In the Shadow of the Balloon

“I think they agree with me on immigration… You see what’s going on throughout the world with immigration… I think that’s why Brexit happened.

The most noticeable thing about Trump’s visit will be the protests. For many of the attendees, the symbolism of an orange man-baby, hoisted on hot air above Whitehall, provides an apt visual metaphor for a post-Brexit’s Britain’s bargain. The cartoonish image of ‘Trump the petulant’ might be more photogenic for a sunny, parade-like protest as opposed to ‘Trump the sexual assaulter’, ‘the racist,’ ‘the thief’ or more likely, ‘the baby-jailer.’

Indeed, on the streets below the balloon, disgust at the administration’s use of separation of children to ‘deter’ border crossings will likely  be the main source of current anger.

Outrage at both the treatment of people crossing the southern US border, and the increasingly political use of Immigration and Customs and Enforcement (ICE) for harassment, fear and ultimately, mass deportation, has offended those of a cosmopolitan outlook. Arrests made by the agency are up 42% in the first 9 months of the Trump administration.

But the approach has support. A recent IPSOS MORI poll indicates (in line with previous polling this year) that immigration has become the number one issue for US voters in 2018 coming into the mid-terms, edging out the economy and healthcare.

And this is an area that ties contemporary Britain to Trump’s America. We still reel from the shock of the Windrush scandal, arising from our own ‘hostile environment.’ One can read reports regarding its implementation through all sorts of measures, from denying access to drivers licences to intervening to prevent ‘sham-marriages’, using teams of local Immigration Control and Enforcement (ICE) officers. The manner with which British citizens were harassed and even stripped of citizenship was, as London Mayor Sadiq Khan observed ‘a shock… but not an accident.’

Yet, research by YouGov in April indicated that despite the backlash about the Windrush scandal in particular, the public is overwhelmingly in favour of hostile environment policies. We are revolted by the Trump administration’s actions, but we can also see the uncomfortable hints of parallel in recent British policy. And the hostile environment appears to have gathered admirers.  A sub-division of the Department for Homeland Security recently assembled a taskforce for investigating naturalised US citizens for any signs of fraud that might allow for the stripping of citizenship. Who says the UK has no sway in Washington anymore?

Many Europeans will likely feel a strong affinity with the thousands of anti-Trump demonstrators on the streets of London this Friday. There was a strong showing on the streets of Brussels before Trump’s arrival at the NATO conference earlier this week.

Yet Europe does not sit apart from the nativist political genus of Trump and Brexit. Immigration is the top concern for populations across Europe. Hard right nationalism is on the rise across the continent and is making significant electoral gains in key EU states. Such groups have capitalised on Europe’s refugee crisis to stoke fear and to impart blame for  languishing economies and a range of social ills.

But the response of the EU has not been to argue in defence of principles of open borders or humane refugee policies, but to attempt to treat the issue as a political security problem. Despite the sharply declining numbers of people attempting to make the dangerous crossing to Europe through Southern or Eastern borders, the budgets of border protection agencies like Frontex have skyrocketed, reflecting attempts to build a ‘Fortress Europe’ despite the lack of evidence that such efforts have the intended effect. Regardless, a clear message is to be sent; ‘don’t come here.’

Recently leaked documents outline plans for offshoring migrant processing facilities to North Africa, even to Libya which is a far from safe place for refugees. Such plans are reminiscent of the Obama’s administrations attempts to similarly ‘offshore’ migrant processing to the Southern Border of Mexico. That plan failed to have the desired ‘deterrent’ effect, and if anything provided useful narratives to the Trump administration about expensive foreign failures necessitiating harsher domestic methods.

And so, whether through hostility, building walls or fortresses, the US, the UK and the EU are all tied together in a context of rising nationalism and xenophobia.

Many take comfort in the idea, that the fingerprints of the Kremlin can be found on Trump, Brexit or the rise of the European far right. But whatever role such narratives have in explaining this period of history, it would be naïve to think that a shirtless Vladimir Putin rode into the western world on horseback and whisked away the votes of inexplicably flustered, white, regional voters- breaking up otherwise happy national homesteads.

Instead, the context of Brexit and Trump are situated in a long term collapse of public faith in a range of institutions, in economic and political governance, and indeed on the reporting of that governance. The reaction has been (ironically for the label) a right wing re-assertion of identity politics. Masculine nationalism, with a deep sense of nostalgia for a fantasy world of former glory.

Migrants, refugees, those seeking asylum, those with the least power, have always been the perfect foil for such large scale social anxieties. To resist ‘Trump,’ means to resist the dehumanisation and subjugation of those seeking security in Western society. The balloon floats above us all.