There may be no better example of American chauvinism than the collective effort in the United States to make sense of “Brexit” through the prism of Donald Trump. This approach confuses more than it clarifies. Moreover, this simplification does a grave disservice to both the British and American publics. The referendum in Great Britain was not an American political proxy war. It’s not all about you.
The result of a plebiscite in Great Britain on membership in the European Union shocked pollsters and pundits on Thursday. Public opinion surveys had indicated that customary British prudence would prevail. Many presumed that the threat of global economic instability and spiking domestic unemployment that would likely be the result of “Brexit” would be enough to scare British voters into complacency. It wasn’t. On Thursday, Britain took a step into the unknown, and Americans are now more rattled about the future of their own election.
“Stop underestimating Trump,” the Washington Post headline blared. “‘Brexit’ vote shows why he can win.” The Post’s James Hohmann asserted that the “Brexit” campaign was fueled by “grievance,” similar to Trump’s candidacy. Furthermore, despite the fact that the “Leave” campaign was underfunded and lacked the support of institutional elites, it still prevailed. The Fix’s Chris Cillizza echoed Hohmann. He noted that the “Leave” campaign opposed EU-facilitated immigration and the presumed incompetence of governing elites, and its supporters had little regard for the consequences of reckless gambits. Sound familiar?
On a superficial level, the “Leave” campaign’s issues bear some resemblance to Trump’s, but they are not identical. After nearly a year of anticipation, American political observers are starving for some empirical evidence that can lend scientific legitimacy to their election year extrapolations. Imposing Trumpism over Brexit seems not merely impetuous but also an imprecise attempt to simplify the complex.
For average American partisans, the Brexit vote is an opportunity to strike a righteous posture. To the left, this vote is nothing more than a selfish expression of heedless nostalgia and xenophobia that will only yield global economic turmoil and disunion. For the pro-Trump right, noble nationalism has triumphed over bureaucrats, lobbyists, and special interests; “We the People” are sovereign once more. These interpretations, and much else, need clearing up.
For starters, let’s look into the notion that the polls of Britain were wrong, and therefore the polls of the American election are wrong. Polling of the 2015 general election missed a Tory landslide (just as American polling in the 2014 midterms missed a GOP wave), and the polls of this referendum missed a “Leave” edge. But by how much? The Financial Times’ polling average closed the day on Thursday with a 48 percent to 46 percent edge for “Remain,” with “Leave” surging in the last week.
Donald Trump has never enjoyed as substantial lead over his opponent and, like the 2008 and 2012 races, has trailed Hillary Clinton for over an entire year. With the exception of five days in May in which Trump overtook Clinton in the RCP average by two-tenths of a percent, Trump’s deficit against Clinton is consistent and deep (nearly six points as of this writing). The polls in America might be wrong, but they’d have to be really wrong to miss a Trump victory—and wrong in a way that they were not throughout the primaries.
And what about the issues? To suggest that the “Brexit” campaign closely resembles Donald Trump’s pitch to American voters does a disservice to Britain’s “Leave” advocates.
Passionate, bright, and competent orators on the “Leave” side, like former London Mayor Boris Johnson and Member of the European Parliament Daniel Hannan, were not arguing for trade protectionism, for example, but against it. They and other laissez-faire-minded Britons argued that the EU was a highly protectionist institution that forced upon the U.K. overpriced goods and constricting, preposterous labor rules.
“In 2013, the size of the commonwealth economy became larger than that of the Eurozone economy,” Hannan lectured in January. He argued that the U.K. is better served by not tethering itself to an unfree trade zone on the continent but a freer commercial relationship with Anglosphere nations like America and the former British Commonwealth. “At a time when the rest of the world has learned the secret of decentralization, devolution—when there is a move away from central control and towards diversity, and variety, and pluralism–we on this continent are uniquely going in the opposite direction, and that’s why the economy keeps shrinking,” Hannan said. There isn’t much in Donald Trump’s portfolio of policy prescriptions that resembles this kind of federalism, with the possible exception of his lip service to the cause of education reform and the abolishment of Common Core standards. The Trumpian movement is one that favors centralization of authority and the provision of greater power to Donald Trump and the levers of government he might command.
None of this is to say that Donald Trump will not or cannot win the White House; he most certainly can. What’s more, it would be foolish to dismiss the popular revolt against the status quo that both Trump’s rise and “Brexit” represent. But the similarities between these two events are trivial. For Trump supporters to appropriate the vote of the British people yesterday to legitimize their own political preferences is wild triumphalism. Political reporters using “Brexit” as a talisman to classify potential Trumpian portents should know better. The sun doesn’t revolve around the United States, Brussels is not Washington D.C., and Boris Johnson is most certainly not Donald Trump.