Steinberg: British EU exit would warn of coming Trump disaster

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Great Britain is voting Thursday on whether to leave the European Union. | Getty Images

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Americans generally believe in “exceptionalism.” We are not just another country on a planet chocked with other countries. Instead we are the best country, maybe even the only country. A mythical city on a hill. The storms that rock lesser places mean nothing here. That others do things differently and perhaps better doesn’t even merit a shrug.

That most of the civilized world has national health care or greater restrictions on guns is meaningless. It’s like suggesting that soccer has interest as a professional sport.

Like much self-flattery, it just isn’t true. We are part of the world, and the same shifts that occur elsewhere are at work here, too, whether we know it or not. I would bet that if I asked Chicagoans what enormous international event happens Thursday, June 23, very few would say, “Duh, Neil. Great Britain votes whether to Brexit, short for ‘British Exit,’ aka, whether to leave the European Union.”

The European Union began after World War II as an attempt for nations to stop slaughtering each other by binding together, politically and economically, to give Europe some of the advantages we in the United States enjoy. A truck can travel from California to Maine without being stopped at one border crossing or dealing with currency that isn’t dollars. That’s good for business. Meanwhile Europe had francs and marks and kroner, with each country guarding its borders and sovereignty. The idea was to unite, adopt a common currency — the Euro — and thrive. Twenty-eight nations belong, from powerhouses like Germany and France to tiny Luxembourg and Malta; 19 use the Euro.

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It worked. But the same xenophobia, isolationism and populist rage that grips America, giving us the candidacy of Donald Trump, rattles the rest of the world too. Recent polls show Britain leaning toward Brexit, primarily out of fear of immigrants surging across open borders, desire for protectionism, resentment at regulation, and a general desire to “Make Britain Great Again.”

As with a GOP presidential nominee named Donald Trump, this was never supposed to happen. Brexit was a campaign ploy by Prime Minister David Cameron to neutralize opponents. If re-elected in 2015, he would put the question to a vote. “It is time for the British people to have their say,” he quipped, sounding very much like Mitch McConnell brushing aside Barack Obama’s choice of a Supreme Court justice.

Those here still clinging to the hope that President Trump is a political impossibility ought to pay very close attention to what happens in Britain, not just because Brexit would roil our economy too. But because it could be a glimpse at our future, considering how, in the words of The Economist, the Brexit campaign has been “divisive, misleading, unburdened by facts and prone to personality politics and gimmicks.”

Sound familiar?

Just as a Trump election would be certain disaster, so all economists agree that leaving the European Union would bring ruin to Great Britain, sparking deep recession both in the UK and globally, and perhaps a collapse of the pound. But the same contempt for intelligence going on here is manifest there, or as one pro-Brexit government official observed, “I think people in this country have had enough of experts.”

Sorry to give you one more thing to worry about, but this matters. Because not only is our staunch ally Great Britain poised to dive off a cliff in order to feel the breeze, but it’s a strong hint we’re next. The same gale of madness buffeting them is blowing strong here.

Housekeeping note:

In Friday’s column, I referred to Chicago Corporation Counsel spokesman Bill McCaffrey as a “black hole of silence” without calling him and ascertaining that he would not phone me back, as he insists he would. If he indeed would have returned my call, then I did him wrong, and I’m sorry for that. To be honest, I’m sorry I included him in the story at all.

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