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Thatcher-Reagan, Blair-Clinton, Brexit-Trump
The Republican presidential candidate can take encouragement from a long history of British and U.S. politics moving in tandem.
Maybe it was just a coincidence, or maybe Donald Trump really does have a political sixth sense. Either way, it was with exquisite timing that The Donald descended out of the skies onto the soil of his mother’s birthland just a couple of hours after the European Union referendum result, to claim the Brexit vote as his own. Standing in front of the clubhouse of his Turnberry golf course, the rotor blades of his helicopter still whirring, he declared the British people’s decision to leave the EU to be a “great thing.”
Fair enough. Trump is entitled to his opinion on the matter of British sovereignty. But he also made a more empirical claim about the Brexit result, namely that it represents a “great” victory for his politics — and here one is forced to concede that he is correct. British and American politics have tended to move in tandem since World War II, sometimes one country a bit ahead, sometimes the other. On this occasion, it is Britain that is a couple of steps in front.
Even a cursory glance at the polling data suggests that the people who voted to leave are indeed Trump’s kind of people. By considerable margins, leavers were usually poorer, less educated, less urban, and older than those who voted to remain. Moreover, according to polling by the Tory politician Lord Michael Ashcroft immediately after the vote, those who voted to leave were indeed trying, in Trump’s words, to “take their country back” — or, one might say, to make their country great again. Nearly three-quarters of “Remainers” thought that life in Britain was better today than 30 years ago; but 58 percent of those who voted to leave said it was worse. How so? Well, the overwhelming majority of “Leavers” in the poll (80 percent) thought that social liberalism had been a “force for ill” in Britain, 74 percent thought the same of feminism, and 70 percent of globalization itself. In other words, they were flatly rejecting the whole liberal worldview of a globalized, open, multicultural trading nation that successive governments — both Labour and Tory — have cultivated over the past 40 years or so.
Europe had become a proxy for these discontents. But the lightning rod for all this resentment was immigration. Very specifically, it was the net migration figures that killed the Remain campaign. Last year over 300,000 more people came to Britain than left the country, yet Prime Minister David Cameron had foolishly promised that his government would bring this figure down to the “tens of thousands.” To the Leavers, there was no clearer example of the country’s inability to “take [its] borders back.”
Moreover, there was plenty of evidence from the campaign to suggest that arguing against more immigration did not necessarily lose the votes of immigrants and ethnic minorities. This is another axiom of Trump politics, advanced in America by Republicans such as Tom Cotton, the freshman congressman from Arkansas. In the referendum in Britain, about a quarter of blacks and ethnic minorities said they would vote to leave before the poll. Often — and I know this firsthand from campaigning on the streets for the Remain campaign — immigrants seemed keener to pull up the drawbridge behind them, to reduce the competition for jobs and public services, than to extend a hand of friendship to others fleeing poverty, or worse. Translated to America, this suggests that Trump Republicans might yet appeal to millions of Hispanics while demanding that Mexico build its wall and all illegals be deported.
The biggest reason why all this should matter to American observers is that historically, postwar America and Britain have moved in political lockstep, often with plenty of cross-fertilization between the two. The postwar Keynesian consensus of full employment and managed economies prevailed on both sides of the Atlantic until the late 1960s, when a reaction set in at exactly the same time, producing the victories for Richard Nixon in America in 1968 and the Tory Prime Minister Edward Heath in 1970. After brief left-of-center respites in the mid-1970s (Jimmy Carter in the United States and Jim Callaghan in Britain) both countries ratcheted to the right with the ideological soulmates Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. They were followed in the mid-1990s by “Third Way” social democratic reactions (Clinton and Blair).
Now the conventional wisdom that both Britain and America inherited from these eras of dramatic political change — a conventional wisdom in support of globalization, free trade, open markets, and multiculturalism — has been challenged again on both sides of the Atlantic, most dramatically by Trump in his campaign for the presidency, and more persuasively by Britain’s Brexit voters. Given the history of British and American politics moving in tandem, Trump is right to draw encouragement from the Brexit vote. For the same reason, Americans opposed to his politics should heed Brexit as a warning.
This is especially true of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party she now leads. One of the most conspicuous lessons of the Brexit vote was how dramatically Britain’s Labour Party has lost any connection with its core working-class voters. Whereas its very well-meaning uber-liberal metropolitan leadership voted to remain, swaths of the party’s supporters in Britain’s declining industrial areas, feeling left behind by globalization, defied Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and voted to leave. Hillary Clinton, too, has struggled to connect with the blue-collar workers in America’s Rust Belt. If she fails on the same epic scale as the Labour Party did during the referendum campaign, she will be in trouble.
What lessons can Trump’s opponents learn from the past few months in Britain? First, they should prepare a better economic case for immigration than Cameron ever did. The Remain campaign was cowed by the rising hostility to migration and failed to convey any sense of how migrants could be a net benefit to the economy. If Trump manages to make immigration a central feature of the presidential election, the Democrats must be better prepared than Cameron was.
Second, the Remain campaign in Britain never exploited the glaring contradictions in the Brexiteers’ position. The Leave campaign was composed of many groups and consequently ran the full intellectual gamut from liberal internationalists (such as Boris Johnson) to little-Englanders such as Nigel Farage and his UK Independence Party. The former argued that Britain should keep its doors open and would trade more with the rest of the world if only it could shed the dead weight of the EU, while the latter argued that stopping all immigration was the main reason to leave the EU, never mind the economic consequences.
The Leavers’ positions are clearly contradictory, but the Remain camp never managed to nail them for it. Instead, they got bogged down in “Project Fear,” a doomed attempt to scare people into remaining in the EU for fear of the economic costs of leaving, which have not come to pass anyway. It is now up to the next prime minister to attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable in (probably) her forthcoming Brexit negotiations with our former EU partners.
In the same way as the Leave campaign, Trump runs the gamut of contradictory positions, of being pro-business yet anti-free trade, for example. It will be easy for Trump to deflect a similar campaign against him, but it’s not too hard to imagine that his campaign might sink under the weight of its own inconsistencies — just as Johnson, the leader of the Leave campaign, sunk under the weight of his own inconsistencies shortly after the referendum, his bid to become prime minister sunk by his putative allies.
Trump’s American opponents might take encouragement from the downfall of Johnson, his British counterpart. But they should also note that it came only after his chosen cause was victorious.
Photo credit: IAN MACNICOL/Getty Images