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Does the Trump Victory Take Us Back to 1985? (Brexit and EU Identity III)

Looking back on it from 2026, Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 US Presidential election may just be seen as the thing that catalysed a deeper sense of EU identity. You read that right.

I write this on the morning after the vote that ushered him to the White House, with a dark sense of foreboding. The next US President is a racist, misogynist narcissist with authoritarian impulses and absolutely no track record in politics. Both domestically and internationally, the ‘shining city on the hill’ is looking like someone just dumped loads of manure all over it.

Of course, it cannot yet be clear just how many of his campaign promises Trump will actually seek to deliver upon: will NAFTA be buried? Will NATO survive? Will the US sink into a pit of reactionary policies? Neither can it yet be clear how well he will be able to perform in office, even with Republican control of the legislature locked-in. His party has at least three factions, of which his own supporters are just one; the more liberal Republicans who share much of the Democrat horror at his triumph are another, and a third is the Tea Party. The latter share many Trump social values, if such they can be called, but are opposed to his populist, big spending economic agenda. Will they oppose him? If they do, will they win?
But it is unimaginable that a man elected on such a populist and reactionary agenda should not seek to put at least some of it into practice, and succeed. And, unlike the Dubya era (2001-9), the international community has recent memory of what happens when America goes rogue.

What has this got to do with Brexit? There are links both superficial and profound. In the first category can be assigned the connections claimed by Trump and Farage themselves, cashing in on a wave of anti-elitism from the disadvantaged of neoliberalism and its particular variant of globalisation. This is currently being played up by the UK media, many in the Republican Party (including Trump himself), but also by such as Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament.

The more profound links are cultural and socio-political. Culturally, both Brexit and the elevation of Donald Trump show the power of the idea that the US and UK’s relative decline in the global economy are somehow against the natural order, which can be restored if we only ‘set ourselves free’. Socio-politically, they show the power of both an economic system and a right-wing media to harness the discontent of the disadvantaged in ways that are much more effective than anaemic centre-left (ish) parties like the UK Labour Party or Democrats in the US. There can be no doubt that both the Brexiteers and Trump harvested the crops sown and cultivated by such as Rupert Murdoch, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

It is these connections that have interesting implications for EU identity. During the US Presidency of George W. Bush, differences between the US and the EU were felt and discussed more openly than ever. Much of the rhetoric was overblown, especially regarding the worthiness and progressive intent of the EU, but there were important and real differences of policy and values, which led many into a greater sense of shared EU-ropean identity and interests than before. And in those days, the UK was a full member state, regularly preventing deeper pan-EU collaboration in defence, because it followed US foreign policy decisions like a supervillain’s feeble-minded sidekick.

As the UK heads out of the EU – by 2019 on current schedules – its ability to constrain the evolution of shared EUropean interests and identity will be nugatory. If Trump follows up on his intentions to undermine or even scrap NATO, it is hard to see Poland and the Baltic states remaining Atlanticist, especially in the face of continuous Russian antagonism. Demands for closer EU cooperation in defence are likely to rise in such a scenario, and although they may not lead to a common EU army, that prospect would be more likely than at any time since the French vetoed the European Defence Community in 1954.
There are already signs that EU leaders are bemused and privately terrified about the impact of a Trump presidency on the global economy, not to mention global security:  they’re doubtless envisaging Dubya on steroids. Turkey is regressing into authoritarianism on the EU border; Russia is increasingly assertive. The context of the game of thrones is changing, in fundamental ways.

Of course, this only adds to in-trays already full thanks to the ongoing euro-crisis, the challenges of managing migration, and the EU’s own Trump mini-mes in Hungary and elsewhere. The EU has hardly been a model of how to deal with major challenges effectively in recent years, and if Marine Le Pen becomes President of France next year then the battle for the EU’s survival may be joined. So it would be a gross mistake to assume that the mere presence of an opportunity such as the election of Donald Trump equates to the EU’s ability to seize it: ‘the hour of Europe’ has limped away many times already.

But Brexit removes a major barrier to deepening integration, and a Trump presidency of the US may supply both the concrete need for greater EU defence cooperation and the sense of transatlantic ‘otherness’ that could facilitate elite decisions in that direction. Is it possible that we are back in 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev’s election to the leadership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union catalysed a series of events that re-shaped the whole world? A man with a radically different agenda has just become leader-in-waiting of the world’s remaining superpower, and such moments are pregnant with possibility.

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