Britain votes for “Brexit” and Donald Trump shows up in Scotland to open a golf course. It feels very strange watching this as a Briton. I can’t quite believe it’s all happening. I’m expecting to suddenly wake up and find Bobby Ewing in the shower. “It was only a dream!”
Trump is pleased with Britain’s vote. It’s a morale boost for his own campaign — flagging in the polls and running out of cash — because there’s no denying that the referendum encompassed the issues he’s running on.
Immigration featured prominently: Membership in the European Union means the UK cannot deny access to European workers. It was also a vote of confidence in Britain itself. The pro-EU campaign bet everything on what was dubbed Project Fear — constantly telling voters that the UK was too small, too weak to flourish outside the EU. That voters rejected that nihilism here suggests there is a broader desire to be “great again.” Hope won out.
The demography of the vote contained good signs for Trump, too. Who voted to remain in the EU? Scotland, wealthy and cosmopolitan London, and the affluent conservative suburbs. Who voted to leave? A coalition that looks like the one Trump wants to build: rural voters, the urban working-class and ordinarily left-wing voters who hate the establishment.
Turnout was huge: The margin of victory for “Leave” was built by people who haven’t voted in decades
There was a complex cultural dimension to this referendum. For a long time it has felt as if Parliament existed in a separate country, also known as London, with an entirely different ethic from the rest of the nation. When I voted Thursday in a church hall far outside the capital, I confided to an older gentleman that I felt emotional about the event. He said that this was when “we get our freedom back.” That’s language you never hear in London. But it’s how millions of ordinary Brits feel.
So has Trump cause to celebrate? Yes and no. Yes, for all the reasons above, but “no” because one country is never quite like another. The Brexit campaign sold itself as anti-establishment but one of the reasons it won was because actually it was blessed with establishment support, people who softened its more radical edges. It was a respectable campaign. Boris Johnson, its effective leader, went to the same school as Prime Minister David Cameron and will probably succeed him in office.
Moreover, race did not play out the same way that it has in Trump’s Republican primaries. Immigration mattered, but one poll had it as only our third major concern: Democracy and jobs were more important. Significantly, many ethnic minorities voted for Brexit. Slough — the town where the British version of “The Office” is set — voted Leave despite being majority nonwhite.
There were racist sentiments expressed on the Leave side, but — and this is a crucial difference with Trump — they were acknowledged to be embarrassing and self-defeating. They were not entertained.
Trump ultimately cannot overcome being Trump, and he remains his biggest problem. That said, Brexit has proven one thing: People say one thing to pollsters and do quite another in the voting booth. Maybe the U.S. election will be closer than anticipated.