“Britain voted to leave the European Union,” wrote the AP, “after a bitterly divisive referendum campaign, toppling the British government, sending global markets plunging Friday, and shattering the stability of a project in continental unity designed half a century ago to prevent World War III.”
The apocalyptic reference to world war is an apt metaphor for how elites view Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy. The question now is whether the Brexit vote is a harbinger of an even bigger electoral shock to come later this year on the U.S. side of the pond.
Leading British politicians spanning the political spectrum had denounced the “Leave” campaign as xenophobic, misguided, and economically destabilizing. This is precisely how they condemn Trump and his talk of building walls, closing borders, and abrogating international trade agreements.
“Trexit,” Fortune magazine dubbed Trump’s trade policies, while economists commissioned by The Washington Post asserted that Trump’s politics would cost the U.S. 7 million jobs.
Trump himself, naturally, expressed a more benign view of developments. Visiting Scotland to look after a couple of his golf resorts, Trump smiled when asked about Brexit. “Basically, they took back their country,” he told reporters. “That’s a great thing.”
In a written statement elaborating on this point, Trump compared his own insurgent appeal to the successful “Leave” campaign in Britain.
“They have declared their independence from the European Union and have voted to reassert control over their own politics, borders and economy,” he said. “Come November, the American people…will have the chance to reject today’s rule by the global elite, and to embrace real change.”
This is precisely what President Obama and Hillary Clinton are hoping American voters do not do. But Brexit always gave them reason to worry. In an April visit to the U.K., Obama lobbied hard for the “Remain” side. If it seems unusual for an incumbent president to take sides in a foreign election, it’s less usual for Obama. He did the same in Israel’s elections (and was on the losing side there, too). But the president went further than just giving his preference: He threatened the Brits, warning that if they approved Brexit, the United States wouldn’t be cutting trade deals with the U.K. “anytime soon.”
“It leverages U.K. power to be part of the European Union,” Obama said, as David Cameron stood by his side, nodding. Well, Cameron is all but gone now, and Obama will be soon, too. The question is whether voters in the United States and the United Kingdom—and perhaps elsewhere in Europe—have simply lost confidence in elites to look after their interests while attempting to manage the global economy and oversee a foreign policy that keeps them safe.
An insightful response to this worldview came from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders when he was asked Friday morning on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program about Brexit.
“Well, I don’t live in Great Britain, but I’ll tell you what I think,” he began. “What worries me very much is the breaking down of international cooperation. Europe in the 20th century, as we all know, the kind of blood that was shed there was unimaginable—and you never want to see that again. On the other hand, what this vote is about is an indication that the global economy is not working for everybody.
“It’s not working in the United States for everybody and it’s not working in the U.K. for everybody,” Sanders added. “When you see investors going to China and shutting down factories in this country and laying off—over a period of years—millions of people, people are saying, ‘You know what? The global may be great for some people, but not for me.’”
Recently I visited Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., and the Irish Republic, and found evidence of what Sanders is talking about in fishing communities from County Down to Donegal.
In the picturesque Ulster village of Portavogie, 100 commercial fishing boats belonging to local fishing families once plied the Irish Sea. Today, there are only 40, and what they can catch and where they can fish is determined by bureaucrats in Brussels. But thanks to Brexit, those territorial waters, and the shrimp they are known for, once again belong to the British.
Likewise, Donegal Bay, which is just across the border in the Irish Republic, once hosted dozens of thriving fishing communities populated with third-generation fishing boat captains and crews. Today, small-scale commercial fishing is a dying way of life, a victim of progress, technology, and Ireland’s membership in the EU.
Just offshore, giant Spanish-flagged trawlers fish for salmon and cod with startling efficiency. These boats, which are more like floating factories, take in huge hauls of North Atlantic salmon and cod, processing the fish, flash-freezing them, and shipping them back to Spain for packaging and sale.
The “Irish” salmon consumed in a hotel in Galway or Dublin—or even there in Ulster—is more likely to be shipped from Spain than captured by a local fisherman. In one sense, this is obvious progress, and good for consumers. But among the fishing families on both sides of the border, sympathy for Brexit was palpable.
In his “Morning Joe” appearance on Friday, Sanders was nagged—as he often is—about why he hasn’t publicly abandoned the campaign and thrown his support to Hillary Clinton. He responded with familiar language about wanting to impact the Democratic Party platform, even mumbling an affirmative response to a query about whether he’ll vote for Hillary.
He’ll do everything in his power to defeat Donald Trump, he added, but there are two intriguing aspects to this exchange. The first is that Sanders’ primary voters have not yet migrated, as they’ve been expected to do, to Clinton’s side. Is this because Sanders hasn’t given the go-ahead—or the other way around?
Here’s a second thing to consider: In the early stages of the 2016 primary season, many U.S.-based political writers ran into undecided voters trying to choose between Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. In the logic of the Democratic-Republican duopoly, this seemed odd. It really wasn’t, as the Brexit voting results demonstrate. Brexit won with 52 percent of the vote, attracting support from Britain’s most ideologically conservative Tories and the Labour Party’s most economically liberal voters,
“I hope Americans are watching,” Trump said.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.