Imagine a decaying empire, grown rich with cheap immigrant labor, but now living on past glories and resentful of the people who built the nation with their own blood, sweat and tears.
In this place, the cities are centers of education, culture and commerce, but in the less populated and more rural areas, people struggle to get by on multiple jobs and see themselves mocked and disdained for their beliefs and values. Even for the way they talk.
The industrial areas that remain have either refashioned themselves into quaint enclaves for the affluent — where the stately brick factories are reimagined as high-ceilinged condos and office buildings — or exist as hollowed-out communities where the working class is abandoned and left behind.
White working people see their standard of living slipping away, but instead of blaming those who have financialized their economic distress and found profit in their ruin, they idealize a time when others, less fortunate, were held down by institutionalized discrimination.
When legally supported racism, sexism and gender phobia held an unjust set of social relations in place, and generated privileges that made their own exploitation more tolerable.
Imagine a nation where a kleptocratic political elite is oblivious to the pain and powerlessness that most people feel, but use nostalgic longing for an idealized past to achieve political and economic gain.
Where they’ve taken all that popular anger and turned it into opportunity to deregulate commerce, privatize public assets, criminalize people of color and the poor and turn back the clock on social progress.
Imagine a nation where all that suppressed political anger one day bubbles over at the ballot, and the people vote against progress. Against gender equality. Against racial justice. Against their own economic self-interests.
Where a day at the ballot becomes a leap into the unknown. Where half the nation feels a sense of power because they feel that, finally, their day has come. And those who have been left out all along feel shock but little surprise, because they have always known that this system is not for them.
Where the political discourse is so impoverished by the decades of false choices and demagogic misleads that it’s nearly impossible to see a clear way forward. Where the words of even the progressive leadership ring untrue, because so many sins of the past remain unacknowledged.
This is the England I saw when I was in the United Kingdom a few weeks ago. British Prime Minister Theresa May signed Article 50 on March 29, which triggers the process for Britain’s exit from the European Union.
Those in the United Kingdom who are still tethered to reality see this as a commitment to chaos. For others, led by those who offer little more than distraction and destruction, Brexit offers the promise of a brighter future.
“We are going to take control of the things that matter most to us,” May said. “And we are going to take this opportunity to build a stronger, fairer Britain — a country that our children and grandchildren are proud to call home.”
And here, we have Donald Trump: “Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength. … America will start winning again — winning like never before. We will bring back our jobs, our borders, our wealth, our dreams.”
Needless to say, as I watched the United Kingdom unravel in the daily papers, I felt right at home.
Shortly after I arrived back to the U.S., Tomahawk missiles were flying in Syria and warships were headed to North Korea. Distraction and destruction. America’s greatest exports.
My kids, who grew up under Obama and never saw all the chaos that those years concealed, asked if it had ever been like this before. Where nothing feels stable. Where all the world seems on the brink.
I talked about the Cuban Missile Crisis, and how people must have felt like this then. The existential dread. The feeling of an irrational world coming apart at the seams. The sense of a future no longer assumed.
But that was just seven days. As the past continues to follow us into the future, our plunge into the unknown is only beginning.