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What Trump’s bizarre Brexit comments actually reveal

Donald Trump Holds Press Conference At Trump Tower (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

There's a pretty stunning anecdote in the Hollywood Reporter's new Trump profile — one that makes it sound like Donald Trump has no idea what the British vote to exit the EU, called Brexit, is about:

"And Brexit? Your position?" I ask.




"The Brits leaving the EU," I prompt, realizing that his lack of familiarity with one of the most pressing issues in Europe is for him no concern nor liability at all.

"Oh yeah, I think they should leave."

The general reaction, both from Hollywood Reporter writer Michael Wolff and most media outlets, has been that this is another example of Trump's complete ignorance of most policy issues.

This is wrong, though. Trump has actually talked about Brexit a number of times in recent months, consistently suggesting Britain would leave the EU and that it'd probably be a good thing.

  • March 21, the Telegraph: "I have a lot of investments in the UK and I will tell you that I think they may leave based on everything I'm hearing."
  • March 24, ITV: "I think maybe it's time … in light of what's happened with the craziness that's happening with the migration, people pouring all over the place."
  • May 5, Fox News: "I think the migration has been a horrible thing for Europe. A lot of that was pushed by the EU. … I know Great Britain very well. I know, you know, the country very well. I have a lot of investments there. I would say that they're better off without it."
  • May 16, ITV: "If I were from Britain, I would probably not want [the EU]. … [The EU is] a disaster."

So Trump has been weighing in on Brexit since March, with a clearly established position: The EU is bad for Britain because it encourages migration. The Hollywood Reporter interview is being interpreted as Trump not actually knowing about the Brexit vote, which is wrong.

That being said, it's still striking that he doesn't know the Brexit portmanteau. It's used in basically all the coverage of the issue, which indicates that Trump hasn't really been following the issue in the press or reading about it. It's not that he doesn't know that the British vote is happening; it's that he doesn't care to learn anything about it. Instead, Trump is going with his gut instinct — which is that immigrants are bad and the UK should do whatever it can to shut itself off from them.

This is how Trump does foreign policy thinking more generally. He doesn't really have a cogent ideology or anything like formal knowledge, just a series of impulses (like that immigrants are bad) that he applies blindly to whatever the issue at stake is. He's said that on foreign policy, "my primary consultant is myself and I have a good instinct for this stuff." That, and not ignorance of the fact of the British vote itself, is what's on display here.

Watch: The political science that predicted Trump's rise