What Brexit tells us about Donald Trump and US politics

The underdog movement to remove Britain from the European Union echoed the rhetoric of Donald Trump in many ways, and that is instructive.

Carlo Allegri/Reuters
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a press conference at Turnberry Golf course in Turnberry, Scotland, Friday.

Britain’s vote to exit the European Union, or “Brexit,” contains clear echoes of the choice Americans face this November: a future, as championed by Hillary Clinton, that favors a more open, internationalist system versus the one embodied by the populist, nativist Donald Trump.

Mr. Trump himself, in Scotland visiting his golf courses, drew the parallel Friday.

“They took their country back, just like we will take America back,”  Trump tweeted after the result was announced.

Brussels, the headquarters of the EU, isn’t equivalent to Washington, but the alienation from a distant capital that many British and US citizens feel is real.

“There was a definite flavor of ‘Make Britain Great Again’ running through the Leave campaign, with Brexit proponents arguing that British sovereignty was being undermined by unelected elites in Brussels,” writes Peter Weber in The Week

And there’s no doubt that Trumpism is part of the larger strain of nationalism sweeping Europe, as seen in France’s National Front, the Alternative for Germany party, Hungary’s ruling nationalist Fidesz party, and Britain’s own UKIP (the United Kingdom Independence Party), which pushed hard for Brexit.

The vote for Brexit also contained an element of anti-elitism that echoes Trump’s outsider message - a rejection of the powers-that-be in politics, business, and the media that promoted staying in the EU. British Prime Minister David Cameron promptly announced his resignation Friday, opening the door to the possible rise of a distinctly Trump-like figure in former London Mayor Boris Johnson

Though down in the polls, Trump has some advantages, starting with enormous crowds that dwarf those that greet the less-charismatic Mrs. Clinton. Crowd sizes don’t necessarily predict election outcomes, but they are a signal of enthusiasm - and Trump supporters are nothing if not fervent.

True, Trump has big unfavorable ratings, now at an all-time high of 70 percent of Americans in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll. But love him or not, the billionaire real-estate magnate is the driving story of the 2016 election, and always, it seems, at the center of the news.

For now,  he’s losing to Clinton by an average of only five percentage points. Clinton is also unpopular, though not nearly as unpopular as Trump. Bottom line, with more than four months to go till Election Day, the election is far from over.

Still, there’s an important way in which Britain’s vote to exit the EU doesn’t necessarily foretell Trump’s election as president: The US has a buffer, known as the Electoral College. Even if Trump can manage to win a majority of the popular vote in November, he can still lose in the Electoral College, which hands disproportionate power to a handful of battleground states. Recall George W. Bush’s election in 2000, despite Vice President Al Gore’s victory in the popular vote.

The Founding Fathers sought to protect the nation from the risks of direct democracy. Until 1913, for example, US senators were elected by the state legislatures, not by popular vote. And today, even though many states and localities allow for policy to be set by ballot measures or referenda, there’s no mechanism to do so nationally. To US opponents of the Brexit, Thursday’s vote vindicates that practice.

“What you’re seeing here is the danger of government by referendum,” Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said Friday on CNBC.

The US presidential campaign of 2016 is also an example of what can happen in an increasingly democratized nomination process - when outsiders like Trump and Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, can take the traditional parties by storm and upend the status quo.

If nothing else, the success (so far) of Trump in the US and the British campaign to quit the EU shows the risk of making predictions. At the start of the 2016 election campaign, virtually no one saw Trump winning the nomination. This week, before the Brexit votes were in, global financial markets and other prediction forums showed confidence that Britain would remain in the EU.

As Nate Cohn writes in The New York Times, betting markets gave “Remain” an 88 percent chance of winning as late as 6 p.m. Eastern US time Thursday. “Remain” ended up losing by four percentage points. 

Opinion polls consistently showed there was a very real chance that Britain would vote to leave, Mr. Cohn points out.

US election-watchers should take note. Prediction markets show Clinton winning in November easily; the website PredictIt, for example, has Clinton trading at 66 cents to Trump’s 34 cents. But some recent polls show Clinton leading barely outside the margin of error.

Polling has taken some hard knocks in recent years, including in Britain. But election-watchers ignore the polls at their peril.

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