The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Trump, Brexit, and nationalist authority

July 28, 2016

In this, the first of a sequence of posts addressing Brexit in one way or another, I want to take a look at the shifting systems of authority in the current political climate and comment on how they might impact international relations into the future.

At the time of the Brexit vote, commentators and news reports drew parallels between the British decision to the leave the EU and the tumult of the US elections, particularly the rise of Donald Trump. Many pointed to the resurgence of nationalism, but here I want to argue that while the concept of nationalism as a practice of identity certainly sheds light on both Brexit and the rise of Trump, it also obscures some importance differences. In particular, part of nationalism is an aspect of governance, and in particular an embodied system of authority. In the case of Brexit, authority remained at the institutional level but shifted in aggregation, from the supernational to the national level.

That is, British voters continued to submit to legal-rational institutions, and the central change lay in which legal rational institutions they subordinated themselves. This system of authority can be seen in the (second) retirement of Nigel Farage from the leadership of the UK Independence Party as well as the failure of any of the leading Brexiteers in the Conservative Party to win the post of prime minister. Accordingly, British nationalism as expressed in the Brexit vote does not appear to translate to other international institutions where the legal-rational institutions of the British state serve a central intervening role. As I will hopefully address in a future post, the discourses surrounding Brexit emphasized continuing British involvement in and support for institutions like NATO in which legal-rational authority remains vested in the national government.

Conversely, the nationalism that appears to be driving Donald Trump’s presidential campaign embodies a very different system of authority. In his discourses, Trump emphasizes—as is common on the political right in the United States—that national legal-rational institutions are flawed and should be stripped of much of their legal-rational authority. Typically, the argument for doing so flows along the lines of that in the Brexit vote, that authority should vest in institutions lower down the chain of aggregation. But with Trump nationalism is linked to a shift from legal-rational authority to (using Weber’s framework) charismatic authority. The result is a reversal of traditional arguments on the right of the American political right regarding the disaggregation of authority. Trump’s nationalism requires the reverse, the centralization of authority in the form of Trump as president. As I will discuss in a future post, my suspicion is that this is only form of authority that accords with the language of security that is central to the Trump campaign.

These differences in nationalism have implications for the international behavior of the two states. While Britain has certainly broken important institutional linkages, the nature of authority that manifested in the British nationalism that motivated the Brexit vote suggests substantial boundaries to British international behavior and, to that end, a degree of continuity with pre-Brexit British foreign policy. But the charismatic authority of the Trump candidacy suggests no such thing, opening the way for greater policy variability. This is most likely to be the case in security—again, coming back to the security foundations of Trump’s claim to authority as well as the emergency and decisionistic nature of security—but will impact all high visibility issues. Thus while nationalism may be an important ingredient in both Trump’s rise and Brexit, a comparison of the authority structures in those nationalisms highlights important divergences that will contribute to very different patterns of behavior. The comparison also highlights the ways in which dynamics of domestic authority shape international behavior and they ways in which authority can transcend state boundaries to become international in scope.

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