Last weekend I flew to Texas on a quick reporting trip. As we were shuffling off the plane, it struck me how fortunate the United States is to be so big yet still a single country.
Almost a thousand miles from Chicago to Dallas. Yet no customs to go through, no passport control, no immigration lines. No reason to pause from plane door to cab stand.
That was once very different in Europe. Also about a thousand miles from London to Berlin, with the Netherlands, France and Belgium jammed between. Differing currencies, contradictory rules and burdensome duties. Time-wasting security and regulations.
A lot of friction going from A to B, both people and products. Wouldn’t it be better, economically, to mimic the United States? To have one unified financial system? A European Union?
So they built one. Wasn’t easy and took years. Few liked the idea of being dictated to from Brussels about how to make cheese. Currencies that went back centuries — the franc, the lira, the mark — were abandoned for one currency, the euro. That stung.
It worked, but time passes, and things can go so well that you forget what got you there — as we saw with vaccines. And the European Union had what some considered downsides. Brits worried that Greeks or, worse, Turks, would start showing up as their neighbors in Devonshire. A movement grew to drop out of the EU, fanned by nationalists building their castles of power upon the sand of hatred.
On June 23, 2016, Britain voted, and 51.89% chose to leave the EU, 48.11% voted to stay — it’s astoundingly consistent how evenly divided the world is right now between those who want to proceed into the future and those who want to try to claw their way back into the past.
Brexit, as the departure was called, shocked me. Not that I cared particularly about the integrity of European economic systems. But because I knew that the world is a very interconnected place, and if the Brits are willing to kneecap their own economy out of local pride and racial fear, then we could, too. We had just the right toxic racist, Donald Trump, running for president, hot to do it. When Brexit was approved, I knew in my gut that Trump was going to win. Which he did, part of a rising tide of global nationalism.
Brexit’s immediate effect was to slash the United Kingdom’s GDP by 4%. The cost of the Trumpian revolution has yet to be tallied: start with a radicalized Republican Party lost in self-excusing hallucination, growing violence and opposition to any democratic norm that might check their power: elections, the media, factuality. No way of knowing what the price will ultimately be, but a 4% blow to the economy looks like a bargain.
That’s the bad news. The good news is things change, and the same winds that warned of our own impending disaster can also bring the whiff of hope. On Sunday, in Brazil, president Jair Bolsonaro, the “Trump of the Tropics,” lost the election to progressive former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. 50.9% to 49.1% — again, that near-even split.
True, Bolsonaro, who parroted Trump that any election he loses is by definition fraudulent, hasn’t conceded and probably won’t. His supporters are calling for a coup, mirroring the Jan. 6 insurrection. Expect trouble.
But Bolsonaro is on his way out, whether he goes graciously or clinging to the doorframe and howling like Trump did. You can only fool people so long. Realization dawns.
“What have we done?” one British businessman told the Guardian, explaining how he voted for Brexit hoping for a more dynamic nation, only to see trade go “completely bonkers.”
“Completely bonkers” is now on deck in America. The midterms are next week. Nate Silver is predicting an 82% chance of a Republican return to power in the House and a 50-50 chance of their retaking the Senate — with all the craziness (expect Biden to be impeached for faking the moon landing) that will ensue.
But the tide that comes in also goes out, eventually. The really bad part hasn’t yet come in the United States — the way the Republicans loll in fantasy, demonize their enemies and normalize violence, they are sowing seeds that will yield strange fruit. But come it will and then, if resisted with all our might, eventually go. Something to look forward to.