Perhaps the hottest take since Britons decided to leave the European Union has been the parallels between the so-called Brexit referendum and the 2016 election. Does the shocking “Leave” victory mean that Donald Trump will win — or at least fare better than expected — in November? Or are the two countries too different in character for trans-Atlantic comparisons to hold weight? Through the internet’s noise, no melody has emerged — that said, I’ll happily lend my voice as the cacophony crescendos.
The Brexit vote should cause worry to those opposing Trump for two reasons: first, the xenophobic forces that partially propelled “Leave” voters are also prominent in American society today, and, second, disgruntled and displaced Labour members throughout industrial England rebelled against party leadership (and perhaps their economic interest) in voting for Brexit. Their reasons for doing so — de-industrialization and decreasing manufacturing jobs — resonate with voters in the Ohio and Pennsylvania, two Rust Belt swing states. These forces transcend borders and oceans and might very well sway independent or even Democratic voters into the Trump camp.
Soft and hard xenophobia, which I characterize as dislike of foreigners due to potential economic displacement and general dislike (even hatred) of colored, “other” bodies, respectively, drove many Britons to endorse Brexit. The migrant crisis from the Middle East and North Africa preceded these strong xenophobic forces, but not all detest for foreigners is rooted in racism. Many feared that millions of new laborers willing to work for lower wages and fewer benefits would cost natives their jobs. The voters, soft xenophobes, ignored basic capitalist teachings — one of the few ways to meaningfully expand an economy is through the introduction of new workers; this becomes especially important in a country with an aging populace — and looked for a way to curb the labor influx. Brexit offered that. We see those voters in America. Donald Trump immediately gained national notoriety when he called for a wall to be built on the Mexican border, a policy that would accompany his kicking 11 million illegal immigrants out of the country. Soft American xenophobes rallied behind those arguments because they (erroneously) believe that such actions would help them keep their jobs and reduce government spending on non-citizens (ignoring the fact that illegal immigrants are net contributors to public budgets).
Hard xenophobia also played an unfortunately powerful role in causing Brexit. Many Britons simply did not want to see their predominately white country overrun by colored immigrants, especially those of different religion and starkly different cultures (ie, migrants from the Middle East and North Africa, those desperately fleeing failed states and ruinous economies). No event better characterizes the disturbing beliefs of hard xenophobes than Labour MP Jo Cox’s tragic death at the hands of a man who shouted “Britain first!” as he shot her and who later told a court his name was “death to traitors, freedom for Britain.” These hard xenophobes wanted to leave the EU simply to keep Britain white. Sadly, they have counterparts in the United States. White supremacists have flocked to Trump, whose blatant nativism and embrace of Know-Nothing policies have endeared him to those who fear a heterogeneous country comprised of different skin colors, religions, and ethnicities. Both soft and hard xenophobia can be used to pit racial factions against each other; slogans like “America Fist” can rally nationalistic sentiment that draws on emotion, not logic, to propel voting outcomes. As the debate surrounding terrorism and the fallout from the Orlando attack continue, more Americans might be swayed by soft and hard xenophobia and nationalism, thus bettering Trump’s chances of reaching the Oval Office.
Many industrial regions and cities supported the Brexit effort because they despised the internationalist intentions of the European Union. The free market relies on free labor mobility (which Brexit voters wish to curb), free capital mobility, and free trade. It is the latter which breeds the most discontent.
Free trade benefits all, but oftentimes those benefits are hidden by the economic calamity free trade can bring to a few. Outsourcing manufacturing or other jobs lowers prices for all and frees human capital and entrepreneurial spirit; it also costs millions their jobs. Writ large, the nation benefits from cheaper goods, but to those who lose their source of economic livelihood, saving a couple hundred dollars does not solve losing tens of thousands in wages. At fault is fiscal policy — the state needs to supplement income for individuals displaced by trade and offer vocational training to help those individuals find new, better paying jobs. However, fiscal policy does not a rallying cry make. People are not motivated by wonkish economic arguments. They are motivated by attacking the overall system, even when doing so won’t solve their problems and might actually make their economic situation worse.
That’s what happened on June 23. Displaced industrial workers who traditionally had aligned with the Labour Party ignored the will of elites and opted to bring down the entire system rather than work within it to create a stronger, more vibrant economic society. (Part of this might have been drive by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s quarter-hearted support of “Remain”). These voters went against party leaders, European and global elites, and the opinion of many economic experts. That’s a phenomenon we say today in America.
Trump continuously touts his ability to bring back manufacturing jobs through a mixture of tariffs and magical deal making that would result in multinational companies suddenly bringing factories back en masse. This, of course, has no economic truth: manufacturing is not coming back largely because of automation — the factories that have opened on American shores are capital, not labor, intensive. Trump has tapped into anger against the free trade, globalist economic system that has brought us cars, iPhones, and laptops and is seeking to tear it down, consequences be damned. Problematically, many displaced workers to whom Trump’s braggadocio and rhetoric might appeal are clustered in swing states, most notably Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Those Rust Belt states account for 38 electoral votes and have the ability to tip the election to either Hillary Clinton or Trump. Though they voted Democrat in the last two elections (and Pennsylvania hasn’t voted Republican since 1988), Trump’s attacks on the economic system that has cost both states numerous manufacturing jobs might appeal enough independents and Democrats to tip the states in his favor. While not enough to win him the election, it would make his path to victory much more feasible.
What does Brexit mean for the 2016 election?
Brexit means that transnational xenophobic and economic forces have the ability to thwart the desires of the global elite and intellectuals. It means that voters are privy to rebellion against immigration and an economic system (free trade) with clustered and industry-specific losses. It means that voters are lusting for change and are willing to vote against the status quo even when doing so requires a leap into the abyss of uncertainty.
What does Brexit mean for the 2016 election? It means that the possibility of a Donald Trump victory should not be dismissed or underestimated. Tapping into the same resentments that now teeter the world’s economy, Donald Trump could very well become president.