What Brexit Means for The Rest of Us

If Britain's historic vote to leave the European Union has taught the world anything, it's that the liberal "It can't happen here" mentality has been thrown out the window for good. It did happen there, where the pundits and politicos were sure it wouldn't. It was the gamble that cost Prime Minister David Cameron his job and sent the E.U. into a tailspin. And it was a warning shot to the rest of Europe and to the United States that anger and nativism can be more powerful than reason and logic in these turbulent times.

And if there was ever a visual underscore of how the Brexit vote could reverberate well beyond Britain's shores, it was the site of Donald Trump at his Turnberry golf course in Scotland, praising the vote. "They took their country back, just like we will take our country back," he tweeted.

Scotland wasn't exactly the right locale for Trump's visit to the UK. The Scots voted overwhelmingly to stay in the E.U., which puts them in the position of deciding whether to hold their own referendum on leaving the United Kingdom. London voted to remain in the E.U. The U.K.'s youth voted to stay. But it was the vote of those outside London's moneyed borders, and those nostalgic for an independent United Kingdom - a United Kingdom of old - that won 52% of the vote.

Like Donald Trump, the anti-E.U. factions in England capitalized on immigration and economic fears that have split the U.K. in two. And as soon as those voices were able to claim their enormous victory, Trump, France's far-right leader Marine Le Pen, the leader of the Dutch far-right Party for Freedom Geert Wilders, and other rising nationalist European leaders celebrated publicly.

Wilders, whose background photo on Twitter simply says, "De-Islamize," called for a referendum in the Netherlands on E.U. membership.

Le Pen tweeted, "Victory for Liberty!" in French. She changed her profile picture on Twitter to the Union Jack.

What these leaders and others around Europe and as far away as Australia have in common with Donald Trump is a nativist vision that becomes more emboldened with every new terrorist attack, every new wave of immigration. As the great wave of immigrants continues to flow from the Middle East to Europe, it is difficult to imagine that this xenophobic brand of populism will lose steam any time soon. And indeed on the heels of England's bold statement to the world, it is necessary to admit that it will only grow and spread unchecked unless the voices of reason and sanity become louder and more forceful than their opponents.

The great challenge that leaders like Obama and Clinton, Merkel and Hollande face will be how to come to grips with this roiling sea of rage - how to acknowledge it and try to better understand it, rather than dismiss it outright. We can shout the words "racist" and "xenophobe" at every European and American who rails against immigration and brands Muslims with one hot iron, but as long as terrorism continues to strike our nation's cities, and as long as working class and middle class economics remain stagnant throughout much of the West, there will be one common enemy in the eyes of those who are feeling slighted: the immigrant. Whether it is the Syrian refugee, the Pole looking for a better job in Germany, the Mexican coming to the U.S. for a better life - it is the immigrant who is taking the fall for the world's woes.

What are our current leaders to do? That is the great question. But they must hurry to find voices that resonate clearly, intelligently, emphatically and en masse, or the forces of the far right will find success in the coming elections of 2017 both here and abroad.

One night about a week ago, while watching cable news, my husband said sadly, "We are headed for civil war in this country."

I don't think that's hyperbole because in so many ways, on so many issues, we are already there. Just look at what happened in the House of Representatives and the Supreme Court this week.

But it's not just the U.S. that's so deeply divided over the major issues of our time. And as western countries find themselves split between the young and the old, the educated and uneducated, rich and poor, religious and atheist, we are going to have to work very hard to find common ground. We're going to have to fight hard to avoid a dangerous new world order, one of isolationism and authoritarianism. I just hope that Britain's vote to leave the E.U. isn't the harbinger of a frightening future for the rest of us.