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Fifty Ways to Leave Your Union: Why Has America Become So Fascinated by Brexit?

The United Kingdom’s disastrous, routinely delayed political event has existed as an emblem of broken politics for nearly two years. And it doesn’t seem to be ending any time soon.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Thursday, European Union leaders agreed to postpone the United Kingdom’s deadline for exiting the E.U. to October 31—seven months later than the original Brexit deadline, which the U.K. parliament worked toward for nearly three years. It’s been a hot, populist spectacle. The spectacle may never end.

Brexit looms large for a provincial referendum on European identity. President Donald Trump may be the year’s single-largest political figure, but Brexit now amounts to the year’s single-largest political concern. In recent years, right-wing populism has become distressingly nascent in many democratic countries. The semi-frequent U.S. government shutdowns generally embarrass the presidency, but they’re so routine as to have become regular U.S. governance in the past couple of decades. The U.S. can’t exactly claim superior governance in this century: Let he who is without sin cast the first vote to resolve the latest unprovoked sovereignty crisis which is largely defined by jargon but somehow amounts to armageddon. The “backstop”—a crucial provision to maintain normal relations at the Irish border once the U.K. exits the E.U.—may as well be the boogeyman. The backstop has wrecked Brexit and may well wreck the U.K., while also wrecking popular comprehension of Brexit; the term haunts every negotiation, every vote, every news broadcast about Britain’s postmodern crisis.

The backstop is Britain’s peculiar problem. Brexit is Europe’s crisis. But it has all weighed on the American imagination. The U.S. news media covers Brexit almost as anxiously as it covered the Mueller investigation. Donald Trump defies the United Nations and has repeatedly threatened to withdraw from NATO. But neither rebellion provokes nearly as much anxiety, among Americans, at least, as Britain’s defiance of the European Union—an organization that, until now, aroused minimal passion or interest beyond Europeans. There’s an alternative discourse in which, I imagine, Brexit is a dominant concern in the financial press, popularized briefly among longform fetishists at The New Yorker but otherwise relegated to obscurity for U.S. audiences until the week of Britain’s departure. Why bother following such a jargony and ambiguous disaster minute to minute from five to eight time zones away? The causes are vague; so, too, is the argument for leaving; so, too, are the reasons other hemispheres should regard Brexit as a once-in-a-generation shock rippling across the wider world. If the U.S. is searching for signs of Trumpism abroad, then there’s a neo-Nazi surge in Poland (of all places). There’s Bolsonaro in Brazil. There’s Benjamin Netanyahu’s contentious re-election as Israel’s prime minister earlier this week. There are several contemporaneous right-wing surges and left-wing countermovements across the world. In fact, Brexit is the most arcane development of all.

It’s not the fact of the U.K. abandoning the European Union so much as the British electorate’s means and reasons for doing so that is alarming to the population at large. British right-wing voters marketed the “leave” campaign as a broadly populist cause, responsive to white fears about immigration from Turkey and beyond; so many rebellious Brits—a majority in the June 2016 referendum—voted to reassert British sovereignty, British self-determination, and white British identity. The conservatives are weak and discombobulated; the Labour Party, led by the tokenized Jeremy Corbyn, is somehow weaker. Together, the parties have created an unruly discourse about commercial regulations. Last week, the second Brexit deadline began with Theresa May and Corbyn scheming together unproductively; this week ends with May’s own party, which engineered this historic vote, clamoring for their leader’s resignation now that the E.U. leaders have once again postponed the deadline. There will be many similar weeks to come. No, there won’t be a phase when Brexit matures into wise, confident coherence. The conservatives can’t say what they want, exactly; in any case, they cannot be honest about their dismal reasons for wanting whatever Brexit does, in fact, become.

Brexit is only fully realized—and may only ever be successfully realized—as a massive front in the culture war, which Americans understand better than they’ll ever understand the backstop. The E.U. has extended Britain’s deadline to Halloween, but the national angst will persist indefinitely. And even in its pronounced isolation, the U.K. won’t be alone.