Rule Britannia, Britannia rules the waves — again.
At least that is what thousands of citizens of the United Kingdom, intoxicated on a steady diet of cheap populism and xenophobia, chose to believe as they voted to exit the European Union last week.
Many are quick to dismiss this as a pyrrhic victory, one pinned on the false promise of the resuscitation of the ghost of glories past.
But, this is not merely absurd nostalgia for an empire in which the sun never sets; this is the triumph of demagoguery à la Donald Trump.
It is the result of a nationalist theater that many Latin Americans who live or have lived in England, this writer included, recognize, and fear is the bitter foretelling of what may soon be the fate of the United States.
Because to us, Brexit feels like England’s version of Trumpism. Just substitute Syrian immigrants for the vitriol launched against Mexicans, and immigrants as a whole, by the presumptive Republican presidential candidate, and you get the picture.
To ring in the vote, the British tabloid newspaper The Daily Star published on its front page a headline that read - “Now Let’s Make Britain Great Again.” Trump jumped in to claim the results of the vote as his own. He tweeted:
“Many people are equating Brexit, and what is going on in Great Britain, with what is happening in the U.S. People want to take their country back.”
I lived in England for 14 years. I was educated there, and, even though it is not my own (I was born in Puerto Rico), I love the country. It gave me an amazing education, friends for life, a career as an international journalist. But I always knew there was an ugly side to it. The hatred towards anything perceived as foreign was always bubbling under the polite surface, like a cauldron.
“It seems to me that, as is the case of almost all referendums, emotions always win over reason, and that is what surprised me, considering that the British in general have a tendency to choose reason over emotion, in spite of the propaganda,” said Federico Rodriguez, a Puerto Rican human rights expert and former journalist, who has worked in London for more than a decade.
“But, this discontent has been on the horizon for a long time," he said. "I remember during my first time in London (working as a journalist), I already could feel the disdain towards Europe. I would hear the British talk about Europe as if it was a continent apart.”
At times it was disguised behind the typical British humor, he explained. "But on various occasions, especially on the overnight shifts when there were no witnesses, I could hear derogatory comments made by the British towards other Europeans, and of course, non-Europeans – ‘We are not the same and they will never be the same,’ they would say.”
Jose Rodriguez, an international artist whose family lives in England, said that "as a Latino, all Brexit means that the non-grandfathered residents in the European Union will be subject to the same immigration laws as the rest of the world.”
“What worries me more is the rising tide of nationalism in Britain, which is just as bad in America at the moment, but which in Europe has had the most horrific history. Economic protectionism and xenophobia go hand in hand,” he said.
Or as Marivi Llosa, a Spanish journalist who has lived and worked in England for almost 20 years described Brexit: “Fatal.”
My daughter Cristina and I were to learn this the hard way. When she was around 13 years old, Cristina came home crying one afternoon after school. She had been chased by a group of British boys as she walked home, calling her “a Pakistani, an Iraqi and a Jew.” Go back home, they said. To me, the writing was on the wall, even then.
We left London and came to live in the United States. Years later, we face Trump’s campaign, driven by the same nonsensical, racist rhetoric and the preposterous notion that a wall can and will keep out – in both a literal and figurative sense – those un-American foreigners — especially Hispanics.
In Shakespeare's Richard II, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, concluded: “That England, that was wont to conquer others/Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.”
Let us not fool ourselves. The threat that America will do the same is very real.