Britain’s stunning vote to leave the European Union suggests that we’ve been seriously underestimating Donald Trump’s ability to win the presidential election.
When you consider all his controversies and self-inflicted wounds over the past month, combined with how much he’s getting outspent on the airwaves in the battleground states, it is actually quite surprising that Trump and Hillary Clinton are so close in the polls. He’s holding his own, especially in the Rust Belt.
The British campaign to exit the European Union (known as “Brexit”), like Trump’s, was fueled by grievance. Those agitating to cut off formal ties to the continent were less organized and less funded than those who wanted to stay connected, but that deficit didn’t matter in the end, because the energy was against the status quo.
“Basically, they took back their country. That’s a great thing,” Trump told reporters in Scotland, where he is visiting one of his golf courses.
“They have declared their independence from the European Union and have voted to reassert control over their own politics, borders and economy,” he elaborated in a statement. “Come November, the American people will have the chance to re-declare their independence. Americans will have a chance to vote for trade, immigration and foreign policies that put our citizens first. They will have the chance to reject today’s rule by the global elite, and to embrace real change that delivers a government of, by and for the people. I hope America is watching, it will soon be time to believe in America again.”
In the short term, the impending fallout from Brexit will make the presumptive Democratic nominee look good. She advocated for Britain remaining in the union; Trump advocated for leaving. The markets were tanking Friday, and this vote will set off a tsunami of repercussions that could meaningfully damage the global economy. People’s 401(k)’s might take a shellacking, and interest rates may spike. Any long-term benefits from breaking away will not be apparent until after the general election.
British Prime Minister David Cameron resigned overnight, triggering political chaos and a succession battle. Scottish leaders are already saying they will push for a new referendum to secede from the U.K.
Looking ahead to the fall, though, loud alarm bells should be going off inside Clinton’s Brooklyn headquarters. Globally, there are strong tides of anti-establishment anger, nationalism and populism that bode poorly for the Secretary of State.
“Trump’s slogan, ‘Make America Great Again,’ could easily have been adapted to the messaging of those in the ‘leave’ campaign,” the Washington Post’s Dan Balz writes from London. “That desire for a return to an earlier time – to make Britain great again – is expressed through the issue of control. Those who have pushed for Britain to leave the EU want to reclaim a measure of sovereignty by wresting power from the bureaucrats in Brussels. . . . They feel about the EU bureaucracy as tea party Republicans do about the federal government.”
Trump still seems far more likely to lose than win, especially when you think about the Electoral College map. But the results across the pond spotlight five forces that could allow him to score an upset:
1. RESENTMENT OF ELITES
Virtually every serious economist and “expert” warned of calamity if Britain left the E.U. These technocrats used to be respected arbiters whose judgments carried considerable weight. A majority of Brits, though, tuned them out this year.
“People in this country have had enough of experts,” Michael Gove, a Conservative Party lawmaker who wanted to leave, said when he was challenged during a TV interview to name a credible economic authority who supported an EU exit. “I’m glad these organizations aren’t on my side.”
Polls show a long-term trend of voters losing faith in experts and institutions. Surveys suggested that the British resented Barack Obama and other foreign leaders who strongly urged them to remain in a union that they did not feel was serving them.
Forced to choose between their heads and their hearts, the Brits went with their hearts.
Scapegoating immigrants worked. Polls show that fear of refugees and immigrants from the EU’s open borders was a top issue driving votes to leave.
Here in the U.S. we talk a lot about how Trump has galvanized Latinos who have never voted before. This could cost him and the GOP dearly, but the flip side is that he’s activated a lot of angry white voters.
There was a lot of media coverage in the past few days about how the nativist appeals might have gone too far and turned off some moderates in Britain. There were some over-the-top posters and claims about Turks and Syrians flooding the country. But they clearly proved more effective than detrimental.
As David Frum, a veteran of the George W. Bush White House puts it:
“Out: mass migration is an indispensable part of an open global economy.
“In: mass migration is the top threat to an open global economy.”
French Far Right leader Marine Le Pen, a vocal nativist, celebrated Brexit by changing her Twitter picture to the Union Jack.
Trump likes to describe his foreign policy as “America First,” even though it has been pointed out to him that this is the same catchphrase Charles Lindbergh used in the late 1930s when he was trying to stop the U.S. from assisting Britain in its war for national survival against the Nazis.
Eyewitnesses said that the man who murdered Jo Cox, a British member of parliament and outspoken supporter of the Remain effort, shouted “Britain First” as he killed her last week.
Trump wants to scale back U.S. support for NATO and has suggested that he sees Eastern Europe as some kind of Russian sphere of influence. This scares the Baltic States, such as Estonia, which are constantly at risk of being annexed by Vladimir Putin. The NATO alliance, like the EU, has been a bulwark of the post-World War II international system. This now threatens to unravel.
The EU is plunging into an existential crisis. The 28-member union will splinter and significantly weaken, The Post’s Anthony Faiola reported from Berlin and Michael Birnbaum filed from Brussels.
The Post’s Rick Noack in London looked at six countries that might now be emboldened to leave the EU: Sweden, Denmark, Greece, the Netherlands, Hungary and France.
Russian leaders are cheering the news, Andrew Roth of the Post reported from Moscow.
4. FLAWED POLLING
The polls showed a neck-and-neck race, and surveys in the past few days showed movement in the direction of “Remain” after Cox’s murder. In the end, though, “Leave” prevailed by 4 points.
Perhaps some voters who wanted to “Leave” were afraid to tell pollsters as much after the assassination?
Are live-caller polls in the U.S. similarly underestimating Trump’s strength? Trump does better in online and automated phone polls than in those conducted by live human beings. It seems undeniable at this point that there is some number of Trump supporters out there who do not want to admit it in fashionable company.
From Natahn Klein, the director of polling at the NRSC in the 2014 cycle, om Twitter: “Polling implications of #Brexit: phone polls showed remain, online polls showed leave.”
And Bill Kristol, the editor of the conservative Weekly Standard: “Polls consistently underestimating right-wing support — Cameron & Bibi, now Brexit. So if polls show Clinton up 5, could Trump be even?”
The Remain campaign was burdened by complacency.
Millennials, who overwhelmingly wanted to remain in the EU, did not turn out at the same rate as older voters, who wanted to leave.
As Tim Naftali ,an esteemed political historian at NYU noted in two posts:
“Low turnout in Remain areas suggests unwarranted complacency. US Dems beware.”
“Tonight’s outcome in the Brexit vote is a warning to HRC not to underestimate the size of Trump’s angry vote here.”
“There were massive victory margins for ‘remain’ in thriving metropolitan centers such as London and equally resounding victories for ‘leave’ in small towns, rural areas and struggling, post-industrial cities,” The Post’s Griff Witte, Karla Adam and Dan Balz reported from London. “The vote split the country along essential lines . . . Provincial versus metropolitan. Scotland versus England. Native-born Britons versus immigrants.”