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Why the Brexit Isn’t a Boost for Trump
A close look reveals notable differences between the victorious Brexit campaign and the foundering Trump presidential campaign.
Does yesterday’s successful Brexit vote signal a transatlantic validation of Donald Trump’s campaign? Many commentators, including James Hohmann in Friday’s Washington Post, have pointed out common dynamics between Trump’s appeal in the United States and the Leave campaign’s appeal in Britain. There is considerable evidence for this line of analysis, including the two campaigns’ common bases of support among the older white working class demographic, the centrality of immigration concerns, the populist appeals, the rhetoric of disdain for elites, and so on. In other venues, I too have described Trumpism, the Brexit supporters, and similar movements on the European continent as part of a transatlantic phenomenon of populist discontent.
But in the wake of the surprising success of the Leave vote, this analysis should not be taken too far. Or as Lee Corso would say, “not so fast, my friend!” A closer looks reveals some notable differences between the victorious Brexit campaign and the foundering Trump presidential campaign.
First, the most visible leaders of the Leave campaign — Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London, and Michael Gove, the current justice minister — are both highly articulate policy intellectuals and accomplished office-holders. They know policy and they know politics. Their Brexit advocacy gave the Leave campaign a sophistication and policy rationale that transcended the more visceral nativist appeals by Nigel Farage and the United Kingdom Independence Party, which formed a base of Brexit supporters far too small to win on their own. Johnson and Gove thus persuaded a sufficient bloc of British swing voters of the plausibility of supporting Leave. Trump, in contrast, remains more an American version of Farage, with little demonstrated interest in policy or in expanding his political appeal beyond his core base of supporters. Similarly, the Leave campaign was well funded, organized, and ran effective advertising and voter mobilization efforts, whereas Trump’s campaign is nearly bankrupt and in organizational disarray. This week, he devoted precious campaign time to visiting one of his golf resorts in the crucial electoral swing state of… Scotland (golf pun intended).
Second, as I wrote two weeks ago, underappreciated aspects of the Leave campaign were its appeals to restore self-governance and democratic accountability. These lines of thought resonated especially with British citizens who had seen more and more of the laws and regulations that governed their lives made not by their own Parliament and the judiciary, but instead by unrepresentative bureaucrats in Brussels and unaccountable judges in Luxembourg. In short, many Brexit supporters viewed their votes as votes for more political freedom and accountable government. Again, the contrast with Trump is revealing. Rarely does he talk about “freedom,” “liberty,” or even the Constitution. Instead, he makes his appeals to power and authority, with troubling hints of authoritarianism. Trump’s rhetoric is not about returning power to the American people; it is about turning over power to Trump.
Finally, Brexit supporters were not motivated for the most part by animus towards free trade, in stark contrast to the hostility many Trump supporters voice towards free trade agreements. To be sure, the Leave campaign, like Trump, tapped into the economic anxieties of working and middle-class British citizens over jobs allegedly lost to immigrants, and into voter frustration over the strain that immigrants were placing on British welfare services. But Brexit supporters for the most part did not blame their economic frustrations on the European Union’s open trading bloc. If anything, their frustrations were with the dues and fees that Britain pays to the EU each year, and with the burdensome economic regulations that EU membership imposes, as exemplified by Michael Gove’s emotional account of the demise of his father’s fishing business in Aberdeen. I suspect that the withdrawal negotiations will see Britain attempting to preserve many of the free trade provisions it currently has with the rest of the EU.
Of course, none of this analysis should downplay the global gravity of yesterday’s momentous vote (nor does it prevent Trump from wrapping himself in the Brexit mantle). But it should serve as a reminder that while some of the Brexit dynamics are part of a transatlantic phenomenon, some are also distinctively, uniquely British.
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