The Lessons of Brexit Burst into the American Campaign

Donald Trump feels vindicated by the similarities between his followers and those who voted in favor of Britain leaving the European Union. The effectiveness of Clinton’s speech about fear is now being called into question.

Britain’s decision to leave the EU is being interpreted in a number of different ways in the United States. For the Republican Donald Trump, the vote for Brexit is a vindication of his strategy; it reflects the strength of the anti-establishment feeling that has propelled him to a presumptive candidacy. For the Democrat Hillary Clinton, his rival in November’s presidential election, the result of the Brexit referendum represents a warning: it both highlights the attractiveness of the populist message and casts doubt on the effectiveness of Clinton’s strategy to combat such a populist message by presenting herself as a serious and prepared politician.

Trump has welcomed the result from last Thursday’s vote. He considers it to be both “a fantastic thing” and proof that “people are angry; all over the world they’re angry.” Some Republicans attribute the victory of the “Leave” campaign to a public weariness with the political bureaucracy of London, Brussels and Washington that they themselves claim to denounce.

Clinton has made clear her respect for the referendum result and has used it as a stick with which to beat Trump, who has no political experience, arguing, “This time of uncertainty only underscores the need for calm, steady, experienced leadership in the White House.” Her campaign has also released a statement criticizing the business magnate for boasting that the fall in the value of the pound, as a result of the win for Brexit, could help his business interests in Scotland, where he opened a new golf course the day after the vote.

The social realities, the influence of nationalism and the history of migration are different in the U.S. and the U.K., but there do exist similarities between supporters of Brexit and supporters of Trump. They both generally hail from the older generation, are white, more rural than urban and tend to have left their education at an earlier than average age.

There are also similarities between the major concerns of both groups: general malaise with the status quo, the feeling that the system no longer works for them, and a fear of immigration, but with the belief in a greater future despite the absence of concrete political promises.

Fiona Hill, director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank, believes that the parallels between the U.S. and the U.K. are proof of the “depths of anger” that party members feel toward the elites.

Hill, originally from England but who has spent the last 27 years in the U.S., maintains that the effect of Brexit on the election to succeed Barack Obama will depend on just how those who are considering voting for Trump interpret the consequences of the British vote. “The enormous impact on the British economy, the feeling of chaos, the turbulence in the leadership [of the parties] could be a warning to people who were thinking of a protest vote,” she explained in a telephone interview.

A Shared Working Class Vote

Hill also argues that supporters of Brexit and Trump followers share anti-establishment, anti-globalization and anti-immigration sentiments. As an example, she points to the fact that Brexit was most strongly supported in those areas of the U.K. hit hardest by industrial decline. In similar areas in the U.S., the protectionist rhetoric of Trump and Bernie Sanders, who sought the Democratic nomination, has proven popular.

Hill also sees a parallel between political parties on both sides of the Atlantic. The gap between Trump, popular with party members, and the Republican Party establishment is similar to that seen in the British Conservative Party between Boris Johnson, ex-mayor of London and prominent figure in the “Leave” campaign, and Prime Minister David Cameron, who campaigned for “Remain.” In the British Labour Party, the age and the combative style of its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is also similar to Sanders.

Trump, who only weeks ago admitted that he was unaware of the term “Brexit,” stated after the referendum that he saw “a parallel between what’s happening in the United States and what’s happening here. He added that “people want to take their country back, they want to have independence in a sense, […] they want to take their borders back, they want to take their monetary [system] back, they want to take a lot of things back.”*

Much like Cameron did with the referendum, Clinton offers a combination of stability and gradual improvement over the unpredictability of Trump. She has warned of the dangers of the multimillionaire reaching the White House and has avoided making any grand promises. This same strategy was followed by the British prime minister in the referendum and its failure casts doubt on the effectiveness of Clinton’s speech about fear and urging caution with respect to Trump’s showmanship.

Clinton appears to be conscious of the lessons of Brexit. On Sunday, the Democratic candidate stated that the U.S. and the U.K. are different “economically, politically and demographically,” but did admit that there are some similarities. “Just as we have seen, there are many frustrated people in Britain, we know there are frustrated people here at home, too. I have seen it, I’ve heard it, I know it,” Clinton said.

*Editor’s note: This quotation, although accurately translated, could not be independently verified.

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