I’ve been living in Britain for the last year and have returned to the United States to cover the election from a small town in Indiana—with the experience of Brexit on my mind.
On June 24, a significant proportion of the British electorate woke up and thought they were living in a different country. Britain narrowly voted to leave the European Union. It felt like the politics of fear, isolation, and xenophobia had delivered an utterly devastating and enduring blow to the body politic. There are many lessons from that night, and indeed we in Britain are only just beginning to learn them. But as it relates to the American elections, I want to dwell on just three.
The fact that the messenger is deranged doesn’t mean the message itself contains no significant truths.
First, don’t let the polls guide your strategic decisions about voting. If you want Hillary Clinton to win, vote for her. If you favor Jill Stein, vote for her. Don’t cast your vote thinking you’re compensating for a result that has not been declared but that you think you’ve factored in. You don’t know.
The Brexit result caught the currency traders, pollsters, betting agencies, and commentators off guard. One of the leading voices of the Leave campaign, Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party, conceded defeat at 10 pm the night of the election; less than six hours later he claimed victory.
As I write, polls suggest a runaway victory for Clinton. They could be right. But politics is in a very volatile state—they could also be wrong. And the only way you’ll know for sure will be when it’s too late to do anything about it.
Second, the fact that the messenger is deranged doesn’t mean the message itself contains no significant truths. Before the Brexit referendum, liberals broadly dismissed Leave voters as ignorant, angry, and bigoted. Some of them were undoubtedly all three. But that’s not primarily what was driving many of them. It took the Brexit result for the nation to pay attention to communities devastated by neoliberal globalization. Had Remain won, those who were forgotten would have remained forgotten.
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True, politicians have drawn mostly the wrong conclusions: condemning the free movement of people rather than the free movement of capital. Nonetheless, regions long ignored, accents rarely heard, and issues seldom raised are traveling from the margins to the mainstream of British politics.
Similarly, if Hillary Clinton wins, that should not blind us to some of the themes that have made Trump’s candidacy viable. In Muncie, Indiana, where I have spent most of this election season, huge manufacturing plants have closed since the passage of NAFTA, leaving one-third of the town in poverty. And while Trump’s base is not particularly poor, a significant portion of the nation is desperate. It’s not difficult to see why. The price of everything apart from labor has shot up in the past 40 years, while inequality has grown and social mobility has slumped. Trump’s original Brexit strategy of targeting Rust Belt towns in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin may not have worked electorally, but what he identified remains a politically salient fault line that doesn’t just go away if Clinton wins. If these problems are not tended to, a less erratic and more focused right-wing populist than Trump could easily exploit them.
Which brings us to the third lesson. Trump is deluded about many things, but he’s right to insist that the media and political classes are out of touch with the population. They exist in a fetid ideological comfort zone where radical change is considered apostasy at precisely the moment when radical change is both necessary and popular.
Leading up to the Brexit vote, leaders of the Remain campaign preferred to caricature those in the opposing camp rather than engage them. They derided not only the leaders of the Leave campaign but its followers. You cannot convince people they are doing well when they are not. Yet throughout the Brexit campaign, Remain advocates lectured voters on all the advantages they derived from the European Union and how much worse things would be if they left. From Tony Blair to David Cameron, people who had stiffed working people in a range of ways now insisted they alone could save them from themselves. People just weren’t buying it.
Similarly, people in Muncie and elsewhere are aware that some of the worst things to come out of Washington—including NAFTA, financial deregulation, and the Iraq War—were bipartisan efforts in which the mainstream media acted as cheerleaders. That is why, I assume, Delaware County, where Muncie resides, voted for both Trump and Bernie Sanders in the primaries. When Democrats wheel out high-ranking Republicans who now disown Trump, they don’t realize they are making Trump’s point for him: The establishment that has done nothing for you hates me—I must be doing something right.
Brexit and the US elections are not synonymous. But there is plenty of overlap in the nationalist nostalgia, xenophobia, political dislocation, and class grievance that they draw upon.
Time and again in Muncie, Trump supporters, some of whom voted for Obama, say they really just want to “shake things up.” They are not alone. “The Democratic establishment is very, very happy with incremental change,” says Dave Ring, who backed Bernie and runs an organic farm and food store in Muncie called the Downtown Farm Stand. “And the rest of the public is out here like, ‘We don’t have time for incremental change. We don’t have time for that. Why would we want to wait?’”
This sense of urgency will not go away if Hillary wins, any more than a Remain vote would have signaled that all was well with British society. We didn’t wake up in a different country on June 24; it was simply a country we had ceased to recognize. A defeat for Trump, regardless of its magnitude, should not be misunderstood as an endorsement of the status quo. Just because you haven’t descended into the abyss, as Britain did, doesn’t mean you’re not standing dangerously close to its edge.