First Brexit, then Trump. What next?
Not long after the surprise election victory of Donald Trump, UK Independence Party leader and leading Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage met with the United States’ next president in New York.
A populist campaigner for Brexit, Farage posed for a picture with one of America’s unlikeliest presidents against the backdrop of the opulent gold-and-diamond-studded doors of Trump’s penthouse suite. Trump flashed a thumbs-up, Farage grinned broadly and gestured to Trump as if to say: “Can you believe this?”
For many, the answer to that unspoken question is “No”. There are many parallels to be drawn between Brexit and Trump’s election, not least how the so-called mainstream media and the polls failed to predict them. These are parallels that Trump was keen to embrace. “They will soon be calling me Mr Brexit,” he posted on Twitter in August. He riffed on the idea at rallies, saying his election would be “Brexit plus” and “Brexit times five”.
In both votes, immigration was a main issue in the campaign, followed closely by terrorism and the economy. In both votes, fears were on the rise, stoked largely by those who ended up victors. In both votes, the political establishment and the mainstream media failed to accurately understand ordinary people’s concerns.
So, just who voted for Trump? And who voted for Brexit? And why?
Voting data indicate 58% of white voters (52% of white women and 63% of white men) voted for Trump. While he won a clear majority of voters of all ethnicities aged 45 or over; 88% of black voters and 65% of Latinos voted for former US secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The vote was evenly split among high school and college graduates but only 37% of post-graduate degree holders voted Trump.
Similar figures were borne out by Brexit: White voters voted to leave the European Union with 53% of the tally. A majority (56%) of those aged 45 or over voted “Leave”; the figure rose to 60% of those aged 65 or over. The most dramatic split was educational: 70% of those with a General Certificate of Education — educated until age 16 — or lower voting “Leave” and 68% of those with a university degree voted “Remain”.
One interpretation is that the whiter one is or the older one is or the less formal education one has — or some combination of all three — the more likely the person was to vote for Brexit or Trump. Another is that the poorer one is, the less hope one has for the future, the more one looks to past glories rather than new horizons, the more likely one was to vote for Brexit or Trump. The answer is not to demonise these voters but speak to their issues and try to win them back.
Ultimately, Trump spoke to most of the issues that mattered to more of the people. More important, he differentiated himself from Clinton, who was viewed as being part of the establishment that brought about the status quo that has failed so many voters.
It was those voters — who perceive themselves to be disenfranchised even if that is not necessarily the case — Trump spoke to when he decried special interests and talked about “draining the swamp”.
While many of those who voted for Brexit did so for similar reasons, for a hazy desire for change, even if they were not sure what that change would look like precisely. Change is preferable to the status quo.
Both Brexit and Trump represented a victory for nativism over the forces of globalisation. Those who voted for Brexit in Britain and Trump in the United States were, for the most part, those most left behind by globalisation. Why would they not vote for change?
More dangerous is what comes after Brexit and Trump, particularly with elections set for France, Germany, Hungary and the Netherlands in 2017. Is Brexit and Trump just the beginning? There has been a rise of right-wing rhetoric across Europe due to rising fears of immigration and terrorism. While the right-wing have firm, if flawed, answers to these questions, moderates and the left appear flummoxed.
Speaking about his meeting with Trump, Farage said the two had discussed “freedom and winning”. There can be no doubt that Marine Le Pen and the National Front in France and Geert Wilders in Holland, among others, would like to join the party.