US ELECTIONS

US presidential candidates draw their own lessons from Brexit

Trump claims that similarities between his supporters and Britons who voted to leave the EU validate his campaign

The fact that the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union may hold some lessons for American presidential candidates. The result of the so-called “Brexit” referendum validates the strategy of Republican candidate Donald Trump, in that it reflects the strength of the anti-establishment sentiment that has fueled his candidacy. For Hillary Clinton, his Democratic rival in the November election, the UK’s exit from the European Union is a warning, evidence of the allure of populist messages, which raises questions about the effectiveness of her attempts to defeat it by presenting herself as a serious, well-prepared politician.

Trump discusses the Brexit result in Scotland on Friday.
Trump discusses the Brexit result in Scotland on Friday.Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images

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Trump has applauded the result of the Brexit vote that took place on Thursday saying it was “really fantastic,” and proof that “people are angry all over the world.” Some Republican politicians have attributed the success of the “Leave” campaign to voters feeling fed up with the political bureaucracy that they say they have denounced, whether it be in London, Brussels or Washington.

Clinton has said that she respects the result, using it to attack Trump, arguing that “this time of uncertainty only underscores the need for calm, steady, experienced leadership in the White House.” Her campaign published an ad in which she criticizes the real estate mogul for boasting that a drop in the value of the British pound in the aftermath of the referendum could benefit his business interests in Scotland, where he inaugurated a golf course on Friday.

The Clinton campaign published an ad in which she criticizes Trump for boasting that a drop in the value of the British pound could benefit his business interests

The social realities, the importance of nationalism and the legacy of immigration are very different in the United States than they are in the United Kingdom but there are similarities between pro-Brexit voters and Trump supporters: older Caucasian individuals from rural areas whose education level is below average.

Both groups are motivated by their unease with the status quo, the feeling that the system has stopped working for them, the fear of immigrants and the belief in a better future.

Fiona Hill, director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution in Washington, says the parallels between the United States and the United Kingdom show the “depth of the anger” the political bases feel against elites.

Hill, a native-born Briton who has been living in the United States for 27 years, says the impact of the Brexit vote in the November presidential elections will depend on how those who are considering voting for Donald Trump interpret the consequences of that referendum. “The enormous impact on the British economy, the feeling of chaos, the turbulence in the leadership [of the parties] could be a warning to people who were thinking of a protest vote,” Hill says in a phone interview.

A working class vote

The foreign policy expert says Brexit supporters and Trump followers are both “anti-establishment, anti-globalization and anti-immigration.” She cites the fact that the areas hardest hit by the decline in manufacturing voted to leave the European Union. Trump and Bernie Sanders’ protectionist rhetoric appealed to the same demographic in the United States during the primaries.

Hill says the gap between Trump, who is popular among the conservative base, and the Republican Party is the space that separates Boris Johnson – former London mayor and major “Leave” supporter – from Prime Minister David Cameron – a staunch Brexit opponent – in the British Conservative Party. The combative style of Labour Party veteran Jeremy Corbyn is similar to Bernie Sanders’ stance, she adds.

Trump sees “a big parallel” between the UK’s vote to leave the European Union and his success in the presidential campaign

Trump admitted a few weeks ago that he did not know what the term “Brexit” meant but after the referendum he said he saw “a big parallel” between the UK’s vote to leave the European Union and his success in the presidential campaign. “People want to take their country back,” he explained. “They want to have independence, in a sense...You're going to have, I think, many other cases where they want to take their borders back, they want to take their monetary [system] back, they want to take a lot of things back. They want to be able to have a country again.”

Just as David Cameron did during the Brexit campaign, Clinton is offering a recipe for stability and gradual improvements instead of the unpredictability and abrupt change Trump represents. She warns voters of the dangers the country might face should her billionaire rival reach the White House and avoids making flashy promises. Cameron walked that same line but, now that the United Kingdom has voted to leave, observers are questioning the effectiveness of a message of caution next to Trump’s grandiose statements.

Clinton seems to be aware of the lessons to be learned from the Brexit vote. The Democratic candidate said on Sunday that the United States and United Kingdom are different “economically, politically and demographically,” but she admitted some similarities: “Just as we have seen there are many frustrated people in Britain, we know there are many frustrated people here at home too. I've seen it, I've heard it, I know it.”

English version by Dyane Jean François.

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