No, the Brexit Doesn’t Mean Trump Will Win, But It’s Still an Important Warning

EU Referendum - Signage And Symbols
Is this what you want? Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

In the hours and days following the U.K.’s stunning vote to leave the European Union on Thursday, one of the most prolific hot-take subjects has been to interpret what the vote and the factors that drove that vote may mean for the U.S. election. Donald Trump himself got that conversation started immediately after the Brexit passed when he attempted to frame what the U.K. had done as something that was, like most things in Trump’s mind, about him, as well as the wave of anxiety and anger he has ridden to the GOP nomination.

There are of course similarities between the pro-Brexit movement and pro-Trump movement, including working-class angst over free trade and lost jobs, increased nationalism, emotionally driven fears regarding immigration, simple demographics, and distaste for the elite and its assurances about globalization specifically, and progress more generally. However, most commentators and analysts do not seem to believe that the Brexit vote is some guaranteed harbinger of a Trump presidency, as it’s important to realize that in as many ways as the U.S. and U.K. political situations are similar, they are also unique.

Regardless, plenty who observe the U.S. political environment, especially on the left, are certainly a bit more nervous this weekend than they were on Thursday morning, and not just about the global economic impact, now underway, that numerous experts have been warning about for the entire Brexit campaign. When an important Western country and close U.S. ally veers in a new direction so drastically, that tends to be something worth getting nervous about, let alone when a Brexit-happy, Trump-like figure is vying to be leader of the free world.

Jonathan Freedland has a good summary in the New York Review of Books of why Americans should heed the warning of the Brexit vote, 

[Americans] may think that there are not enough of the white, poor, angry, and left-behind to win an election. But Brexit suggests that when that constituency can be allied to a conservative cause that has millions of other, more ideologically-motivated devotees, victory is possible. It suggests that hostility to migrants, a cynical trampling on the truth, and a cavalier disdain for expertise can work wonders, such is the loathing of anything that can be associated with the “elite.” And it suggests that even great nations, those whose democratic arrangements were once regarded as a beacon to the world, are capable of acts of grievous, enduring self-harm.

The Washington Post’s Anne Applebaum sounds a similar alarm:

[The EU referendum campaign] was not fought on the issues that are normally central to British elections. Identity politics trumped economics; arguments about “independence” and “sovereignty” defeated arguments about British influence and importance. The advice of once-trusted institutions was ignored. Elected leaders were swept aside. If that kind of transformation can take place in the U.K., then it can happen in the United States, too.

But Ben Jacobs at the Guardian does a good job rounding up some basic differences between the U.S. and U.K. electorates and political processes. Chief among them, he notes, is the U.K.’s lack of diversity. White voters, especially older and/or less educated ones, powered the Brexit decision, and 86 percent of U.K. residents are white, while only 63 percent of Americans are (non-Hispanic) white. Putting that in an electoral context, Jacobs notes that more than 30 percent of U.S. voters this fall are expected to be members of a minority group. Minorities, en masse, did not support the Brexit, and across the pond they don’t support Trump either. So the possible outcome that Freeland presents, of perhaps near-universal support for Trump from white, poor, and angry voters in the U.S., faces longer odds if minority voters really do vote as a block against Trump, and that’s before considering support among white women voters, who also, for the time being, really don’t like Trump. 

In addition, Brookings’s Elaine Kamarck looks at how America’s long history of welcoming and integrating immigrant groups forms a crucial component of the electorate:

[E]ven though the United States has many illegal immigrants, it also has many foreign born and second generation immigrants who are citizens and who can vote.  This group — mainly Latino and increasingly Asian — forms a powerful counter weight to the anti-immigrant sentiment represented by Trump. … In the recent British election citizens of the Commonwealth countries (countries that were part of the British Empire) who live in the United Kingdom could vote but citizens from other European Union countries living in Great Britain do NOT get to vote. In other words, the United States has a coherent voting bloc that has the numbers to counter Trump — while Britain does not.

Another key difference is the nature of partisan politics in the U.S., where Americans’ tribal-like loyalty to one of the two parties typically directs the way they vote, whereas party was not a reliable indicator of Brexit support in the U.K. Campaign finance restrictions in the U.S. are practically non-existent compared to the tight restrictions in the U.K., as well.

Also, while U.S. presidential elections are often referred to as a referendum on where the country is headed, and particularly on whichever party has been in power to manage that direction, they are nothing like a simple up/down vote on a single issue like the EU referendum was. Instead voters are weighing the temperaments, statements, and perceived effectiveness of two individual candidates, as well as a whole host of specific issues which may or may not be important to each voter. At this point, if anything about this year’s election in the U.S. is going to be a simple up/down vote, it will be a distinction regarding voters’ personal feelings about Trump, the most polarizing presidential candidate in decades, and one who continues to be way down in the polls.

But here is what the New Yorker’s Amy Davidson had to add, with regards to her concerns about anyone in the U.S. who is complacent about Trump’s, at this point, low chances:

The [British and American] political institutions are very different: we don’t worry so much here about the labyrinthine regulations put out by Brussels bureaucrats; they don’t quite have super pacs. But the word “rigged,” or its local variations, is probably the key one on both sides of the Atlantic. Both Trump and [UKIP leader Nigel] Farage and his allies have made openly racist and ethnic appeals. The European Union is a great idealistic project, and it is a tragedy that it might be torn down now. A lesson for Americans is that fortified idealistic structures can be torn down, by means of some of the same wrecking tools Trump has been willing to deploy, even if those who are considered the serious people, in a country that reminds us of our own, warn against doing so. One pattern seen in the Brexit results was a disconnect between party leaders—in all of the major parties—and their bases. Sneering is not going to save the republic.

Indeed, however likely or unlikely a Brexit-like revolt is in the U.S., it’s important not the underestimate the forces behind it and their power to drive change in any country, including the U.S. As Vox’s Timothy B. Lee argues, it’s worth realizing that “support for Trump-style politics may be bigger than support for Trump himself”:

Trump, after all, is a terrible general election candidate: He’s misogynistic, ignorant about public policy, and has proven completely incompetent at raising money and building a campaign organization. He’ll probably lose in November. But a future candidate with Trump’s agenda but not his other baggage could be formidable in a general election.

Indeed, in this next election, some voters may not be voting for Trump at all, but against everything else. Along those lines, both the New York Times and Washington Post took a look at Hillary Clinton’s potentially not-so-ironclad Rust Belt support this weekend, with the Times noting that Clinton’s underlying argument for “stability and incremental change over the risks entailed in radical change” isn’t going over very well, at least anecdotally, in some big blue states like Michigan — which Democrats have historically counted on in presidential elections. They note that unlike Trump, Clinton “offers reasonableness instead of resentment” and is “a pragmatic internationalist battling against nationalist anger” like now-disgraced British Prime Minister David Cameron was. Even the Clintons seem to realize they may be rowing against the tide:

According to their friends and advisers, Mrs. Clinton and former President Bill Clinton have worried for months that she was out of sync with the mood of the electorate, and that her politically safe messages — like “I’m a progressive who gets results” — were far less compelling to frustrated voters than the “political revolution” of Senator Bernie Sanders or Mr. Trump’s grievance-driven promise to “Make America Great Again.”

While Mrs. Clinton is counting on Mr. Trump’s history of racist and sexist remarks to doom his candidacy, Thursday’s Brexit referendum was an unnerving reminder that voter anger is deeper and broader than many elite politicians and veteran pollsters realize. In swing states like Ohio, many Democrats and Republicans yearn for an economic comeback and are not confident that Mrs. Clinton understands their frustrations or has the ideas and wherewithal to deliver the sort of change that could satisfy them.

This section from the Post’s piece, summarizing the positions of some Rust Belt voters, could have been plucked out of the British press on Friday:

People here said they feel left behind in the economy and wronged by politicians. They are anxious about immigration and terrorism. They see corporations rebounding from the recession, but they wonder why their families aren’t better off. They villainize globalization, fear losing their national identity, and distrust elites and institutions.

These attitudes are shaping a rollicking presidential campaign defined by two historically unpopular nominees. “We just have garbage candidates,” said Joe Fish, 33. Or, as 18-year-old Julie Downey put it, picking between Clinton and Trump “is like finding the shiniest turd.”

According to the Post’s reporting, that it-doesn’t-matter-anyway sentiment is one of the forces driving some Rust Belt Democrats to consider voting for Trump, just to mess with the system — a change-for-the-sake-of-change vote.

As the Times also pointed out, then there is the matter of style and how Trump and Clinton are arguing their cases, and that dimension connects to the Brexit campaign as well. Returning to the New York Review of Books’ Jonathan Freedland, he underlines the importance, or in Trump’s case, the lack of importance, of simple truth:

[N]ot for nothing has [Trump] earned The Washington Post‘s maximum Pinocchio rating. For their part, leaders of the Leave campaign drove around in a vehicle that was itself a lie: a bus emblazoned with a declaration that Britain sends £350m a week to the EU. Again and again, opponents, journalists and experts pointed out that the figure was bogus, failing to take account of, among other things, the cash rebate on Britain’s contribution negotiated years ago by Margaret Thatcher, and that the realistic figure was closer to a third of that sum. But to no avail. The slogan stayed on the bus, along with the promise that, after Brexit, that weekly bonanza of £350m would be spent on Britain’s cherished National Health Service. In the early hours of Friday morning, Nigel Farage—the leader of the UK Independence Party whose pressure brought about this referendum in the first place—admitted that the promised £350m figure was “a mistake” and there would be no such windfall for hospitals and doctors. But by then of course, it was too late. Voters had made their choice.

Then again, rising nationalist sentiment often goes hand-in-hand with overly simplistic framing and promise-making, as nationalism scholar Yascha Mounk tells NPR:

[T]he basic approach of many populist, nationalist candidates can be boiled down to this: “I embody the will of the people. And the problems that we face are actually completely straightforward,” [Mounk] said. “The problem is that the elites are corrupt. They’re in cahoots with minorities, with business interests. And all that needs to happen is for me to be elected.”

It’s a sentiment that can be heard in Trump’s most recent major campaign speech. “When I see the crumbling roads and bridges, or the dilapidated airports, or the factories moving overseas to Mexico, or to other countries for that matter,” he said, “I know these problems can all be fixed. But not by Hillary Clinton. Only by me.”

But it also helps, as the New Yorker’s John Cassidy explains, if you actually have something you are campaigning for, rather than just protecting against. To illustrate why that lens is important, consider the point the Washington Post’s Dan Drezner makes, which is also surely a rationale being discussed within the Clinton campaign:

Brexit allows Americans to witness what Trump-like policies will produce over the next four months. … [I]f Brexit’s negative effects over [that time] are severe, it creates some very odd dynamics. On the one hand, worsening U.S. economic prospects will benefit Trump. On the other hand, those same bad outcomes can help Clinton point out the policy disaster that a Trump administration would create. Either way, it puts U.S. politicians in the very odd and uncomfortable position of rooting against Britain’s near-term economic prospects.

But here is Cassidy’s warning:

[T]he fate of the Remain campaign should serve as a reminder of the limits of negative campaigning—a reminder that Hillary Clinton would do well to take note of as she goes up against Donald Trump. In confronting populist demagoguery, it isn’t enough to attack its promulgators. To get people to turn out and vote in your favor, you also have to give them something positive to rally behind. The Leave campaign, for all its lies and disinformation, provided just such a lure. It claimed that liberating Britain from the shackles of the E.U. would enable it to reclaim its former glory. The Remain side argued, in effect, that while the E.U. isn’t great, Britain would be even worse off without it. That turned out to be a losing story.

Meanwhile Megan McArdle, writing for Bloomberg, underlines how important nationalism is becoming, and shakes her head at globalism proponents who attempt to write it off:

[N]ationalism and place still matter, and that elites forget this at their peril. A lot people do not view their country the way some elites do: as though the nation were something like a rental apartment — a nice place to live, but if there are problems, or you just fancy a change, you’ll happily swap it for a new one.

In many ways, members of the global professional class have started to identify more with each other than they have with the fellow residents of their own countries.

This issue of elite overconfidence, that a prevailing and rational adherence to some macro status quo would always find a way, has been another recurring theme in analysis of the Brexit vote. Buzzfeed’s Rosie Gray zooms in on that failure:

One of the issues with the way the Brexit polls were interpreted was an elite belief that a Leave win was out of the question, despite evidence to the contrary. This mirrors the way the conventional wisdom on Trump continued to discount the probability of his winning the nomination even after he had won several primaries and had been the frontrunner for months — simply put, political insiders out of touch with a resurgent populist mood in the country just didn’t consider it a real possibility.

The markets discounting a Brexit were more about elite biases than what the data actually showed,” [GOP digital strategist Patrick] Ruffini said. “Likewise, in the Republican primary, there was a widespread expectation that voters would ‘come home’ to a normal candidate. But through the polls, voters were telling us where ‘home’ was for them. Elites chose to ignore it.”

Vox’s Ezra Klein, sort of speaking for the elite, to the elite, says stop trusting your gut:

On some level, we’re all good Bayesians: We’re skeptical of data that baldly contradicts how we know the world to work. But in politics right now, the world isn’t working the way we think it does. Polling is proving a much more reliable guide to political outcomes than the “does-this-seem-insane?” test most people use to guide their predictions.

The lesson here is not that the least likely, most disruptive outcomes are suddenly a safe bet. Brexit’s win doesn’t predict Trump’s victory, contrary to some of the chatter I’ve seen on Twitter. Rather, when evaluating the likeliest outcomes, look to trustworthy polls rather than your gut. Hillary Clinton’s 7-point lead over Donald Trump still makes her the favorite, but if those numbers flip, take it seriously. 

Lastly, Scottish political commentator Alex Massie argues that Americans who want to understand how the Brexit vote could happen should go find themselves a mirror:

This people’s revolt represented, in many respects, the Americanization of British politics. The “leave” campaign’s slogan — its devastatingly effective slogan — of “take back control” was positively Trumpian. Indeed, some of the same forces of alienation, discontent, economic insecurity and racial animosity that produced Trump in the United States have now hauled Britain out of the European Union. This past week’s revolution, arguably the greatest political insurrection since the dawn of the democratic era, offers further evidence that some political trends recognize no borders or boundaries. It was more than just a political battle; it was a culture war, too. And it bore the hallmarks of the one that began in the United States 50 years ago.

The campaign, at its crudest, pitted the “people” against the “establishment,” the powerless against the powerful. The “leave” side cast itself as a guerrilla insurgency against a complacent and out-of-touch governing elite. Like recent U.S. campaigns, this one was marked by a distaste for experts. There were shades of Barry Goldwater and the United States’ 2010 tea party wave in this; shades, perhaps, of the Reagan revolution, too. Brexit might break everything, the thinking went, but unless things are broken, nothing can change. This is Year Zero now.

The referendum laid bare the fault lines in British society, and they turn out to be as stark as the divisions between red and blue America.

What Does the Brexit Mean for the U.S. Election?