The parallels are there, but key differences still spell trouble for the presumptive GOP nominee.
A mix of economic anxiety and populist anger. Furor over immigration and its accompanying culture shift. And charismatic, unconventional politicians whipping up a frenzied following over the need to reclaim a national identity that is supposedly being wiped away.
Indeed, the run-up to Great Britain’s surprise vote to leave the European Union would look familiar to anyone who’s watched Donald Trump’s shock run to the top of the Republican party. That’s certainly how Trump himself sees it. “Many people are equating BREXIT, and what is going on in Great Britain, with what is happening in the U.S. People want their country back!” Trump tweeted.
But those parallels, striking though they are, fall far short of foreshadowing a Trump victory. Transatlantic sentiment or no, Trump is still a candidate whose negatives are at 70 percent, who is even more toxic to Hispanic and black voters and who faces an electorate that is far less white than Great Britain’s.
“In the United Kingdom, you had the equivalent of Trump voters and Sanders voters all turning out for Brexit,” said Ian Bremmer, the executive director of the Eurasia Group. “But Trump is not going to get all of the working class white voters because the Bernie voters are going to mostly get behind Hillary. Trump and his toxic identity politics do not appeal to blacks and Hispanics.”
The gap is most obvious in the polls. In the U.K., “leave” and “remain” see-sawed in the weeks before the vote. In the U.S., it’s less ambiguous. Trump trails in national polls, swing state polls and even in Republicans states. He left the country a day after a poll showed him trailing by four points in Arizona, which Mitt Romney carried in 2012 by 10 points.
Trump’s run is also in a vote between two candidates, while Britain’s vote was about a domestic matter dating back decades — a simple yes-no vote about a faceless national identity and membership in the E.U. that had always been driven by economics, not the validation of an individual candidate or personality.
Trump has, to put it mildly, never shied away from putting himself front-and-center in his campaign.
“The underlying notion that an anti-establishment, nativist, populist movement can win an election is very much validated by what happened in the UK,” said Lanhee Chen, a Hoover Institution fellow and former foreign policy advisor to Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign. “But we are voting for a person, not a set of ideas here. I caution that it’s not validating for Trump individually, but it is for the ideas he’s built his campaign around.”
The Brexit has certainly not captured the totality of Trump’s attention. On Friday he was in Scotland to celebrate the reopening of his newly renovated golf course, where he heralded the vote while posing for pictures at a ribbon cutting.
“Just arrived in Scotland. Place is going wild over the vote. They took their country back, just like we will take America back. No games!)” Trump tweeted upon landing. (Scotland voted against the referendum, and the country is now expected to once again consider opting out of the U.K. in order to get back in to the E.U.).
Trump’s two-day trip, aimed at burnishing a personal brand that remains as much about his business portfolio as political aspirations, did not involve any meetings with foreign leaders. At his press conference Friday morning, he shrugged off a question about whether he should be consulting with foreign policy advisors given the economic fallout from the Brexit vote.
“I’ve been in touch with them, but there’s nothing to talk about,” he said.
Likewise, for most U.S. voters, the U.K.’s political comings-and-goings barely register
“I don’t think there’s a high school football stadium you could fill with people in this country who care about Brexit,” said Stuart Stevens, the strategist who guided Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential bid and vehement critic of Trump. “You have a presidential candidate who doesn’t know what Brexit was. But how many Americans are tracking foreign currency markets? I don’t think anyone in America understands the EU or what this means.”
That ignorance may not be blissful for long. Stocks in the U.S. tanked following the Brexit vote with the Dow down nearly 500 points, or 2.7 percent, in late Friday trading. Markets are also braced for more E.U. referenda following the Brexit vote with nationalist far-right movements gaining strength in France, Italy and elsewhere on the continent. Both the pace of hiring and consumer confidence and spending tend to correlate to how voters feel about the party in the White House and significant declines would make Clinton’s case against Trump much harder to make.
If the Brexit vote grinds the country’s already anemic economic growth to a halt, that would likely benefit Trump, not Clinton, an establishment candidate seeking a third straight Democratic term in the White House.
Working to replace that undercurrent with a discussion of Trump’s qualifications, Clinton’s campaign blasted Trump’s response to the global crisis. On a conference call with reporters, advisors called the presumptive Republican nominee’s indifference to the gravity of the situation and his statement that the devaluation of the British pound would likely boost business at his reopened luxury golf course “predictable” but also astonishing.
“And it should worry all of us, alarm us,” said Jake Sullivan, a senior policy advisor to Clinton. “Watching him, listening to his reaction to a major and consequential global event and then imagining this man as our President is a dangerous and frightening proposition.”
(The one glimmer of good news for Clinton is that the Brexit vote makes it almost certain that the Fed won’t raise interest rates again anytime soon. Some in the market think the central bank might even make an emergency rate cut, which could boost stock prices and growth in the US ahead of the election.)
But even if she succeeds in making the discussion about Trump’s ability to handle the new economic uncertainty, Clinton will be forced to grapple with the fact that Trump is capturing the prevailing mood of this political moment.
“What unites the Brexit voters and the Trump supporters is fear and frustration,” Chen said. “These are people who feel that they are losing in a globalizing economy. There’s a similar angst about trade, about foreign workers—people will parse the differences, but the anger, the anti-establishment mood, the desire for change are all very similar trends.”
“We live in an age of nationalism throughout the world,” said former Ambassador Christopher Hill, who served under Republican and Democratic presidents. “Just as there are a growing number of Brits who see in EU the opposite of their fond memories, many Americans feel in this integrated world, we’re losing control of our country.”
Sensing an opportunity to ride the current political headwinds, Trump sent supporters a fundraising email Friday celebrating Britain’s “brave stand for freedom and independence.”
Senator Jeff Sessions, one of Trump’s strongest supporters, also compared the Brexit movement to Trump’s candidacy, likening the EU to establishment forces in the U.S.
“Now, it’s our time,” he said.