The Brexit result does not mean that Donald Trump is certain to become president of the United States.
After Britain’s leave the European Union campaign unexpectedly won the June 23 referendum, the argument has gone as follows: that America and the world has been warned and a Trump triumph in the November 8 election is entirely possible. That the British campaign was almost exactly like Mr Trump’s in that it was fuelled by a sense of grievance, a smirking ignorance, naked xenophobia and a stubborn anti-elitism that gleefully rejected expert opinions, reason and facts.
On American television on Tuesday, former British prime minister Tony Blair agreed that Brexit and Trumpism were two sides of a “populist revolt”. In the UK, a former Labour party immigration minister Liam Byrne lamented the political elites’ knowledge of “how to globalise. We don’t know how to make globalisation work for the majority of voters.”
From the liberal, carefully fact-checked New Yorker magazine to the right-wing, often-delusional Trump-supporting Breitbart News, the British referendum result is being described as a sign of things to come stateside. And as a doleful warning to Democratic party presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton’s campaign, which is trying to cut at Mr Trump’s nationalistic appeal.
The argument goes further. Britain’s outgoing prime minister David Cameron, who called the referendum to fend off a far-right challenge to his Conservative party’s base, is said to have behaved like Paul Ryan, speaker of the US House of Representatives and the country’s most senior elected Republican.
Mr Ryan, who has long espoused classic Republican principles and conventional political arguments, accepted as his party’s candidate a man whose pronouncements he has denounced as “textbook racist”.
He condemned Mr Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims as not “reflective of our principles” but still failed to withdraw his endorsement. Mr Ryan thereby provides legitimacy to a divisive race-baiting campaign that threatens American foreign policy, economic stability and its standing in the world.
In this respect, both the British prime minister and America’s highest-ranking Republican are political sinners of the same sort. Both have made cynical deals with the devil of expediency in an attempt to hold their respective conservative parties together. Both have put party above country.
For Mr Cameron, the consequences of such a strategy have been dramatic and corrosive. He lost the referendum to a ragtag band of Leave campaigners who peddled racially tinged paranoia and little else. Even as incidents of race hate were being reported from the streets of a divided country, the British economy was tanking and the UK’s credit rating was downgraded. Meanwhile, the break-up of the United Kingdom also became a troubling possibility, with Scotland suggesting it might prefer another referendum on independence over losing access to the European single market. And there have been calls for Northern Ireland to unite with the Republic of Ireland. With Britain in a full-blown crisis, Leave leaders stayed suspiciously silent about concrete plans for the future.
The high drama of Mr Cameron’s cynical political machinations continues to play itself out. For Mr Ryan, the consequences of backing Mr Trump are still some way off. But if the opinion polls prove wrong for the US – as they were for the UK – and Mr Trump does win the election, the chaos of Brexit will be exceeded by the arrival of a chaos candidate at the White House.
And yet, the British vote still does not automatically signal how the American elections will go. These are two different elections on two different continents. Crucially, they have two different systems of measuring public opinion. A plebiscite on a complicated issue is not the same as a general election to pick a head of state.
The American presidential election is a straight contest between two people, not a toss-up between two possible outcomes with almost incomprehensibly broad implications.
More to the point, the American electorate is very different from the British. Britain is a great deal more white than the US – 86 per cent versus 63 per cent white respectively. More than 60 per cent of British voters live within 32 kilometres of the place they inhabited aged 14. Though Brexiters and Trump supporters undoubtedly share some political characteristics – nativism and a rage against the status quo – there are signs that the American electorate at large may be doubtful of Mr Trump’s strongman act. How else to explain the public recoiling from his tough anti-Muslim bromides after the Orlando mass shooting?
This self-correction by American voters on terrorism may also prove to be the case with Mr Trump’s other big disruptive idea – antitrade protectionism, throwing up punitive tariff barriers that would weaken the liberal foundations put in place around the world over decades. The latest Washington Post/ABC News poll has found that 61 per cent of Americans believe Mrs Clinton to have the right personality and temperament for the presidency and is qualified for the job, while 64 per cent say Mr Trump isn’t qualified for it.
To see a Trump presidency as the inevitable corollary of Brexit is to deny a basic truth: candidates who promise “disruption” may come to be seen as more destructive than the system they promise to shatter.
Perhaps Brexit may not, as is feared, be the first infection of many. It may be an inoculation.