Donald Trump’s rise to the Republican nomination for president has been so unorthodox that it’s hard to figure out its long-term implications. But Britain’s Thursday vote to leave the European Union provides strong evidence that Trump’s rise will not prove to be just a flash in the pan.
Some Americans see Trump’s nomination as a fluke made possible by a divided presidential field and his unique skills as a reality TV star. Trump has been a master at manipulating the media, using controversial statements and feuds with other candidates to keep the spotlight firmly on him.
But another possibility is that Trump’s rise represents the emergence of a major new force in American politics. Perhaps Donald Trump is the first of many Republicans who will run for office on a more populist and nativist platform than has been the norm for Republican candidates in the past.
Britain is not the United States, of course. But the two countries are similar enough, politically and culturally, that we can learn some useful lessons from British politics.
Support for Brexit was driven by many of the same attitudes as support for Trump’s candidacy: opposition to immigration, hostility toward foreigners, and distrust of elites and international institutions. These attitudes helped to convince almost 52 percent of British voters to exit the European Union.
This suggests that, if anything, support for Trump-style politics may be bigger than support for Trump himself. Trump, after all, is a terrible general election candidate: He’s misogynistic, ignorant about public policy, and has proven completely incompetent at raising money and building a campaign organization. He’ll probably lose in November.
But a future candidate with Trump’s agenda but not his other baggage could be formidable in a general election.
Brexit was driven by popular anger at unaccountable institutions
If there was one overriding theme of the "Leave" campaign, it was anger over the antidemocratic nature of the European Union. Voters like to feel that governing institutions are accountable to them and serve their interests. And over the last decade, British voters have increasingly not felt that way about the EU.
That’s not a crazy belief. The most powerful institution in the European Union is probably the European Commission. Its members are selected by a convoluted procedure that leaves little room for public input. And once in office, they aren’t accountable to the European Parliament, national governments, or any other officials chosen by the voting public.
This "democracy deficit" rubs a lot of voters the wrong way. Britain has a long and noble tradition of parliamentary supremacy. Yet increasingly, decisions have been made by EU bureaucrats in Brussels instead of members of the British Parliament in Westminster.
The United States isn’t a member of any supranational organizations as powerful as the EU, but Donald Trump has nevertheless made skepticism about international organizations a key theme of his campaign. He has described the NATO defense pact with European democracies as "obsolete." He’s also attacked the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
Popular anger about these trade deals is driven by the sense that they place the interests of foreigners and powerful corporations over the interests of ordinary American workers. That view is debatable, but it’s widely held among conservative voters.
In contrast, most Republican leaders are closely tied to the business community, which is a strong supporter of NAFTA, the TPP, and other trade deals. Congressional Republicans have supported President Barack Obama’s efforts to pass the TPP more strongly than members of Obama’s own party in Congress. Trump’s decision to break with Republican leaders on these trade deals helped him gain support from voters.
More broadly, both Brexit supporters and Donald Trump have railed against what they see as an unholy alliance between business elites and governing elites. Business interests in Britain predominantly supported remaining in the EU, just as business interests in the US have mostly supported the TPP. Trump, like populist Leave campaigners, has tapped into popular discontent with this alliance.
Trump and Brexit are both driven by voters’ fear of foreigners
Most Leave campaigners bristle at any suggestion that their campaign is xenophobic or isolationist, and a lot of prominent Leave supporters are not personally hostile toward foreigners. But it’s hard to deny, as Vox’s Zack Beauchamp discovered during a recent visit to the UK, that many rank-and-file Brexit supporters are motivated by xenophobic attitudes.
Donald Trump, of course, is more willing than most politicians to explicitly voice the bigoted sentiments of these kinds of voters, describing Mexicans as rapists and calling for a ban on Muslim immigration to the United States.
British politicians like Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party, have been more circumspect. They’ve focused on arguments that foreign migrants are taking natives’ jobs, using excessive public services, and committing crimes. But the practical effect is the same: voters with a prejudiced view of foreigners rallied around the Leave campaign, helping to get it a majority.
And it’s easy to imagine this same dynamic playing out in a post-Trump Republican party. Recent Republican presidential candidates have avoided making hostility toward immigrants and Muslims an explicit theme of their campaigns. Indeed, our last Republican president, George W. Bush, was explicitly pro-immigrant and emphasized that the war on terrorism was not a war on Muslims.
But now Trump has demonstrated that bashing Muslims and immigrants has a political payoff. A savvier Republican candidate in 2020 and 2024 could avoid the overt bigotry of Donald Trump while still harping on the costs of immigration and the dangers of Muslim terrorism — capturing Trump fans as well as more mainstream voters who feel concerned about these issues.
Brexit shows that voters are losing faith in elites generally
A final lesson of Britain’s Leave vote is that voters — especially conservative voters — are losing faith in mainstream elites in general.
The Remain campaign enjoyed the broad support of business leaders, academic experts, and party leaders. There was a consensus among economists that Brexit would damage the British economy. This theme was echoed by most prominent business leaders. The Remain campaign enjoyed support from the leaders of all three of Britain’s mainstream political parties: the Conservative Party, the Labour Party, and the Liberal Democrats, who together won 90 percent of the vote in the 2015 elections.
Yet voters evidently didn’t care. They voted to leave anyway.
Donald Trump’s experience in the Republican primary was very similar. Pundits, Republican leaders, and major donors all warned voters against electing Trump. The prominent conservative magazine National Review devoted an entire issue to making the case against him. Here again, Republican voters didn’t care.
Of course, Trump has yet to win the general election, and the near-unanimous condemnation of American elites — including many conservatives — may contribute to Trump’s downfall in November.
But it’s clear that voters are less likely to trust policy experts or leaders of their own party than they were in the past. That will make it easier for future Republican candidates to defy elite conservative orthodoxies like entitlement cuts, free trade, and immigration reform.