With Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, did Donald Trump just win the presidential election?
On the surface, this may seem an odd question, but the concerns that led a majority of Brits to vote “leave” on Thursday are similar to those that have catapulted Trump to the Republican nomination — immigration, refugees, underemployment.
Also similar have been reactions to Brexit and to Trump’s political rise. Analysts and market speculators were shocked that the prediction models they used were wrong. Overnight, the political playbook seemed to have become a relic of some distant past.
The biggest gambler of all was Prime Minister David Cameron, who held the referendum despite his preference to “remain.” His resignation essentially marked the death of the establishment and a rebirth of people who have risen in protest of a world they refuse to accept.
The populist, anti-establishment movement we’ve been witnessing in the United States isn’t purely local. Other countries, especially in Europe, are feeling similar stresses to their psyche as well as their material infrastructure, leading to renewed calls for nationalism. Already, other nations are queuing up to join merry old England on the exit ramp.
The ground has shifted and, with it, global markets. Immediately, the pound plunged along with stock values. Rattled investors tried to regain their equilibrium. The world gaped in breathless wonderment as a new, upside-down landscape took shape.
All, that is, except for Donald Trump.
Conveniently in Scotland to visit his Turnberry resort, the brand-brandishing baron of bombast opined that Brexit was “a great thing.” Never mind that the “Scotch,” as Trump recently referred to his Scots heritage, voted overwhelmingly to remain in the E.U. and likely will hold a referendum soon to separate from Britain.
What matters is that Trump saw in Brexit an opportunity to profit. Because that’s what Trump does. One impoverished fellow’s home foreclosure is Trump’s business opportunity. One nation’s lost cause is his tourist bonanza.
You probably thought Brexit was about national independence, didn’t you? Trump thought it was about him. The pound’s decline, he explained, could mean more travelers to his resorts — and what could be better than that?
Trump further explained that it was great the British people were taking their country back, just as Trump supporters are hoping to do in November. Indeed, in many respects, Trump is the U.S.’s “Trexit” — a ticket to leave the establishment and entrenched bureaucrats whom Trump’s admirers, and Britain’s leavers, see as responsible for their respective nation’s problems.
This message, though we’ve heard it a thousand times, has taken time to penetrate the minds of commentators and analysts who now humbly acknowledge that they didn’t see “it” coming — neither Brexit nor Trump. It was easier to name the manifestations — xenophobia, racism, sexism, “fear of the other” — than it was to recognize the root causes, which, distilled, amount to a looming sense of lost identity.
The smartest thing Trump has said during his campaign was in a speech last week. Citing Hillary Clinton’s slogan “I’m with her,” he said his slogan is “I’m with you, the American people.”
Brilliant. When Trump frames things this way, he wins. When his critics point to his xenophobia and racism, legitimate though these observations may be, he wins again. To his fans, the critics don’t get it. When Trump supporters hear post-Brexit analysts say the “leavers” suffered “fear of the other,” they hear fools ignoring the realities of unsecured borders, possible terrorists posing as refugees and illegal immigrants demanding entitlements.
A majority of Brits apparently heard the same thing. Their retreat isn’t only away from the European Union and, inferentially, from globalization, concubine of the New World Order. It is rather a turning back toward home, the idea as well as the place. Home is who we are, the values we share, the traditions we practice and the one flag to which we all pledge allegiance.
This is the red meat of the matter.
Those who miscalled Brexit haven’t — or hadn’t — fully grasped the gravity and intensity of the identity imperative. Trump, love him or hate him, grasped it, embraced it, gave it a helicopter ride and promised to respect it in the morning. He placed all bets on the power of nationhood and on his unique power to harness and reinvent globalization in his own image.
Clinton would do well to heed these identity concerns lest she become America’s Cameron to Trump’s Trexit.