Thoughts on Brexit, Trump, Nationalism and Research Responses

On the 22nd June 2016, I was sat in an uncomfortable chair in the Durham Miners’ Association Halls, calling residents of Sunderland and Darlington as part of the final push for the UK Remain campaign. Sat in a vestige of the ‘old left’ – on the walls around me were pictures of Lenin, Keir Hardie and Stalin amongst others – I spoke to a range of voters, who in my calls split pretty much 50/50 between remain and leave. Two calls stand out in my memory. One was with a young woman in Darlington. She was a hairdresser living with her mum and from her voice I’d be surprised if she was over 25. She knew very little about the next day’s referendum, and wasn’t sure if she would vote. When pressed, she asked me: “wait, is leave the one that if we vote for it will stop immigration”? I’m not sure my attempts at explanation helped, and if pushed I’d suspect that she did not go out and vote the next day. The other call which I remember was a working mother living in Sunderland. We chatted in a friendly way – she agreed with my arguments about the economy, was not too concerned about the impact of immigration, and felt it was important that rights which are supported by the EU were protected for her children’s’ futures. But at the end of the conversation, she confided that she would still be voting leave: she felt uncomfortable with the EU, had a sense that a vote to leave would be beneficial, though admitted that she could not rationalise her beliefs. I wished her all the best – we’d had a nice chat.

I’ve thought a lot about these conversations in light of Brexit vote, the US Presidential campaign and now the election of Donald Trump. It’s not that these women’s views were inherently representative of all the leave voters that I spoke with, or whose views I’ve read. Most were more informed than the hairdresser; and many were less considerate of the remain case, or more forthright in their reasons for wanting to leave, than the working mother. But these two women both seem to me to represent that the Brexit/Trump votes can and must be understood in terms of alienation, a failure by various groups to connect to people meaningfully, and the emotional resonances of messages about nationalism, identity and security, rather than in simplistic terms of racism, xenophobia, sexism or a strong support for any ideological position.

Several things have moved me to write this today. It is in part a way of helping me process my thoughts; in part of way of helping me consider how a potential future research project which I am in the early stages of planning can help explore questions of affect, emotion, belonging and nationalism; and in part because of the repeated cries of despair, frustration and anger that I see around my social media echo chamber. I don’t particularly expect anyone to read it! But I hope that it’s useful for me, in progressing with my current work and aligning my own political thoughts.

The problem of alienation is important, I think. Many of the Brexit/Trump voters have voted for messages which connect with their desires, emotions and beliefs, and rejected those which don’t.  Alienation describes this gap, this lack of connection, and it is economic, cultural, political and geographical. As culture, politics and economics have moved to a global scale, power has been concentrated in places where there is quick and easy access to that global: in the UK that’s in London, and to a lesser extent the South-East region and major cities. The USA is bigger and the geography more complicated, but there are similar processes happening.[1] But I think that, while people don’t necessarily voice it – that Sunderland working mother expressed a feeling, not an idea – they’re sensing (rightly) a connection between, on the one hand, reduced facilities, support and services in their own communities, and on the other a concentration of wealth, people and investments in global cities. In peripheral cities, small towns and also deprived neighbourhoods of major centres, there are links between closed Post Offices, automated checkouts, stagnating pay, loss of community centres, reduced access to social care, etc. All of these chip away, bit by bit, at people’s sense of safety, at their quality of interactions with people on a daily basis, at their pride in where they live, and they produce the alienation that leads to people to want change, any change, that seems to come from outside of political and economic elites.

As for the Left: some of its responses have been fantastic. Unions, food banks, activists, community centres, co-ops: they have small victories, generating jobs, providing support, connecting people. But these victories take work, energy and time. And for every victory, there’s a defeat. These small scale, local actions are great and necessary, but they’re being let down by the institutional left. Elected officials seem compromised: in Durham, Labour Party councillors are pushing through cuts to pay for teaching assistants, in face of opposition from activists in their own party, on the spurious grounds of fictitious potential equal pay claims from other council workers. Meanwhile, the ‘old left’ remains stuck in rooms with pictures of Soviet Union dictators on the wall, clinging on to patriarchal visions of a working-class that disappeared decades ago. Other parts of the liberal, metropolitan left either cosy up to Wall Street and the City, or misdiagnose nationalist or protectionist sentiment as racism or ignorance. Again, there is much good work coming from the Left, but it seems at the moment that small scale labour-intensive efforts of activists are being undermined by the mainstream, institutional left.

And while the Brexit/Trump votes reveal the extent of these problems among white British/American working-class, I don’t think that these sentiments are unique to these groups. The alienation expressed in the votes that we’ve seen is the same that we saw the expressed by the multi-ethnic youths in the England riots of 2011; by the largely black populations involved in the Ferguson unrest of 2014 and 2015; and by the more middle-class responses of Occupy, Indignados, and other anti-austerity movements that have been ongoing since 2011. The only difference, I think, is who each group blames, and the capacity that they have for voicing their frustrations.

In some ways, this is probably quite a negative post – I don’t offer any answers or responses, beyond a plea perhaps to greater efforts at understanding. But I also see it as positive. People haven’t voted out of an inherent evil, or out of inherent support for ideologies. If we can understand the attractions of these ideologies, I think we can find ways of responding. For my own part as an academic researcher and occasional part-time activist, I think that this means doubling down on work which engages with questions of community, nationalism and emotion. It could be productive to consider how the emotional release, collective organisation and affects or emotions of belonging that diverse groups experienced through the joy of watching the Olympics, the protection and security felt from voting for the SNP, the fantasy of nationality produced at events such as Kynren,[2] the collective action of Occupy and the violence of the 2011 riots all seem to work to relieve, at least temporarily, people’s alienations and frustrations. I’m convinced that the majority of leave and Trump voters are not the ‘Deplorables’ that Clinton spoke of. Many more of them are in turns frustrated, alienated, ignored and unrepresented. While I don’t imagine magically undoing the forces that have led to this, I do think that with continued work at understanding we can contribute to combating them.

[1] That’s not to say there are no pockets of isolation in London (there are) and that there are no islands of metropolitan elites in smaller towns or peripheral regions (again, there are).

[2] An outdoor production launched in 2016 here in the north-east, re-telling and celebrating a mythologised version of English history: see

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