New York Times
By Safraz Monsoor
January 23, 2016
Until recently, Donald J. Trump was best known in Britain for “The Apprentice” television series, the Miss Universe contest and a controversial golf course development in Scotland. And most Britons would probably have viewed his decision to enter the presidential race with no more than mild envy: Why can’t British elections be as much fun as American ones?
Thanks, however, to his incendiary comments about immigrants and Muslims, Mr. Trump has moved from being a buffoonish figure on the margins of British consciousness to the center of political debate. After Mr. Trump said that he, if president, would stop Muslims entering the United States, more than half a million people signed a parliamentary petition, thus requiring a debate in Parliament on whether to bar him entry to Britain. (The debate, which was held this past week in a committee, generated plenty of indignation but had no issue because the power to refuse Mr. Trump admittance is held not by Parliament but by the home secretary.)
Mr. Trump also drew condemnation from leading British politicians, newspapers, the Metropolitan Police and the mayor of London. Even the leader of the UK Independence Party, which campaigns on a strong anti-immigration platform, said Mr. Trump had “gone too far.”
When Mr. Trump speaks of barring Muslims from entering the United States, I hear an echo of a British politician from another age, one who is largely forgotten here but whose views on race and immigration were as polarizing in their time as Mr. Trump’s are now. Enoch Powell was a politician whose career spanned most of the postwar period, first as a Conservative and later as an Ulster Unionist. He had grave reservations about mass immigration and frequently spoke in apocalyptic language about its consequences.
Mr. Powell was hardly an obvious demagogue. The Labour politician Denis Healey once compared him to the Athenian statesman Demosthenes. He was a classical scholar and gifted linguist, and his speeches were renowned for their erudition. Examples from Roman history are not part of Mr. Trump’s rhetorical repertoire.
In 1960, Mr. Powell was appointed minister of health in the Conservative government. In this post, he encouraged many immigrants from the Commonwealth to come to work in the understaffed National Health Service — which adds a layer of irony to the fact that his most enduring fame, or infamy, is for an epoch-defining speech he gave against immigration.
By 1968, he had become the opposition’s chief spokesman on defense — if largely by virtue of the fact that, as a talented maverick, he was regarded by the Conservatives’ new leader, Edward Heath, as too dangerous to leave out. Speaking in Birmingham, England’s second largest city and one already changed by extensive immigration, Mr. Powell argued that “we must be mad, literally mad, as a nation to be permitting the annual inflow of some 50,000 dependents.”
This policy, he warned, “is like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre.” In the most often quoted line — an allusion to the poet Virgil — Mr. Powell said, “as I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood.’ ”
The Times of London called it “an evil speech,” and the first direct appeal to “racial hatred” made by a senior British politician. Mr. Powell was summarily dismissed from his post by Mr. Heath.
Yet his lurid warning about the dangers of mass immigration resonated with many Britons. He received tens of thousands of letters of support for what became known as the “rivers of blood” speech. Three days later, as a Labour government bill against racial discrimination was debated in Parliament, 1,000 dock workers marched from London’s East End to protest the “victimization” of Mr. Powell.
There are parallels between the way Mr. Powell gave voice to white working-class anxiety and Mr. Trump’s primary campaigning. And like Mr. Trump, Mr. Powell discovered a ready audience: A Gallup poll a few weeks later found that 74 percent of those surveyed agreed with what Mr. Powell had said. For immigrants like my father, who arrived in Britain from Pakistan in the early 1960s, it wasn’t Mr. Powell’s words that were frightening so much as that so many seemed to agree with them.
My father settled in Luton, an industrial town about 30 miles north of London that had a significant immigrant population. He worked on the assembly line at the Vauxhall car factory, the largest employer in the area. By the time my mother and siblings joined my father, in 1974, Mr. Powell was already a marginal figure in national politics. But his race-based views had been taken up by far-right groups like the National Front.
The National Front’s thuggish supporters were a visible, violent presence on the streets during my childhood. Mr. Powell’s speech also lent its anti-immigrant message a veneer of mainstream acceptability. The party’s program was crude — a ban on nonwhite immigration and repatriation for nonwhites — but, for a time, worryingly effective: In the 1979 general election, the National Front had more than 300 parliamentary candidates and won nearly 200,000 votes.
Growing up in the shadow of the “N.F.” and knowing that there were hundreds of thousands of Britons who wished to deport people like me induced both a profound anxiety and a deep conviction that I would never be fully accepted as British.
In recent years, the target of nativist anxiety about otherness in Britain has shifted from black to Muslim. From my background in Luton, I always looked to the United States as a place where almost everyone was “other,” from somewhere else; I imagined it as a nation that offered a welcome to all, regardless of color or creed.
That faith has been sorely tested by Mr. Trump. Like Mr. Powell, he demonstrates the appeal of a charismatic leader who presents himself as a principled truth-teller, the only man brave enough to break with the establishment consensus on immigration. As Mr. Powell did, Mr. Trump connects with voters — especially among the economically insecure white working class — who feel they’re being lied to by the political elite.
The difference between them is that the “rivers of blood” speech effectively ended Mr. Powell’s political career (he never again held high office, though he remained a member of Parliament until 1987), whereas Mr. Trump has been rewarded so far for his harsh words. Mr. Trump has drawn some criticism from other Republicans, but he is certainly not the pariah that Mr. Powell became.
Mr. Trump, like Mr. Powell before him, speaks for those convulsed by fear. In his 1968 speech, Mr. Powell quoted a constituent who dreaded a future when “the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.” That paranoia — an ugly delusion that inverts the actual history of slavery — was unfounded. Yet what is striking today is that though Mr. Powell was cast into the wilderness for his views, arguably his warning about the challenges to social cohesion from immigration was prescient.
Thankfully, the rivers of blood he foresaw never flowed. But nearly five decades later, Britain’s long experience of race riots and domestic terrorist attacks suggests that the countervailing doctrine of multiculturalism has not made for a land of milk and honey either.
The growth of a radical Islamic identity among some young Muslims has led to legitimate fears about the possible failure of British society to fully integrate its immigrants. Here, the populist UK Independence Party has inherited the mantle of Powellism. And in the United States, particularly in the wake of December’s San Bernardino shootings, the target of fear and loathing has also been Muslims.
The experience of Rose Hamid, who was ejected from a Trump rally while silently protesting by wearing a T-shirt that read “Salam I come in peace,’ ” demonstrated the violence of such emotions. Mr. Trump is exquisitely attuned to popular anxieties and highly talented at exploiting them.
Mr. Trump has not even won his party’s nomination, yet his agenda already seems to have influence. There have been several reports of British Muslims being denied the right to fly to the United States, seemingly only because of their religion. As someone who has long cherished the idea of America, I am distressed to see how quickly fear can travel and mutate from hot words to dangerous deeds.
The success of Mr. Trump’s campaign is very disturbing, but the retaliatory effort to bar him from Britain is a move that seems as petty — and constitutionally suspect — as anything advocated by the mogul himself. Even if nearly 600,000 people signed the parliamentary petition to keep Mr. Trump out, a recent survey here also found that 29 percent of respondents would favor a similar ban on Muslims entering Britain. So rather than a futile petition, it would be wiser to play the ball rather than the man: to dispute the actual issues rather than dismiss him as primitive and dumb.
In Britain, Powellism was eventually defeated as a political movement in part because politicians across the divide united against his views, in part because his dire predictions proved exaggerated and, not least, because people of good will mobilized to stop groups like the National Front from intimidating immigrant neighborhoods and winning elections. But Mr. Powell’s legacy was long and bitter — a lesson for both Britain and America that the price of not confronting the fears that fuel this antipathy could be severe: Whether or not Donald Trump wins his immediate political battle, he may, like Enoch Powell, win the war of ideas.
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