The psychology behind Brexit, Trump and Wilders

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Webster University is committed to an education within a dynamic and international environment. Their student body represents more than 50 countries from around the world and their staff and faculty are just as diverse.

Recent political developments in western countries have a lot in common: the type of voter, the populist political rhetoric and the alleged sources of problems facing society (immigrants/Islam/globalisation/multiculturalism).

Resurgence of the right

The PVV or Dutch Freedom Party's political platform, which was recently unveiled for next year’s national elections, is similar to that of other right-wing parties in Europe and the US. It's titled Nederland weer van ons! or Make the Netherlands ours again! The following are excerpts:
Make the Netherlands independent again: leave the EU
De-islamising the Netherlands
Closure of all mosques and islamic schools; banning the Koran
No immigrants from Muslim countries and no refugees: close the borders
No headscarfs in public functions
Preventative incarceration of radical muslims
Increasing police and defense budgets
(Source: Concept Verkiezingsprogamma 2017-2021

Geert Wilder's PVV is just one part of the larger trend that includes the recent Brexit vote and the rise of Donald Trump as the Republican Party candidate in the United States.

The underlying causes are complex, and this article will limit itself to a brief look at the psychological reasons behind it all.

The increase in verbal and physical racist attacks in post-Brexit UK

While Brexit still has to be put into effect, people are already acting on it. This can be seen in the increase in racist activities and the use of racist jargon. Some people appear to feel that Brexit has made it socially acceptable for them - even encourages them - to use such language.

People feel that this language has somehow been condoned by the government due to the outcome of the vote. People feel it’s therefore ok to put forth these views. It’s an emotional response, not a rational and informed response.

British police have said that the aftermath of the vote led to the sharpest increase in alleged hate crimes on record. Recent statistics indicate this is a lasting rise.

Examples of post-Brexit racist attacks:
Polish immigrants were attacked after being overheard speaking their language.
Fire was set to the home of a Polish family, with a letter telling them to go home.
A Halal butcher shop was firebombed with employees inside.
Children attacking children.
Adult and children harassing an immigrant.

Many more examples of racists incidents recorded by citizens in the UK since the Brexit vote can be found here while incidents are being tracked on Twitter with #PostRefRacism.


Simply preserving one’s national pride is not negative in itself, but it is irrational to say that in a globalised world we can turn back, close borders "and take the country back." While we can and should promote local industry, we can’t stop globalisation. Globalisation by now is too vast and too widespread to contain. Moving forward, internationalisation - and having an international mindset - is the only thing that is going to sustain us, whether that's on a professional or a personal level.

Banning Islamic clothing

People’s reactions change when you look different and dress different. This attitude is not only towards burkas and burkinis (such as the recent ban on burkinis in France), it’s global. Every single country deals with this issue in some way.

While we can see that one particular religion is targeted more than others, every society has its own particular outgroup that xenophobic people will target. It doesn’t matter whether this distinction is based on socio-economic grounds, culture, religion, sexual orientation or even their language.

It is actually linked to a fear of the unknown. If you look at what happens when people start having extreme views, it is the result of a lack of information and a lack of understanding of another culture, to which we then also attribute certain negative values and certain assumptions. Media further reinforces this negatively.

Fear and misunderstanding

We can help xenophobic and islamophobic people by bringing them to the discussion table. It is good for people to be able to voice their fears at the right time, instead of them getting swept up by politicians. If their fear and scepticism are kept hidden for too long, we see that it can become inflamed and used by someone in a political agenda.

Another important factor linked to this cultural misunderstanding is the projection of one’s own values as superior.

This is why slogans such as "Make our country great again" and "Take our country back" are going to attract votes from people who don’t have a globalised view and don’t see the world as internationalised.

They're afraid of what they haven’t seen, or they don’t understand why people would dress or look a particular way; there is a lack of familiarity. That's not strange in itself; we are all scared of the unknown. That is not the problem.

As a psychologist, where I begin to really worry is when these scattered opinions become collective opinions and begin to influence policy. Then it becomes a serious problem!

The problem arises through the amplification and use of this fear by political parties. As humans, we react to fear in three ways; retreat, freeze, attack! Having fear is normal: it is ok to be scared, but that fear then needs to be addressed or it will evolve into a phobia.

A phobia is an irrational fear. If you look at the textbook definition of phobia, it is an irrational fear that is persistent and leads to feelings of anxiety. We now see phobias towards people, towards sexual identity or towards a religion/culture, manifest themselves at the societal level.

From survival mechanism to source of prejudice

Fear has a function. If you had a dangerous animal standing in front of you, the best thing you could do would be to run.

But if you are faced with somebody who looks a certain way, and the fear of that image is conditioned into an irrational fear and it becomes a phobia, that’s when it starts affecting behaviour in a negative way. Media is doing that conditioning for us, towards certain ethnicities, towards certain races, not only one.

The role of media

Media reinforce certain views and influences our psychology. It is fair to say that it's not all media forums, because there are some independent voices out there as well. However, mainstream media do influence the way we think; they create profiles in our minds and also reinforce stereotypes.

For example, 20 years ago, the words "terrorism" or "terrorist" did not figure so prominently in our vocabularies. Now they are part of our daily vocabulary. These words always target a particular religion or a particular profile. In the United States, when a mass shooting occurs and the shooter is white, he is called mentally ill by the media. If he is Muslim, he is a terrorist.

We live in an age of unprecedented access to information. However, availability of information does not equal education. The reason for this is that people are not necessarily processing this material.

The role of education in shaping a globalised mind set

Shaping a person’s attitude towards others starts young. More diversity among student bodies and international curricula give young people the opportunity to interact with people from a different culture and then form their opinions. They need to know what exists beyond their borders in order to form a balanced view of the world.

Internationalised education is very important. It is a great skill to be able to appreciate and acknowledge that somebody else has a different view of the world: "I don’t have to accept your view, but I can be tolerant."

If we try to deal with someone’s racist actions very early on in their life by talking about it and explaining to them how it makes the other person feel, it will eventually prevent this young person from turning into a racist adult.

Hope for younger generations

We can hope that the younger generations, especially if they are guided by information that is linked to education, can make that shift towards a globalised mindset. Because when you have diversity surrounding you at every point in life, you will see and experience it as being ordinary. You don’t experience it as being very different, that it’s just somebody else, who looks different, and that is ok.

You bring the discussion of diversity into the classroom; in that setting, it’s ok for somebody to be different. So you celebrate Sinterklaas, you celebrate Christmas, you celebrate Easter, but you also celebrate Suikerfeest in the same way. That is how you create acceptance in children.


By accepting that someone is different, we are not changing ourselves, our language, our religion, or our culture. Instead, we are broadening our scope of understanding to accept that people are different.

So it works both ways; we need to acknowledge emotion and empathise across the spectrum, whether an individual is trying to protect and safeguard their national identity or trying to assimilate into a new culture while still holding on to their culture of origin.

This acknowledgement from both sides will hopefully enable a safe space where it is possible to express and discuss. And the starting point needs to be that diversity is viewed as an asset and not as a threat.

When we are speaking to somebody who has an extreme or a racist ideology, the only way to achieve mutual understanding is to have a discussion, and not to think that you are going to change that person at the end of that discussion. Hopefully, you can just influence that person a little bit, to make them begin to question some of their assumptions.

Dr. Sheetal Shah is the Head of  Department of Behavioral and Social Sciences at Webster University in the Netherlands. She is a dedicated educator and works passionately on the Bijlmer Project; a research and intervention project that addresses the psychosocial and vocational needs of sexually trafficked women in the European Union. 

Sheetal Shah


Sheetal Shah

Dr. Sheetal Shah is a Psychologist in practice since 1999. She specializes in the field of counseling for chronic illnesses and special target groups like commercial sex workers and victims...

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