The GOP nominee's unrequited love for the Brexit campaign's leaders proves not all populist causes are created equal.
- By Alicia P.Q. WittmeyerAlicia P.Q. Wittmeyer is the Europe editor at Foreign Policy. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and Forbes, among other places. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and master’s degrees from Peking University and the London School of Economics. The P.Q. stands for Ping-Quon.
Given all the strange sights the 2016 presidential race has produced, a British politician taking the stage in Jackson, Mississippi to whoops and cheers may not rank among the weirdest. Still, it’s worth taking a few minutes to look back on oddness of the moment: Donald Trump, delivering a remedial lecture on European politics (“I said that Britain would leave the EU — sometimes referred to as ‘European Union’”); Nigel Farage, wearing a suit in the late August Mississippi heat, bounding up on stage to bash Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
For a few months, Farage and Trump gleefully played populist brothers in arms. Farage worked the spin room on Trump’s behalf following the second presidential debate, producing memorable animal comparisons; Trump called himself “Mr. Brexit” nearly every chance he got. Farage could have rightfully taken offense at that self-conferred title. If anyone was Mr. Brexit, shouldn’t it be him, the man who devoted his entire political career to achieving U.K.’s exit from the European Union? But no matter — it was worth swallowing his pride for what seemed a mutually beneficial relationship, one which allowed Trump to claim Brexit’s momentum for his own campaign and allowed Farage to be the international face of a victory that was, in fact, only partially his.
And then, two weeks ago, it seemed that even Trump’s favorite Brexiteer had finally had enough. In an interview with the BBC’s Jeremy Paxman following the wave of sexual assault allegations that had just slammed into Trump’s campaign, Farage showed the first signs of slowly backing away from the Republican nominee. Farage said he disagreed with Trump on “lots of things” — among them, he said, his treatment of women and his plan to ban Muslims from the United States. “There are lots of things in this campaign that I couldn’t support in any way at all, nor do I,” he said. When you’ve lost Mr. Breaking Point, can you really keep calling yourself Mr. Brexit?
The incentive for Trump to tie his populist campaign to the Brexit vote is clear enough: Brexit’s anti-establishment vibe fits his own populist brand. Plus, Brexit won! When ‘decent people,’ as Farage put during his Mississippi stump speech, band together and rise up, they can shake off the unelected Eurocrats! (Or, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.)
But, Farage’s early enthusiasm aside, Trump’s love for Brexit has never been requited. Many of the most prominent Brexit champions are not Trump supporters at all. (For Farage’s part, as of the surprise Clinton email bombshell from the FBI a week ago, he appears to be back on Team Trump.) And that lack of support says something about where the analogies between the Trump campaign and the Brexit vote do and don’t stack up.
Trump, for instance, does not have the backing of Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London, whose support, many post hoc accounts suggest, was instrumental in giving the Brexit campaign the mainstream respectability it needed to secure a victory. Johnson, now foreign secretary, has called Trump “unfit to hold the office of the president of the United States,” and following the Brexit vote, made a point of drawing a “very, very strong contrast” between what it meant to vote to leave the EU and what it means to vote for Trump.
Whatever support Trump has from Rupert Murdoch — whose newspapers led the way in Brexit cheerleading — has come only grudgingly, and in the wake of a high-profile feud during the Republican primary. Murdoch, who particularly dislikes Trump’s stance on immigration, apparently blamed former Fox News head Roger Ailes for enabling Trump’s rise, and even went so far as to order the moderators of the first GOP primary debate on Fox to hit Trump hard on a variety of issues, according to New York magazine, declaring that “this has gone on long enough.” The Murdoch-owned New York Post endorsed Trump in the GOP primary, but the Wall Street Journal, which does not endorse candidates as a matter of tradition, has published editorials that have been strongly critical of the Republican nominee, including one that edged close to asking Trump to drop out of the race.
These are the big names, the ones with international cache. But there are others: Daniel Hannan, a member of European Parliament whom the Guardian newspaper dubbed “The Man Who Brought You Brexit” thinks Donald Trump is “a narcissistic, thin-skinned bully, a serial liar, a man who shows not the slightest respect for the office to which he aspires.” Douglas Carswell, UKIP’s only member of Parliament, called Trump “shrill and obnoxious” and said the idea of banning Muslims from the United States was “plainly absurd.”
Many of the theories for a possible Trump victory have depended on analogies with Brexit. If Brexit could achieve a convincing populist victory despite ambiguous polling, who’s to say Trump can’t do the same? But the fact that many, if not most, prominent Brexit supporters express a visceral dislike for the Republican presidential nominee, despite his obvious enthusiasm for them, at the very least suggests that not all populist causes are created equal.
It’s sometimes hard to remember these days, in the wake of the Conservative Party Conference last month in which Theresa May made clear that she saw the Brexit victory as a mandate to take a hard line against immigration, that the vote to leave the EU actually came out of a coalition composed of two camps. One of these camps looked very much like Trump voters do: white, working class, anti-immigrant, and anti-globalization — people who saw pulling the lever for Brexit as a big middle finger to “the system.” But the other camp looked very, very different. A Brexit vote, for them, was a vote to liberate Britain from the EU’s reams of regulations, so that it might be freed to become the ultimate freemarket state. This camp was, if anything, pro-immigrant and pro-globalization — people who wanted to see London turned into a sort of “Singapore on the Thames.”
More than a few American publications have referred to Boris Johnson as the Donald Trump of Britain. But funny hair aside, this isn’t an accurate comparison at all. There’s a reason why Nigel Farage is Trump’s favorite Brexit buddy: Farage, despite briefly losing faith a few weeks ago in the face of Trump’s alleged sexual predations, hails from the first camp of Brexit voters. But many of the figures that gave Brexit its political and intellectual muscle — the professionals, in other words, the ones who knew how to run campaigns, who knew how to strategize, and prepare for, say, debates — hailed from the second.
There is no real Trump equivalent of this second camp. Not politically (with, perhaps, the exception of Kellyanne Conway, a late addition, Trump’s leading strategic advisors have been his children). And certainly not intellectually: Conservative thinkers remain among the staunchest #NeverTrumps out there. Daniel Hannan spent decades of his life writing books and speeches that honed the intellectual case against the European Union. There is no Trumpian equivalent of a Daniel Hannan.
When people like Johnson, or say, Michael Gove, another leading Brexit campaigner, railed against the “elites,” they always seemed to be doing it with a bit of a wink. The idea was absurd on its face — these were among the most elite people in the country, even if they were happy to exploit the anger of the working classes to achieve their own ends. But with Donald Trump, despite his own personal wealth, the anti-elite attacks are less patently ridiculous. For better or worse, his campaign is a genuinely anti-elite revolt. With a handful of exceptions — the Peter Thiels, the Newt Gingriches — there are truly very few of the people commonly considered “elites” who are rooting with gusto for Donald Trump.
This missing second camp complicates the analogy between Brexit and Trump, so it’s not actually clear what it tells us about the prospects of a Trump victory. The fight over the EU referendum has since been replaced by a battle over who will “win” Brexit — the Little Englanders or the Singapore-on-Thamesers — that is still unfolding. But for those who saw, in Brexit, people like Rupert Murdoch riding a wave of working-class anger toward a dream of a regulation-free Britain, the course of the fight, so far, has been surprising. May has sent signals that some see as portending a “hard Brexit”; that is, she’s indicated she might be willing to prioritize stopping immigration over maintaining access to Europe’s single market. For the most part, this isn’t the sort of Brexit that this second camp had in mind. Will it turn out that Britain’s angry white working-class voters were actually exploiting the pro-Brexit elites, and their politicking expertise, to achieve the sort of victory they wanted, rather than the other way around?
The ultimate meaning of Brexit will be determined retroactively, by whomever wins the ongoing fight between Britain’s pro-Brexit camps. And that, in turn, will determine whether Trump, who only represents one side of that fight, can rightly refer to himself as Mr. Brexit, or rather just a poor man’s Nigel Farage, fated to rule a fringe party and nothing more.
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