A common motif in the American response to the British vote to leave the European Union is that the pro-Brexit campaign was the British version of the Donald Trump candidacy.
Both have been described as populist, mainly working-class revolts against arrogant elites, fueled by rhetoric about “taking the country back”; both have been accused of promoting anti-immigrant xenophobia. Trump supporters such as Republican political strategist Ed Rollins crow that the Brexit win predicts a Trump win.
This is the year of the unpredictable, and while I think a Trump victory is very unlikely, I’m not making any bets. But the Trump-Brexit parallel fails on several key points.
For one, polls show that the main issue for most pro-Brexit voters was one with no real counterpart in the United States: concern that important decisions affecting the British people were being made outside the country, by obscure bureaucrats in Belgium unaccountable to voters.
Railing against bad government in Washington, D.C., may score points, but railing against too much power concentrated in a foreign capital has a much more visceral appeal. Add to this the political and economic woes that have weakened the EU.
Immigration is the issue that links both campaigns. But this may be Trump’s weakness rather than a strength in the general election. Americans overall are much less hostile to immigration than the British. (This may be related to historical and cultural differences: England has never seen itself as a nation of immigrants.) In recent surveys in the United Kingdom, some 55 percent of respondents have said their country has too many immigrants; only 40 percent of Americans feel the same about their own nation.
Brexit and Trumpism may both be populist revolts — but the Brexit campaign was able to mobilize much more diverse support, including among elites. Notably, several prominent expatriate British conservative journalists living in the United States, such as National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke and Heat Street’s Louise Mensch, are pro-Brexit but devoutly anti-Trump.
“Leave” champions include pro-globalism, pro-immigration former London Mayor Boris Johnson and a leading nonwhite Tory politician, employment minister Piri Patel. Compare this with Trump’s fractious relationship to prominent minority Republicans — New Mexico Gov. Susanna Martinez or South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.
In the end, a key factor is Trump the man, in all his nastiness, petty tyranny and volatility. Polls show Americans tend not to trust him with nuclear weapons. Say what you will about the Brexit campaign, it did not raise the prospect of an unstable, angry narcissist controlling weapons of mass destruction. While the “Remain” effort in the UK hurt itself with fearmongering and negativity, Trump’s negatives are so high that attacks are unlikely to backfire.
After the British referendum, it’s increasingly clear that Brexit meant vastly different things to different people: to some, an inward turn and much less immigration; to others, a different but still-vibrant relationship with Europe, openness to the world and freedom of movement. There is a parallel here to the Trump campaign, in that Trump voters tend to project their own agenda onto the candidate. But Trump seems a much bigger risk. Brexit, when it happens, may well be negotiated down to terms that will minimize its disruptive impact. Elect Trump, and a Trump presidency is nonnegotiable.
Brexit certainly offers American liberals useful lessons — for instance, that their dismissal of “politically incorrect” anxieties is likely to produce a backlash. But Brexit was not a trial run for Trump, regardless of what happens in November.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.