Donald Trump’s trip to Scotland on the day Britain voted to leave the European Union looked, in hindsight, like a stroke of political genius. “My timing was great because I was here right at the epicenter of the crisis,” Trump told reporters. But Trump was not in Scotland because of Brexit; he was there to promote his golf courses. In an interview a few weeks earlier, he did not even know what Brexit was. It was serendipity, not strategy, that brought Trump to Scotland. Trump’s the guy who swallowed a lucky horseshoe.
But it’s true that his timing could not have been better. Trump is now arguing that the Brexit vote is validation of his upstart presidential candidacy. And he’s not entirely wrong.
Like Trump’s campaign, Brexit was a revolt against open borders. British voters blamed the E.U. for a wave of migration that has fundamentally transformed their country. One third of “Leave” voters said they cast their ballot for Brexit because it “offered the best chance for the UK to regain control over immigration and its own borders.”
Brexit was also, like Trump’s campaign, a revolt against an establishment out of touch with the struggles of ordinary, working-class citizens. With Brexit, in the words of Spectator editor Fraser Nelson, “pensioners in the seaside towns, the plumbers and chip-shop owners” delivered “the biggest slap in the face ever delivered to the British establishment in the history of universal suffrage.”
As in the United States, the anti-establishment sentiment driving Brexit was on both the right and left. As former prime minister Tony Blair pointed out, the “Leave” campaign could not have succeeded “without finding common cause with a significant segment of Labour voters . . . worried about flatlining incomes and cuts in public spending . . . [who] saw Brexit as an opportunity to register an anti-government protest.” In Britain, Blair says, the Brexit campaign saw “a convergence of the far left and the far right.” Could the same happen here? A Post-ABC News poll last month found it might, with 20 percent of Sanders supporters saying they would support Trump over Hillary Clinton in the general election. This month that figure has slipped to just 8 percent.
But here is the fundamental difference between the Trump and Brexit campaigns: Brexit was also a revolt against centralized power. British voters were tired of edicts from Brussels and wanted to put decision-making power back in the hands of the British people. This was the single biggest driving force of the Brexit campaign. Nearly half of pro-Brexit voters said the principal reason they wanted to leave the E.U. was “the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK.” As U.K. secretary of state for justice and Brexit supporter Michael Gove put it, “By leaving the EU we can take control . . . Like the Americans who declared their independence and never looked back.”
Donald Trump is not an advocate of decentralization of power. To the contrary, he believes in edicts from Washington — so long as they are his edicts. Trump has promised that as president he would call the head of Ford Motor Co. and order him not to build a plant in Mexico. No advocate of limited government believes the president should have the power to unilaterally dictate to private companies in a free market where they can build or invest. Trump has promised that, as president, he will open up libel laws so that he can sue people who “write purposely negative and horrible and false articles.” No advocate of limited government believes the president should be able to use the coercive power of government to silence his critics. In Scotland, Trump said British voters “got tired of seeing stupid decisions, just like the American people are tired of seeing stupid decisions.” He’s right. But the difference is British voters believe they can make better decisions; Trump believes he can make better decisions.
Like Trump opponents, Brexit opponents are still in denial, proposing various schemes to stop Britain’s exit from the E.U. Those outcomes seem about as likely as a contested GOP convention.
Here at home, those who take comfort in Trump’s falling poll numbers should recall that most British polls got the Brexit vote wrong. The British political establishment, like its American counterpart, misread the mood of the electorate. They warned of economic doom if Britain voted to leave the E.U., and — like Jeb Bush before them — they were certain that voters would eventually come to their senses before they cast their ballots. They didn’t.
Clinton’s new campaign slogan, “Stronger Together,” sounds shockingly similar to the “Stronger In” message of the British anti-Brexit campaign. As the New York Times put it Sunday, “Her fundamental argument, much akin to Prime Minister David Cameron’s against British withdrawal from the European Union, is that Americans should value stability and incremental change over the risks entailed in radical change and the possibility of chaos if Donald J. Trump wins the presidency.”
That message didn’t work in the U.K., and it’s not likely to work in the United States.