for Brexit, they were denounced in a major British
tabloid newspaper as “enemies of the people.”
Trump deliberately tapped into the same animus against citizens who are not
“real people.” He made offensive remarks about Muslims, immigrants, refugees and
Mexicans. But the deepest hostility was directed against those elitist traitors within
America who supposedly coddle minorities and despise the “real people.” The last ad
of the Trump campaign attacked what Joseph Stalin used to call “rootless
cosmopolitans” in a particularly insidious manner. Incendiary references to a “global
power structure” that was robbing honest working people of their wealth were
illustrated by pictures of George Soros, Janet Yellen and Lloyd Blankfein. Perhaps
not every Trump supporter realized that all three are Jewish. But those who did
cannot have missed the implications.
When Trump and Farage stood on that stage together in Mississippi, they spoke
as though they were patriots reclaiming their great countries from foreign interests.
No doubt they regard Britain and the United States as exceptional nations. But their
success is dismaying precisely because it goes against a particular idea of Anglo-American
exceptionalism. Not the traditional self-image of certain American and
British jingoists who like to think of the United States as the City on the Hill or
Britain as the sceptered isle splendidly aloof from the wicked Continent, but another
kind of Anglo-American exception: the one shaped by World War II. The defeat of
Germany and Japan resulted in a grand alliance, led by the United States, in the
West and Asia. Pax Americana, along with a unified Europe, would keep the
democratic world safe. If Trump and Farage get their way, much of that dream will
be in tatters.
In the years when most of Europe was overrun by the Nazis or fascist
dictatorships, the Anglo-American allies were the last hope of freedom, democracy
and internationalism. I grew up in the world they shaped. My native country, the
Netherlands, was freed in 1945, six years before I was born, by British and North
American troops (with the help of some very brave Poles). Those of us with no direct
memories of this had still seen movies like “The Longest Day,” about the Normandy
landings. John Wayne, Robert Mitchum and Kenneth More and his bulldog were our
This was, of course, a childish conceit. For one thing, it left out the Soviet Red
Army, which liberated my father, who was forced to work in a factory in Berlin along
with other young men who, under German occupation, refused to sign a loyalty oath
to the Nazis. But the victorious Anglo-Saxon nations, especially the United States,
largely shaped the postwar Western world we lived in. The words of the Atlantic
Charter, drawn up by Churchill and Roosevelt in 1941, resonated deeply throughout
a wartorn Europe: Trade barriers would be lowered, peoples would be free, social
welfare would advance and global cooperation would ensue. Churchill called the
charter “not a law, but a star.”
Pax Americana, in which Britain played the role of special junior partner, whose
specialness was perhaps more keenly felt in London than in Washington, was based
on a liberal consensus. Not only NATO, set up to protect Western democracies,
chiefly against the Soviet threat, but also the ideal of European unification were born
from the ashes of 1945. Many Europeans, liberals as well as conservatives, believed
that only a united Europe would stop them from tearing their continent apart again.
Even Winston Churchill, whose heart was more invested in Commonwealth and
Empire, was in favor of it.
The Cold War made the exceptional role of the victorious allies even more vital.
The West, its freedoms protected by the United States, needed a plausible
counter-narrative to Soviet ideology. This included a promise of greater social and
economic equality. Of course, neither the United States, with its long history of racial
prejudice and occasional fits of political hysteria, like McCarthyism, nor Britain, with
its tenacious class system, ever quite lived up to the shining ideals they presented to
the postwar world. Nonetheless, the image of exceptional Anglo-American liberty
held up, not only in countries that had been occupied during the war but in the
defeated nations, Germany (at least in the western half) and Japan, as well.
America’s prestige was greatly bolstered not just by the soldiers who helped
liberate Europe but also by the men and women back home who fought to make
their society more equal and their democracy more inclusive. By struggling against
the injustices in their own country, figures like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
or the Freedom Riders or indeed President Obama kept the hope of American
exceptionalism alive. As did the youth culture of the 1960s. When Vaclav Havel, the
Czech dissident playwright and later president, hailed Frank Zappa, Lou Reed and
the Rolling Stones as his political heroes, he was not being frivolous. Under
communist oppression, the pop music of America and Britain represented freedom.
Europeans born not long after World War II often professed to hate the United
States, or at least its politics and wars, but the expressions of their hostility were
almost entirely borrowed from America itself. Bob Dylan received this year’s Nobel
Prize for literature, not least because the Swedish jury of baby boomers grew up with
his words of protest.
The ideal of exceptional Anglo-Saxon liberties obviously goes back much further
than the aftermath of Hitler’s defeat, let alone Bob Dylan and the Stones. Alexis de
Tocqueville’s admiring account of American democracy in the 1830s is well known.
Much less famous are his writings on Britain in the same period. Born soon after the
French Revolution, Tocqueville was haunted by the question of why Britain, with its
mighty aristocracy, was spared such an upheaval. Why did the British people not
rebel? His answer was that the social system in Britain was just open enough to
allow a person to hope that with hard work, ingenuity and luck, he could rise in
society. The British version of the American dream: “The Great Gatsby” may be the
great American novel, but Gatsby could have existed in Britain too.
In practice, there were probably not all that many rags-to-riches stories in 19th-century
Britain. But the fact that Benjamin Disraeli, the son of Sephardic Jews, could
become prime minister, and an earl, no less, provided the basis for many
generations in Europe to believe in Britain as an exceptional country. Jews from
Russia or Lithuania, or from Germany, like my own great-grandparents, flocked to
Britain as immigrants in the hope that they, too, could become English gentlemen.
Anglophilia, like the American dream, may have been based on myths, but
myths can be potent and long-lasting. The notion that sufficient effort and talent can
beat the odds has been especially important in Britain and the United States. AngloAmerican
capitalism can be harsh in many ways, but because free markets are
receptive to new talent and cheap labor, they have spawned the kind of societies,
pragmatic and relatively open, where immigrants can thrive, the very kind that
rulers of more closed, communitarian, autocratic societies tend to despise.
Wilhelm II, kaiser of Germany until 1918, when his country was defeated in the
First World War, which he had done his best to unleash, was such a figure. Half
English himself, he called England a nation of shopkeepers and described it as
“Juda-England,” a country corrupted by sinister alien elites, where money counted
more than the virtues of blood and soil. In later decades, this kind of anti-Semitic
rhetoric was more often aimed at the United States. The Nazis were convinced that
Jewish capitalists ruled America, not just in Hollywood but in Washington and,
naturally, New York. This notion is still commonly held, though less in Europe than
in the Middle East and some parts of Asia. But talk about “citizens of nowhere,”
sinister cosmopolitan elites and conspiratorial bankers fits precisely in the same
tradition. A terrifying irony of contemporary Anglo-American populism is the
common use of phrases that were traditionally used by enemies of the English-speaking
Yet even those who don’t go along with the kaiser’s loathsome words recognize
that liberal economics, as practiced since the middle of the 19th century in Britain
and the United States, has a darker side. It does not allow for much redistribution of
wealth or protection of the most vulnerable citizens. There have been exceptions:
Roosevelt’s New Deal, for instance, or Britain’s postwar Labor government under
Clement Attlee, which created free national health care, built better public housing,
improved education and guaranteed other blessings of the welfare state. British
working-class men who risked their lives for their country during the war expected
no less. On the whole, however, Britain and the United States have, compared with
many Western countries, generally set greater store on individual economic freedom
than on the ideal of egalitarianism. And nothing creates such swift and radical social
change as unfettered free enterprise.
The Reagan-Thatcher revolution in the 1980s — deregulating financial services,
closing down coal mines and manufacturing plants and hacking away at the benefits
of the New Deal and the British welfare state — was regarded by many conservatives,
on both sides of the Atlantic, as a triumph for Anglo-American exceptionalism, a
great coup for freedom. Europeans outside Britain were more skeptical. They tended
to see Thatcherism and Reaganomics as ruthless forms of economic liberalism,
making some people vastly richer but leaving many more out in the cold.
Nonetheless, in order to compete, many governments began to emulate the same
That this happened at the end of the Cold War was no coincidence. The collapse
of Soviet communism was celebrated, rightly, as the final liberation of Europe.
Countries, left behind on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain after World War II, were
free at last. The first President Bush spoke about the “new world order,” led by the
only superpower left standing. The Reagan-Thatcher revolution appeared to have
But the end of communism in the West also had other, less desirable
consequences. The horrors of the Soviet empire tainted other forms of leftism,
including social democratic ideals, which in fact had been anti-communist. Even as
the “end of history” was declared and the Anglo-American liberal democratic model
was expected to be unrivaled forever, many began to believe that all forms of
collectivist idealism led straight to the gulag. Thatcher once declared that there was
no such thing as society, just individuals and families. People had to be forced to
take care of themselves.
Radical economic liberalism did more to destroy traditional communities than
any social-democratic governments ever did. Thatcher’s most implacable enemies
were the miners and industrial workers. The neo-liberal rhetoric was all about
prosperity “trickling down” from above. But it never quite worked out that way.
Those workers and their children, now languishing in impoverished rust-belt cities,
received another blow in the banking crisis of 2008. Major postwar institutions, like
the I.M.F., which the United States set up in 1945 to secure a more stable world, no
longer functioned properly. The I.M.F. did not even see the crisis coming. Large
numbers of people, who never recovered from the crash, decided to rebel and voted
for Brexit — and for Trump.
Neither Brexit nor Trump are likely to bring great benefits to these voters.
But at least for a while, they can dream of taking their countries back to an
imaginary, purer, more wholesome past. This reaction is not only sweeping across
the United States and Britain. The same thing is happening in other countries,
including some with long liberal democratic traditions, like the Netherlands. Twenty
years ago, Amsterdam was seen as the capital of everything wild and progressive, the
kind of place where cops openly smoke pot (another myth, but a telling one). The
Dutch thought of themselves as the world champions of racial and religious
tolerance. Of all European countries, the Netherlands was the most firmly embedded
in the Anglosphere. Now the most popular political party, according to the latest
polls, is led practically as a oneman operation by Geert Wilders, an anti-Muslim,
anti-immigrant, anti-European Union firebrand who hailed Trump’s victory as the
coming of a “patriotic spring.”
In France, Marine Le Pen, who shares Wilders’s enthusiasm for Trump, might
be the next president. Poland and Hungary are already ruled by populist autocrats
who reject the kind of liberalism that Eastern European dissidents once struggled so
hard to achieve. Norbert Hofer, a man of the far right, could become the next
president of Austria.
Does this mean that Britain and the United States are no longer exceptional?
Perhaps. But I think it is also true to say that the very idea of AngloAmerican
exceptionalism has made populism in those countries more potent. The self-flattering
notion that the Western victors in World War II are special, braver and
freer than any other people, that the United States is the greatest nation in the
history of man, that Great Britain — the country that stood alone against Hitler — is
superior to any European let alone non-European country has not only led to some
ill-conceived wars but also helped to paper over the inequalities built into Anglo-American
capitalism. The notion of natural superiority, of the sheer luck of being
born an American or a Briton, gave a sense of entitlement to people who, in terms of
education or prosperity, were stuck in the lower ranks of society.
This worked quite well until the last decades of the last century. Not only were
the fortunes of working or lower-middle-class people in Britain beginning to
dwindle compared with those of the rich, who were steadily getting richer, but it
gradually became clear even to the most insular Britons that they were doing much
worse than the Germans, the Scandinavians and the Dutch, worse even than the
French, Britain’s oldest rivals. One way of venting their rage was to fight in soccer
stadiums, taunting German fans by mimicking British bombers and bellowing
slogans about winning the war.
The so-called football hooligans remained an embarrassing minority, but there
were other ways to express the same feelings. The European Union, for which most
British people had never felt a great love, actually made many parts of Britain more
prosperous. The blight of the old industrial cities and mining towns was not a result
of European Union policies. But it was easy for “Euroskeptics” to deflect popular
attention from domestic problems by blaming foreigners who were supposedly
running the show in Brussels. Europhobes liked to claim that “this was not why we
fought the war.” The specter of not just Hitler but also Napoleon was sometimes
evoked. Spitfires and talk of Britain’s finest hour made a rhetorical comeback in the
UKIP campaign to leave Europe. Some pro-Brexit politicians even praised the
greatness of the British Empire. “Taking back control” by leaving the European
Union is not going to make most people in Britain more prosperous. The contrary is
more likely to be true. But it takes the sting out of relative failure. It feeds the desire
to feel exceptional, entitled, in short, to be great again.
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 tragifarce. 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.
A month before Trump’s election and three months after the Brexit vote, I
visited the great military historian Sir Michael Howard at his home in rural England.
As a young man, Howard fought the Germans as an officer in the British Army. He
landed in Italy in 1943 and took part in the decisive battle of Salerno, for which he
was awarded the Military Cross. John Wayne and Kenneth More were a fantasy. Sir
Michael was the real thing. He is 95 years old.
After lunch at a local pub, just a few miles from where my grandparents used to
live, we talked about Brexit, the war, American politics, Europe and our families. The
setting could not have been more English, with the pale autumn sun setting over the
rolling hills of Berkshire. Like my great-grandparents, Sir Michael’s maternal
grandparents were German Jews who moved to England, where they did very well.
Like mine, his family of immigrants became utterly British. In addition to being
Regius professor of history at Oxford University, Howard taught at Yale. He knows
America well and has no illusions about the “special relationship,” which he believes
was invented by Churchill and was always much overblown.
Sitting in his drawing room, with books piled up around us, many of them about
World War II, I wanted to hear his thoughts on Brexit. He replied in a tone of
resigned melancholy more than outrage. Brexit, he said, “is accelerating the
disintegration of the Western world.” Contemplating that world, so carefully
constructed after the war he fought in, he said: “Perhaps it was just a bubble in an
ocean.” I asked him about the special Anglo-American relationship. “Ah, ‘the special
relationship,’ ” he said. “It was a necessary myth, a bit like Christianity. But now
where do we go?”
Where indeed? The last hope of the West might be Germany, the country that
Michael Howard fought against and that I hated as a child. Angela Merkel’s message
to Trump on the day after his victory was a perfect expression of Western values that
are still worth defending. She would welcome a close cooperation with the United
States, she said, but only on the basis of “democracy, freedom and respect for the law
and the dignity of man, independent of origin, skin color, religion, gender, sexual
orientation or political views.” Merkel spoke as the true heiress of the Atlantic
Germany, too, once thought it was the exceptional nation. This ended in a
worldwide catastrophe. The Germans learned their lesson. They no longer wanted to
be exceptional in any way, which is why they were so keen to be embedded in a
unified Europe. The last thing Germans wanted was to lead other countries,
especially in any military sense. This is the way Germany’s neighbors wished it as
well. Pax Americana seemed vastly preferable to a revival of German exceptionalism.
I still think so. But looking once more at that photograph of the Donald and Farage,
baring their teeth in glee, thumbs held high, with the gold from the elevator door
glinting in their hair, I wonder whether Germany might not be compelled to
question a lesson it learned a little too well.
Ian Buruma is a professor at Bard College.