JOANNA ELM, Author, Journalist, Attorney

Trump, Brexit & the Politics of Hate



Candidate Donald Trump speaks at press conferenceDonald Trump applauded the vote for Brexit when he landed in Scotland the day after the UK voted to leave the European Union.  By now, he knows, or should know, just how ugly things got for minorities in the UK after the vote. And how hate crimes surged 42%.

Trump should take heed.

Quickly. Fast. Immediately.

Let us set aside the fact that the day after the UK voted for Brexit,  Trump praised the Scots for taking their country back – even though the majority of Scottish voters had actually voted to stay in the EU.

Let us set aside the fact that, as he saw it, the best part of the Brexit vote was the plummeting value of the British pound because it meant his Scottish golf resort would benefit.

Let us focus instead on the uglier aftermath of a vote that Donald Trump applauded because it was a vote for controlling the borders prompted, in large part, by anti-immigrant sentiment.

Ugly Aftermath

In that aftermath, some Brexit voters decided that their victory meant that immigrants who had entered the UK to live and work there legally while the UK was part of the EU would now have to leave Britain immediately. This,  even though no such suggestion had actually been proposed, and was indeed quashed by British Prime Minister Theresa May just yesterday.

Vote Leave Campaign PosterThe Brexit vote unleashed a xenophobic reaction that was disgusting, undignified — and definitely not becoming of that small group of my former fellow countrymen who participated. It was unleashed against immigrants who, at the time of the vote, were legally working for British employers, had legally bought homes, were legally sending their children to English schools, or who had legally invested their hard-earned money in businesses in Britain

A halal butcher’s shop was firebombed, and an employee in it badly burned.   A dark-complexioned young male was taunted on a bus and told to “get back to Africa.” (He was actually a Mexican-American from Brownsville, Texas). Muslims were verbally abused in the streets. A British police spokesman told Reuters news agency that the numbers of hate attacks against immigrants surged by 42% immediately after the Brexit vote.

Photos in the press showed Brits carrying “Start Repatriation” banners, and people wearing t-shirts with the slogan: “We Won, Send Them Back.” But, as the British press, (the BBC, the Daily Mail, the Guardian amongst others) noted the anti-immigrant backlash was directed in the first instance against Poles.

Hate Crimes Surge

“Brexit prompts Racist Incidents against Polish People” was the HuffPo UK headline. Incidents were detailed where Poles , particularly in Cambridgeshire, where agricultural jobs attract Eastern Europeans in the thousands, were the targets of angry outbursts. Laminated cards were pushed through their letter boxes saying “No more Polish vermin” and “Go home Polish scum” and Polish children were bullied in schoolyards.

The Polish Cultural and Social Centre in London (of which, in the interest of full disclosure, my grade school classmate is the chairman) was daubed with similar slogans across its façade. In an interview with PBS Newshour, she said it was the first time anything like that had happened since the Centre opened in 1974.

Newspapers quoted Polish workers, waitresses, taxi drivers, even Polish patrons in restaurants being mocked and jeered and told: “you’re going to have to go home” and “pack your bags, you’ll be deported soon.”

Go Home, Poles

Here, in the US, the Washington Post wrote: there’s “no shortage of British racism towards familiar scapegoats such as Muslims and nonwhite immigrants [but] two of the most noticeable post-Brexit events focussed instead on immigrants from a predominantly white and Christian European country: Poland.”

Well, that definitely got my attention.

Let me explain: I am not entirely unfamiliar with the concept of anti-immigrant sentiment. Nor are other Poles in London who, like myself, were born in the UK to Polish parents after the end of the Second World War; to parents who were uprooted from their homes in Warsaw and Krakow, and other Polish cities and towns by the invasion of Nazi Germany on September 1, 1939, and who, eventually found themselves in England in 1945.

Only to be warned by then British Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin that they were not welcome to stay.

Bevin stood on the floor of the Houses of Parliament in March 1946, and said: “I have never disguised our firm conviction that, in our view, these men [of the Polish Armed Forces under British Command] ought to go back in order to play their part in the reconstruction of their stricken country.”

In case, anyone reading this today cannot decipher classic British understatement, that was a definite: Bugger Off, you Poles. Go back to where you came from.

This, mind you, after Poles who like my father served in a Polish regiment that was decimated in the first days of the war; and who after escaping Poland made his way across Hungary and Romania, to Portugal from where he took a ship to England to join the British Army and take part in the D-Day invasions.

Thousands of Poles made similar journeys including Polish airmen who joined RAF squadrons and were recognized as flying in the most successful air raids to destroy German munitions factories and German targets, and who distinguished themselves in the Battle of Britain.

This, also mind you, after Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin met at Yalta, in February 1945, and agreed that Poland would become a satellite state of communist Russia – a country under the thumb of Josef Stalin, one of the most brutal, sadistic, murderous dictators that the world would ever see.


Mercifully, the anti-Polish sentiment of the petty-minded Bevin and his followers did not catch on. At all.

Winston Churchill, anyway, was not going to allow such a forced mass deportation.  So, ultimately, Bevin’s words were forgotten, and the UK absorbed our Polish parents and then us, born as newly-minted citizens of Great Britain, and invited us to share in, and benefit from their exceptional system of education and their excellent (back then) national health system.

And, the Brits never made us feel lesser or smaller human beings for it. On the contrary, they often made allowances for children like myself who arrived in their schools speaking only Polish because our parents, if they spoke English at all, spoke the language using a strange “throw-me-down–the-stairs–my-hat” syntax.

My relatives in Poland benefited too. In the excrutiatingly hard times after the war, they survived because of care packages from my parents : coffee, tea, cocoa, and old parachutes/army surplus so my aunt had material to sew blouses and dresses which she then sold to provide for her family.

For Poles in Poland living under communist rule, things never got that much better economically. Fast forward about four decades when Lech Walesa and Solidarity started the rumblings that turned into a revolution that eventually brought down the Berlin Wall.

Then fast forward another decade or so to 2004 when Poland was allowed to join the European Union, and thus became a country whose citizens could travel and work freely across the borders of Europe. Small wonder that thousands of Poles then moved to Sweden, Ireland and the UK?.

…And Now

At the time of the Brexit vote , there were an estimated 850,000 Poles in the UK, with 800,000 having arrived in the UK after 2004. They were the largest foreign group in the country, and apparently the objects of some resentment in certain parts of the country. Unspoken for the most part –until the Brexit vote gave the worst elements of the British classes the go-ahead to openly revile Poles and other lawful immigrants who had been living and working alongside them.

London Mayor Boris Johnson At The Reopening Of Gants Hill RoundaPoliticians who never discussed or explained what a Leave vote would actually mean for the thousands of immigrants in the country legitimately now attempt to show shock and horror at the vileness directed against those immigrants. Boris Johnson, former mayor of London, and one of the lead Brexit campaigners, said : “There has been a lot of confusion over … the status of people living in this country. It is absolutely clear that people from other European countries who are living here, have their rights protected.”

Apparently not , Boris. It certainly doesn’t seem clear to the xenophobes and their uglier cousins, the racists.

British sociologist Paul Bagguley told the Guardian newspaper: “ [The] Brexit campaign’s relentless rhetoric about “controlling borders” has led people who might previously have kept their intolerant views to themselves to feel legitimized.”

Legitimizing Intolerance

Which all got me thinking about what could happen here, in the US, if Donald Trump is elected President? With his own brand of “relentless rhetoric” about controlling borders and building a wall , he has already whipped up the disaffected and the aggrieved into a frenzy of hatred. And, if xenophobic, racist abuse was showered on immigrants who were in the UK lawfully, what will be the effect here, where it is estimated there are some 11 million undocumented workers?

In the New York Times, Jared Yates Sexton in an article “Is the Trump Campaign Just a Giant Safe Space for the Right?” observed that Trump rallies are “an excuse to gather in public, under the guise of civil engagement, to say the vile, hateful things that the majority of the country has long shunned.”

Whether he set out to do so or not, whether this is intentional or not, Trump is stirring up hatred towards immigrants, specifically Mexicans and Muslims (I assume women of Eastern European origin are safe because of Melania.) It is all very well for him to purport that something must be done about the thousands of “illegals” entering this country, and that he wants to stop terrorists from entering our country. But, his words do not convey any reasonable or constitutional plan for doing so.

Trump’s Bullhorn

Instead, he has promised he will round up and deport all “illegal” Mexicans who are “rapists” and “drug dealers” and “criminals”, but then he’ll let the good ones back in. “Quickly.” Does he mean he will also round up and deport their children who may have been born in this country and are therefore American citizens?

IMG_0341He has threatened, if Mexico won’t pay for a wall, that he will block remittances from immigrants sending back money to relatives in Mexico. Will he ban all remittances between Mexico and the U.S. including those of Mexican–American citizens ? Or will he send in the National Guard to close down storefronts where undocumented workers hand over cash to be sent back to their families?

He has spoken about banning all Muslims from entering the country until he figures out what’s on their minds? He agreed that forcing Muslims to register in a database might be a good idea because “it’s all about management.” He has blamed Muslim citizens for staying quiet about potential terrorists in their midst as if eyeing a move towards Stasi-style intimidation of regular citizens.

More recently, he amended his thinking on banning all Muslims from entering the U.S. and his proposal now targets any immigrant from “areas of the world where there is a proven history of terrorism against the U.S. including France and Germany. ” This, possibly because he realizes that religion is constitutionally protected, whereas country of origin is not.

Or maybe he doesn’t, but it really doesn’t matter for the purposes of this discussion. The damage probably has been done.

It Could Happen Here

Nicholas Confessore writing in the New York Times said this on July 17: “Trump’s name evokes an easily understood message of racial hostility… [I]n making the explicit assertion of white identity and grievance more widespread, Mr. Trump has galvanized the otherwise marginal world of avowed white nationalists.”

He wrote that Trump has not disavowed, but has retweeted supportive messages from racist or nationalist Twitter accounts to his nine million followers. Confessore also noted that the Daily Stormer, an online gathering place for white nationalists and anti-Semites, referred to Trump as “Our Glorious Leader and Ultimate Savior [who] has gone full wink-wink-wink to his most aggressive supporters.”

Does anyone really doubt that the election of Donald Trump would be a dog whistle (or in the words of MSNBC anchor, Rachel Maddow, a “bullhorn” ) for a wave of anti-Mexican, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant sentiment such as has not been seen in this country since the internment of Japanese citizens during the Second World War?

The thought is sickening, but it should be voiced before November: If Trump is elected President will we see groups “prowling the streets demanding passers-by prove they can speak English” as they did in the UK?  Will not his “most aggressive supporters” (perhaps in units of “well-regulated militia”) take it upon themselves to help in rounding up “illegals”? To help in blocking remittances being sent from storefronts ? To help with the surveillance of mosques so that they can deduce “what’s on the minds” of Muslims who worship there?

Sickening Thought

Bear in mind also, xenophobes and racists don’t care about naturalization certificates or birth certificates, or green cards no matter what a presidential candidate might have said about penalizing only those who entered illegally. They don’t look at businesses into which hard-earned money was invested on the understanding that one was investing in a country you could call your own.

It did not matter to the xenophobes and racists in UK that the immigrants they were abusing had arrived in the country legally, and legitimately because they were citizens of another EU country. Nor did it matter that some were actually second or third generation citizens born in the UK. It did not make a whit of difference to them. They had voted, and they expected immediate consequences as to all foreigners.

So what happens here when Muslims, (and it will be all Muslims) become the target of “go home,” tirades and abuse because they are all “terrorists” and we can’t tell “what’s on their minds. Or, when Mexicans (all Mexicans) are abused as “scum” and “vermin” or “rapists” or “drug dealers” because that’s what Donald Trump called them.

And would Trump then act like the British politicians who campaigned on anti-immigrant rhetoric and were suddenly shocked, just shocked by the physical violence and abuse heaped against those they had campaigned to get rid of?

The answer in Trump’s case would probably be no. He’s proud of the fact that he’s never apologized for anything. Does anyone think he will start if he is elected to the highest office in the land?


Photo credits from top to bottom: w/ andykatz, Harveys Art, and chrisd2105








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