The Brexit vote inevitably invites comparison to the upcoming presidential election in the United States. It’s clear that Brexit wasn’t just a vote to leave the European Union: It was a vote against immigration, laden with racial fears and resentment. It was a vote against the “Establishment,” or the elites: their distance from ordinary people’s concerns, and their stewardship of Britain’s role in a globalizing economy. It was a vote by people, especially older people, who fear that their country is somehow being taken away from them. It thus reflected an interweaving of economic distress and insecurity with what might broadly be called cultural or identity concerns—race, community, nation. In the language of social scientists, it was a vote that seemed in many ways more expressive than instrumental, that is, more emotional than strictly rational. It was very much a protest vote.
The parallels to the United States are obvious. Donald Trump is running a campaign based above all on racial resentment, dressed up as fear of immigrants and Muslims. He wants to “make American great again” and complains that this country constantly gets the short end of its international involvements, especially the “bad trade deals” that have helped to hollow out the American manufacturing sector. He is an outsider at a time when Washington and its veteran politicians are widely viewed with disdain. His limited understanding of policy issues doesn’t matter to his fans; he appeals to people’s guts rather than to their brains. Trump is the quintessential protest candidate.
The likelihood of a win for Brexit was underestimated, just as Trump’s appeal has been underestimated. Should Brexit make us more worried about a comparable outcome in the United States this November? I don’t think so, but that isn’t to say that Brexit is completely irrelevant to current US politics.
The Brexit vote and the US elections are fundamentally different animals, for at least two major reasons.
First and most obviously, the US elections pose a very different kind of choice from that poised by Brexit. The US elections are about choosing between two candidates for office. The presidential election will pit Donald Trump against Hillary Clinton. Nothing has happened to lead me to change my earlier assessment that Donald Trump is an unusually weak candidate for the presidency—indeed, probably the weakest the Republicans could have nominated. (I’m assuming Ben Carson never had a chance.) It is all too easy to forget that Trump’s spectacular success has been with a very limited slice of the electorate—Republican primary voters. Everything changes in a general election contest.
The latest Washington Post- ABC News poll of registered voters lays bare Trump’s weakness, not only in the big lead it shows for Clinton over Trump in vote preference—currently 51% vs. 39%–but in the reasons for that lead. A startling 64% of voters judge Trump unqualified for the presidency, while just 34% think he is qualified. (The numbers are practically flipped for Clinton: 61% qualified vs. 34% not.) In viewing the suitability of the candidates’ personality and temperament for the presidency, 61% rate Clinton superior to just 28% for Trump. These assessments undoubtedly reflect overwhelmingly negative reactions to Trump’s comments on the “Mexican” judge biased against him and on the Orlando mass shooting. But Trump being Trump, we can probably look forward to more such gaffes. (In the alternative but unlikely event that Trump manages to muzzle himself, he’ll just become boring. Trump needs to be Trump.) And Trump’s problems aren’t limited to his verbal offensiveness. Both his fundraising to date and his campaign organization are pathetically inadequate, and are dwarfed by Clinton’s. These failures are ultimately rooted in Trump’s narcissism. He evidently can’t bring himself to get on the phone to ask big-time Republican donors for money (most of them are leery of him in any case), and his lack of introspection impedes his ability to recognize and deal realistically with his campaign’s shortcomings.
The second major reason Brexit doesn’t apply to the US is that the electorates of the two countries are very different. Jamelle Bouie explains why “embattled whiteness” won’t give us President Trump even though it put over Brexit:
…[U]nlike the U.K., the U.S. has a large voting population of nonwhites: Latinos, black Americans, Asian Americans, etc. In Britain, “black and minority ethnic” people make up about 8 percent of the electorate. By contrast, people of color account for nearly 1 in 3 American voters. In practice, this means that in the past two national elections, there has been an electoral penalty for embracing the most reactionary elements of national life. And we see this in the polling between Trump and Clinton. If the United States were largely white—if its electorate were as monochromatic as Britain’s—then Trump might have the advantage. As it stands, people of color in America are acting as a firewall for liberalism—an indispensable barrier to this surge of ethno-nationalism.“
On the other hand—you do recall that I indicated that there would be another hand?—Brexit does suggest some lessons for US politics. Brexit struck a heavy blow against the assumption that the extension of relatively unregulated capitalism across borders is not only a net economic benefit for all countries, but that it entails no significant political costs for its promoters. That assumption is congenial to the business interests who have been its biggest beneficiaries, but globalization produces losers as well as winners. The losers are naturally unhappy, and numerous, while the winners are heavily concentrated among the more prosperous strata of the Western world.
With Brexit some of the losers made themselves heard. In the US, many of them have found their spokesmen in the persons of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Trump is greedily eying the electoral votes of the industrial heartland where international trade agreements have contributed to the depletion of the manufacturing economy. It is fair to say that Hillary Clinton has long been part of the “leadership class that worships globalization,” as Trump aptly put it in his speech yesterday. That leadership class includes a Democratic Party establishment which, beginning especially with Bill Clinton, has felt that the Party could loosen its historic ties with organized labor and the white working class it represented while seeking favor in the corporate world and among the enlightened professional classes. With Brexit reinforcing the message sent by the Trump and Sanders campaigns, it is increasingly clear that there are political costs to that strategy.
Maybe the Democratic presidential nominee can afford to bear those costs, given the weakness of her opponent. I hope that she will choose not to take that risk. Her tepid opposition to the Trans Pacific Partnership was a small step in the right direction, but given her history she needs to go further in order to be credible. It is not a good sign that the Democratic convention’s platform committee, with its majority of Clinton supporters, has declined even to go as far as to endorse Clinton’s own position on the TPP. Understandably reluctant to repudiate the policy of the incumbent Democratic president, it merely acknowledges a “diversity of views” within the party. That’s not going to cut it against Trump’s incendiary promises to trash existing agreements and start a trade war with China. Hillary needs to do better. This is one area where Bernie should really press her. It would be politically smart for her to demonstrate that she is not simply following in Obama’s footsteps; it would also be the right thing to do.