Hillary Clinton should be warned by the British referendum: Similar to the Brexit movement, Trump’s campaign benefits from anti-immigrant sentiment and anger over the “political elites” and “mainstream media”.
Similar to other countries, most observers in the US were stunned by the result of the British referendum on EU membership. The reactions of the leading candidates for the position as next US President differed significantly from each other. While the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton declared statesmanlike that she respected the result, the Republican frontrunner Donald Trump celebrated the outcome, anticipating similar developments for his own presidential campaign. There are indeed some similarities between the Brexit and the Trump campaigns which gave the latter fresh hope that it might succeed, against all odds.
President Barack Obama, who had advocated for Britain to remain in the EU, announced that he respected the result of the referendum. In an effort to calm the situation, he warned against financial and international hysteria and argued that the transatlantic alliance would not dissolve after a potential Brexit. The UK could become a state similar to Norway, which is not a member but closely affiliated with the EU, and that nothing would change in the special relationship between the US and the UK. Paul Ryan, the Republican Speaker of the House assured that the UK is an indispensable ally and that its special relationship with the US would be unaffected by the referendum.
Some observers argued that the Obama administration (including former State Secretary Clinton) shared responsibility for the Brexit vote due to its declining engagement with Europe in the past years and the “pivot to East Asia” in its foreign policy. This assumption is questionable given that Brexit supporters seem to be neither open for EU interference nor any other foreign meddling in British politics. Obama’s visit to the UK just shortly before the referendum, and his warning that Britain would be at the “back of the queue” in any trade deal with the US after a Brexit, did not seem to help the Remain campaign.
Hillary Clinton argued that results underscored the “need for calm, steady, experienced leadership in the White House”—a not-so-subtle plug for her campaign.
"A wake-up call for internationalist bureaucrats from Brussels to Washington"
In contrast to Obama and Clinton’s rather diplomatic reaction to the referendum, Donald Trump rejoiced that a Brexit would allow the British to regain their independence from the EU and drew comparisons to his own campaign. Indeed, similar to the Brexit movement, Trump’s campaign benefits from anti-immigrant sentiment and anger over the perceived loss of sovereignty and tutelage by the “political elites” in Washington, DC and “mainstream media”.
While many Brexit supporters are opposed to the EU’s free movement of labor, which allows Southern and Eastern Europeans to compete for jobs in the UK, similarly, many Trump followers support his plan to establish stricter border controls and to build a wall along the Mexican border to prevent illegal immigration. Both campaigns also benefit from growing xenophobia and particularly Islamophobia. While Brexit supporters fear that EU membership and regulations by Brussels might eventually force them to accept refugees from Syria and other (predominantly Muslim) countries, Trump fans back his plans to ban Muslims from entering the US. The supporters of both campaigns are predominantly White, less educated, and often fear social and economic decline.
An equally important similarity of both campaigns is their aversion to political elites and bureaucrats, often referred to as “establishment”, in distant capitals, be it Washington or Brussels. The Trump campaign benefits from a populist trend that has already affected US politics for some years and was the reason for the rise of the Tea Party movement. Its success is based on many voters’ mistrust against the ruling elites in Washington and the perception that the government is not accountable to their interests.
Not surprisingly, former Republican Presidential hopefuls also welcomed the result of the British referendum and drew comparisons to the US. Senator Ted Cruz, for example, argued that the referendum “should serve as a wake-up call for internationalist bureaucrats from Brussels to Washington, D.C. that some free nations still wish to preserve their national sovereignty.”
Trump will continue to depict Clinton as the “establishment candidate”
Ben Carson argued that “like the people of America, the people of Great Britain have decided that they want to take their destiny into their own hands.” Both candidates refer to popular view among Republican outliers and Trump supporters that the US has lost control over its national sovereignty and self-determination due to its entanglement in international trade regimes, organizations like NATO, and uncontrolled immigration. The desire to strengthen national sovereignty also explains Trump’s sympathy for Vladimir Putin, who many nationalists in the US and Europe see as an effective defender of Russia’s sovereignty and national identity.
Similar to the Brexit referendum, which was considered by many voters as a chance to protest against the Cameron government and the “establishment”, Trump can count on antigovernment sentiment among his supporters. Many of them believe that only an outsider like Trump can change the manipulated and “rigged system” in the US. While British politicians for long largely underestimated the risk that the Brexit campaign would succeed, the leadership of the Republican Party underestimated Trump’s populist campaign and for long backed “establishment candidates” like Jeb Bush. They clearly lost control over large parts of the traditional Republican electorate and still have a hard time adjusting to the idea that Trump will become their party’s nominee.
Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party should be warned by the British referendum. Donald Trump will continue to depict Clinton as the “establishment candidate” who has been involved in politics for decades and does not understand the concerns of the majority of the population. President Obama acknowledged that the Brexit campaign was fueled by populist anger, but advised voters in the US against supporting Trump as a way to express such frustration. Trump could hardly be a legitimate spokesperson for a populist surge of working-class people, as he very much embodies the “global elite” that have taken advantage of the forces of global capitalism.
It remains to be seen whether such advice is effective. Many observers would not have thought that the British would really vote to give up EU membership. Similarly, many observers do not believe that Trump can really win the presidential election in November. Let the British referendum be a cautionary tale.
This article is part of our special International reactions to the "Brexit" vote.