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From Brexit to Trump?

A mural showing Donald Trump sharing a kiss with former London Mayor and leading Brexit supporter Boris Johnson, Bristol, England, May 24, 2016
Matt Cardy/Getty Images
A mural showing Donald Trump sharing a kiss with former London Mayor and leading Brexit supporter Boris Johnson, Bristol, England, May 24, 2016

It was grimly appropriate that the first major international visitor to the new, post-Brexit Britain was Donald Trump. At dawn on Friday June 24, the presumptive Republican nominee’s Trump jet touched down in Glasgow, Scotland, from where he hopped into a Trump helicopter that ferried him to the christening of the Trump Turnberry golf course. There he applauded the “great victory” won overnight by those who had campaigned for Britain to leave the European Union.

They had, he said, exercised their “sacred right” to independence, taking back control of their economy and their borders. Naturally, he brought the subject back to himself and his own candidacy for the US presidency. “I think really people see a big parallel,” he said. “A lot of people are talking about that.”

He was right, even if he’d made a mistake by delivering his congratulations in Scotland—whose voters had emphatically opted, by 62 percent to 38 percent, to remain inside the European Union. (A fact, incidentally, which means Scots are likely to be presented again with their own referendum on whether to remain or leave the United Kingdom: so highly do they prize EU membership, the chances are high that, unlike two years ago, they will now vote to break away from the UK—in effect choosing one union over the other.)

People have indeed been discussing the ways in which the stunning upset of the Brexit vote might foreshadow the decision that will confront Americans in November, though not quite in the cheery spirit that Trump might hope for. A glum parlor game among British progressives in recent weeks had been: if you had to accept just one outcome in order to avoid the other, Brexit or President Trump, which would you choose? But the phenomena are paired for reasons deeper than that they both bring out liberals in hives. Trump said that Brexit and his own success were both evidence of voters choosing “to reject today’s rule by the global elite” and those words hint at two among several connections.

Look at those who voted for Brexit. The strongest single predictor was education. Those who had been university educated opted overwhelmingly to remain; those who had only made it through the British equivalent of high school or less wanted to leave. Similarly, the young voted to remain—75 percent of eighteen-to-twenty-four-year-olds voting in, according to one survey—while the old were adamant in heading for the exit. This generational divide has an educational dimension. Recall that not that long ago only 7 percent of Britons attended college. Today that figure is closer to 50 percent. Put bluntly, in the UK the old and the less educated are overlapping categories. That fact entrenches a divide that finds an uncanny mirror across the US. The older and less educated account for many among the 14 million voters who backed Trump in the primaries—a fact enshrined in his now-famous declaration that “I love the poorly educated”—while the young, recent college graduates especially, rallied to Bernie Sanders. In this respect at least, Trump and Sanders are Leave and Remain in human form—albeit with New York accents.

Of course much of this turns on class. Leavers were to be found—though not exclusively—among those who are poor, either out of work or in what are universally derided as “crap jobs”: answering the phones in call-centers or stacking shelves in warehouses, on insecure “zero-hours” contracts without benefits. They live in towns, rather than more cosmopolitan cities, often in the shadow of shuttered factories or closed mines, in places that are rundown, if not outright derelict. This is the England that has been left behind, a match for those parts of the American rust-belt that have rallied to Trump.

This economic divide was so stark that the referendum came to look like a class war, breaking England (and Wales) down the middle. As one leave voter, in a battered neighborhood ten minutes away from regenerated Manchester, told a Guardian reporter: “If you’ve got money, you vote in. If you haven’t got money, you vote out.”

Put another way, remain and leave represented a clash of globalization’s winners against its losers. Those who associate the shift to a global economy with fancy delicatessens, a buzzing bar scene, and career options abroad voted to stay. Ranged against them were, among others, those whose neighborhoods have been equally transformed by globalization but in a way they lament. That grievance partly relates to outsourcing and job losses. But at its heart it’s about immigration.

Which is where the Brexit parallel with Trump becomes even sharper. For the campaign that concluded on Thursday often felt as if it were a referendum not on Europe but on migration. The Remain camp wanted the focus to be on the economy, running what its opponents called Project Fear, warning voters of the catastrophic economic damage—a “lost decade” as Prime Minister David Cameron put it— that would come from a British exit. (Obligingly, the money markets wasted no time in vindicating Remain’s claims on Friday: the pound crashed, Britain’s credit rating was downgraded and an estimated $2 trillion was wiped off the value of global stocks.) Leave preferred to bypass voters’ wallets and speak to their guts instead, by lighting on the emotive terrain of migration—and here they broke through.

The argument was seductively simple. Membership of the EU requires each state to accept the free movement of people between EU countries. Therefore the only way to halt hundreds of thousands of EU citizens coming into the UK was to get out of the EU. Only that way, in the words of Leave’s powerful and defining slogan, could we “take back control.” There are differences of course: the Leavers did not voice overtly a desire to keep out Muslims, as Donald Trump does. But “take back control” was for Brexit what “build a wall” is for Trump: a three-word promise that taps into a seething geyser of anti-immigrant sentiment.

Again and again, Remain tried to push back with facts and evidence, including the data that showed migrants make a net contribution to the UK economy. But Leave simply waved it aside. Indeed, whenever any figure or institution of authority spoke up—from President Obama to the International Monetary Fund, the OECD or Britain’s independent Institute of Fiscal Studies—to offer even a sober, unjaundiced analysis of the likely consequences of Brexit, they would be howled down as the voices of the despised “elite,” yet another Trump trope. The approach was distilled when Leave’s Michael Gove, an Oxford-educated newspaper columnist turned government minister, declared, “the people of this country have had enough of experts.” Indeed, “expert” became a dirty word, its currency more soiled the more experts warned of the instability and mayhem that Brexit would bring. One caller to a radio talk show captured the spirit of the time—a distrust that has been brewing for years—when she said she was done listening to those with specialist knowledge. After all, “Experts built the Titanic.”

As with Trump, this disdain for the elite and for authority rode in harness with a slippery approach to the truth. The Republican nominee’s disregard for the truth is well-documented: not for nothing has he earned The Washington Post’s maximum Pinocchio rating. For their part, leaders of the Leave campaign drove around in a vehicle that was itself a lie: a bus emblazoned with a declaration that Britain sends £350m a week to the EU. Again and again, opponents, journalists and experts pointed out that the figure was bogus, failing to take account of, among other things, the cash rebate on Britain’s contribution negotiated years ago by Margaret Thatcher, and that the realistic figure was closer to a third of that sum. But to no avail. The slogan stayed on the bus, along with the promise that, after Brexit, that weekly bonanza of £350m would be spent on Britain’s cherished National Health Service. In the early hours of Friday morning, Nigel Farage—the leader of the UK Independence Party whose pressure brought about this referendum in the first place—admitted that the promised £350m figure was “a mistake” and there would be no such windfall for hospitals and doctors. But by then of course, it was too late. Voters had made their choice.

There are lessons here aplenty for Americans contemplating their own appointment with nationalist, nativist populism in November. They may think that there are not enough of the white, poor, angry, and left-behind to win an election. But Brexit suggests that when that constituency can be allied to a conservative cause that has millions of other, more ideologically-motivated devotees, victory is possible. It suggests that hostility to migrants, a cynical trampling on the truth, and a cavalier disdain for expertise can work wonders, such is the loathing of anything that can be associated with the “elite.” And it suggests that even great nations, those whose democratic arrangements were once regarded as a beacon to the world, are capable of acts of grievous, enduring self-harm.