What’s behind Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘Trump Brexit’ warning?

This phrase is indeed catchy and plays well with those sections of British society on left and right who think that the U.S. president, in common with all his predecessors, is itching for a pretext to launch a new World War.

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the British Labour Party, with Parliament member Andrew Gwynne. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the British Labour Party, with Parliament member Andrew Gwynne. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen, a senior analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics.

They are not quite conjoined twins, but it’s often the case that where you find anti-Semitism, you will also find an associated anti-Americanism.

Scholars who have studied these two forms of prejudice side by side have remarked on the common patterns of thought and belief. The distinguished sociologist and Professor Paul Hollander (who sadly passed away last month) explained that “anti-Americanism” as a political phenomenon should not be confused with “being critical of specific aspects or attributes of American society, culture or American foreign policy.” Instead, said Hollander, anti-Americanism should be seen as “a particular mindset, an attitude of distaste, aversion, or intense hostility, the roots of which may be found in matters unrelated to the actual qualities or attributes of American society or the foreign policies of the United States.” Much of the same observation can (and has) been made about Jewish people in relation to anti-Semitism.

Anti-Americanism also raises similar allegations against American society and culture that anti-Semitism does with Jews and Judaism. America is held up as a crass, materialistic society, where money rules politics, and where the most anarchic aspects of capitalism—a system that was disdained as essentially “Jewish” by many Europeans well into the last century—run riot. Look at the standard-bearers of anti-Americanism over the last century and in this one (Venezuela’s dictator Nicolas Máduro, for example), and you will see that they project a similar hostility to Jews, often couched in denunciations of “Zionism” or “Israeli crimes.” Some of these people see power in the world as a Zionist knife in Uncle Sam’s fist; others think it works the other way around.

Many supporters of the opposition Labour Party in Britain subscribe to this broad worldview. So it should not come as a shock, then, that party leader Jeremy Corbyn—a man who can credibly claim to be Europe’s best-known anti-Semite—is leveraging his visceral anti-Americanism into his country’s internal conflict over Brexit, its departure over the European Union.

Earlier this month, Corbyn delivered a speech in which he renamed the option of a “no-deal Brexit” (whereby the United Kingdom would cease being a member of the European Union without a deal setting out the divorce terms) a “Trump Brexit.” This phrase is indeed catchy, and plays well with those sections of British society on left and right who think that the U.S. president, in common with all his predecessors, is itching for a pretext to launch a new World War.

Why a “Trump Brexit” specifically? Corbyn, a supporter of Brexit who finds himself at the helm of a party that favors remaining in the E.U., needs to carve out a position that differentiates him from the Conservatives and those further to the right, who are currently seething over a “Brexit betrayal.” This current of opinion wants to fulfil Brexit above all else, even if that means leaving the E.U. without a deal. That outcome, said Corbyn, “would be a Donald Trump Brexit leaving us at the mercy of a reckless and bellicose U.S. administration.”

Corbyn, whose political career stretches back to the Cold War, has said the same thing about every U.S. administration, whether Democratic or Republican. He has worn his anti-Americanism proudly, whether the incumbent in the White House was President Carter or President Reagan, or President Clinton, President Obama or either President Bush. In his view, cemented by the pro-Soviet, Third Worldly sensibilities of the Western anti-war movement, America is by its very nature “reckless and bellicose.”

The difference now, of course, is that Corbyn is closer to power than ever before. The sword of Damocles that first dangled when he was elected Labour’s leader in 2015 could fall as early as this year should Corbyn turn the Conservative-run fiasco over Brexit into a decisive advantage in the event of a general election.

In what will be the greatest test of his political abilities so far, Corbyn will pitch the British public a nightmare vision. He will warn of Britain becoming a sweatshop for predatory U.S. corporations, with minimal rights to protect workers. A Britain that becomes a dumping ground for cut-price, unhealthy, processed American food products. A Britain that becomes an extension of America’s military empire, with a compliant government applauding U.S. imperialism from Venezuela to Iran. That, and more, is what a “Trump Brexit” would herald.

In the current febrile climate of British politics, a political message like this one will certainly resound, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Corbyn is best placed to deliver it. Over the last six weeks, he has been engaged in a bizarre set of negotiations with the now lame-duck Prime Minister Theresa May aimed at securing a cross-party agreement on Brexit. Publicly at least, Corbyn appeared less enthused by the talks than did May, despite her caution late last year that giving Labour even a sniff of government would be a “national calamity,” replete with “rising anti-Semitism” and “equivocation when the security of our country is threatened.” And it was Corbyn, not May, who announced last Friday that the talks had broken down.

Yet none of this appears to have benefited Corbyn in the opinion polls. Projections for this week’s European Parliament elections—elections that weren’t supposed to happen—situate the populist Brexit Party as the clear front-runner. The only consolation for Labour is that its own dismal performance is predicted to be slightly less humiliating than that facing the Conservatives. In terms of public perception, Corbyn has been more damaged than assisted by the general view that the political class has shown gross incompetence over Brexit.

Beyond the European elections, however, Corbyn will have an opportunity to present himself as a unifier—a politician who understands that there are more important challenges than Brexit, like empowering labor unions, saving the environment and fortifying Britain’s public-health services.

Ranged against a Conservative Party potentially led by a “no deal” Brexiteer, a host of smaller parties that favor staying in the E.U. and a grassroots pro-Brexit party on the populist right, Corbyn and his chances of winning an election are not guaranteed, but neither are they negligible. For a politician like him, crisis is the mother of opportunity, even if he has failed to exploit that reality so far.

So far …

Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.

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