Where to Move After the Election?

by Neil H. Buchanan

It has become commonplace in U.S. politics over the last few decades to hear people say, "Well, if X gets elected, I'm moving out of the country!"  Most people understand that this is simply a dramatic way of stating one's opposition to an especially unappealing candidate, but in the immature world of partisan politics, declarations of that kind sometimes become an issue.  Recall, for example, the controversy surrounding the actor Alec Baldwin in 2000.

In my recent lecture tour of Australia and New Zealand, where I spoke to audiences about the U.S. elections and economic policy, I used a similar line: "If Donald Trump wins the election, I can tell you that my next trip to your country will be on a one-way ticket!"  It was a reliable moment of levity, and the point was obviously that I viewed Trump as a fundamentally dangerous candidate, not that my hosts were in danger of my moving into their guest room.

Two weeks ago, I published a column explaining why I think that Trump is not merely an unacceptable candidate in the usual sense.  His demagogic appeal points dangerously in the direction of undermining constitutional democracy.  Today, in a followup column on Verdict, I explain why even Trump's defeat in November will not mean that the threat to U.S. political stability has been safely and permanently defeated.

One of the issues that I mention in both of those columns, and which I have also mentioned frequently in writing about the political dangers of the post-Great Recession era, is that the dangers of anti-constitutional extremism can be found wherever there is economic stress.  And that certainly means that many of the most economically and politically advanced countries in the world are similarly at risk of being taken over by repressive and even violent political movements.

Which raises an interesting question: If people really did want to move out of the U.S. in response to the trends that have already resulted in Trump being one of the two major-party choices for president -- and, even after Trump loses, because of the long-term worries that I identified -- where would they move?

Taking as a starting point the countries where English is the most common language, and whose societies and economies are most like ours, what are the choices?  Even people without direct British roots might find the U.K. to be an appealing option.  London has its problems, one of which is the run-up in real estate prices due to oligarchs parking their money in a safe area (see also midtown Manhattan), but it is still a wonderful place.  The other major English cities are not booming in the way London is, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.  And Edinburgh is one of my favorite cities in the world.

Yet, as one Englishman who works in the U.S. and who maintains a centuries-old family residence in rural England recently pointed out to me, the "Brexit" debate says some very bad things about the current state of play in British politics.  The governing Conservatives are split on the Brexit issue, which means that the establishment has not completely lost control of the party (unlike the Republicans), but former London mayor Boris Johnson certainly competes with Trump for gutter-level political appeal.  And if Brexit does happen, the resulting economic slump could further inflame the angry xenophobes there.

What about Australia?  Earlier this year, the Sydney Morning Herald ran an op-ed by an analyst who claims that "Donald Trump would never rise to the top in Australia."  While I was traveling there, the Australians were engaged in their own election campaign, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that there was actual policy content to the news coverage and political debates.  On the other hand, my various hosts told me that the political system there was following the U.S. trends, and one person even referred to one of their recent prime ministers as "a beta version of Trump."  (See, for example, this article arguing that Trump has "the Tony Abbott Factor.")

Americans like to talk about moving to Canada.  The election of Justin Trudeau as Prime Minister and the country's admirable welcoming of Syrian refugees is something to behold.  But Canada has someone named Kevin O'Leary making waves in its political circles, preening on stage in what appears to be "a Trump act."  The right-wing government that lost to Trudeau had become very much a Tea Party-like operation, so even that country cannot be viewed as safe from seeing a mainstream political party taken over by extremists.

For reasons of brevity, I will not discuss smaller options like New Zealand or Ireland.  I will note, however, that the countries in Europe where one can get by in English are also showing dangerous flirtations with extreme right-wing politics.  Austria has an emergent nativist party that came close to winning a national election last month.  Sweden is seeing instances of political violence against refugees.  Even Germany is under strain.

There are, in other words, places in the world that are probably still healthier politically than the U.S., but the trends worldwide are all in the wrong direction. 
There is also plenty of reason for people of good will to decide to stay, to fight against the rise of these threats to the rule of law.

Again, this is not really a serious question, at least not on any scale that matters.  I could definitely imagine a few thousand people looking at the U.S. -- including its increases in gun-related violence, along with the lack of political will to do anything to address it -- and deciding that now is the time to leave.  But there is no serious prospect that, say, the 4.5 million residents of New Zealand will find themselves overrun with American exiles.

For the rest of us who will stay, how bad might things become?  Trump has already made it clear that he has no respect for an independent media or the First Amendment.  To focus for a moment on my most direct professional concerns, Republicans have hardly been shy about attacking university professors for many years now, routinely claiming that we are brainwashing their children.  Academic freedom is under attack everywhere (including Canada, by the way).  I see no reason why Trump or those whose future candidacies will be spawned by his failed campaign would be shy about trying to shut down free intellectual inquiry.

The problem is that we might not know how bad it will become until it is too late.  History is littered with examples of people who were underestimated and who then abused the power that was far too easy to grab.  Again, notwithstanding the daily news cycle-driven nature of U.S. political coverage, all of the fundamentals suggest that Trump will lose decisively in November.  But the story will not end there, unless the economic and social atmosphere in the U.S. improves dramatically very soon.