Faculty Forum - Featured Post Posted on Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Voting for Trump is Not like Voting for Brexit

Presumptive Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump and his supporters have been playing up the possibility of a spillover effect from the recent British vote to leave the European Union. The Brexit vote follows, and exceeds, votes in other European countries indicating a rise in nativism born of economic anxiety about globalization and increased immigration. And Trump has gained support from similar concerns. Yet Brexit is not a harbinger of a Trump victory in the upcoming U.S. presidential election for one main reason: Trump himself.

The Brexit vote was over how the EU has failed to ensure economic security of the British in the face of growing immigration; and Trump has gained support from whites in the U.S. who are concerned about immigration, jobs and economic decline. That, however, is where the parallel ends. The U.K. Brexit vote was over whether to stay in the EU; the U.S. election is about choosing a president and it is turning out to be a referendum on Trump’s character.

Trump may have a winning issue that parallels the concerns of Brexit supporters, but his personality turns off enough people to undercut the effect. It is a dour assessment but my conclusion is that Trump’s incendiary penchant for fanning the flames of xenophobia will likely lead him to lose the presidential election.

Rarely do we in the U.S. ask whether election trends in the U.K. portend implications for American politics. Yet, the mere fact that Trump is the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party for the highest office in the land is the best indicator of how far this election season has taken us from traditional American politics. Trump is on track to secure the nomination at next week’s Republican National Convention, in spite of outspoken opposition in his own Party. If he does succeed in getting the nod, people will be remiss if they do not note that never before in the entire history of the country has there been a major party presidential nominee who is as unqualified or as dangerous.

Trump not only consistency whips up white hysteria about foreigners with his plans to build a wall to keep out Mexicans and his calls for a ban on all Muslim immigrants. He also has an unprecedented deficiency in basic knowledge of public affairs, shows an equally extreme willingness to violate international laws (especially the Geneva Accords) regarding torture and basic human rights, panders for the votes of white supremacists and all too frequently indulges in making use of the wild ideas of conspiracy theorists and others on the fringes of right-wing politics. He still refuses to state publicly that President Obama was born in the U.S. No demagogue as extreme as Trump has gotten this close to the highest office in the land in the entire history of the country.

Trump’s demagoguery has gotten him much support among certain sectors of the electorate, especially white working class men, who he has now painted as kindred spirits with the Brexit voters. In many ways, Trump is correct in that there are many similarities among Brexit voters and his supporters. Both feel that their governments have failed to defend them in the face of a globalizing economy that has undermined their economic security and led to a decline of the middle class. The changing economy has created growing economic precarity for workers and their families as work gets out-sourced, jobs get off-shored and wages stagnate and even decline. Since his campaign’s inception, Trump has been capitalizing on similar economic anxieties in the U.S., and in his eyes the winning Brexit vote has further legitimized his platform.

Yet Trump’s appeal is mostly with whites; and a white vote in the U.S. is not as significant as in the U.K. The U.S. voting population is much more diverse than that in the U.K. where only about 13 percent are immigrants (mostly non-white) and in the U.S. the non-white population alone is about one in three at 31 percent. It is true that the U.S. continues to struggle to address issues of diversity including systemic racism, especially regarding policing, as the Black Lives Matter protests continue to highlight. In fact, U.S. diversity is what makes these issues so salient and involve more than just whites talking to themselves. Given U.S. diversity, it is significant that many non-whites and immigrants eligible to vote are not planning on voting for Trump, and that reduces the effect of his strong support from his white supporters.

Even if the U.S. were not more prepared to address issues of diversity and difference, the Brexit vote differs from U.S. presidential politics in a more fundamental way. The Brexit vote was about leaving the EU; the U.S. election is about choosing a president. While the presumptive nominee for the Democrats is the unpopular Hillary Clinton, she nonetheless consistently polls as more popular than Trump. In this race to the bottom, he is simply considered unacceptable to many Americans (white and non-white alike).

In spite of all of Trump’s success in stirring up racial hysteria over illegal Mexican immigrants and Muslim refugees, enough American voters, especially non-whites, are unlikely to support his proposals to build a wall on the southern border and ban all Muslim immigrants. Trump’s fanning the flames of xenophobia has succeeded in intensifying racial division in the country (as it did in the Brexit vote), but this type of campaign will not likely attract the needed majority of American voters in this presidential race.

There is a lot of anger among white Americans about how the government – especially a government headed by the first African-American president in history – has failed to protect them from the deleterious effects of the globalizing economy. And racist attitudes, especially regarding the president, have been shown to be the prime predictor of whether someone supports Trump for president. Yet, the U.S. is not the U.K.; and Trump’s candidacy is just not appealing to enough of the relatively more diverse U.S. electorate to win the presidency. Of course, another terrorist attack on U.S. soil or some other October surprise could change things. But for now, the Brexit spillover remains only a Trump fantasy.

This article is part of a series of Roosevelt House Faculty Associates’ commentary on the Brexit vote. Click here to read the full series.


Sanford Schram is Professor of Political Science, Hunter College, CUNY, where he is also a Faculty Associate at the Roosevelt House Institute of Public Policy. His most recent book is The Return of the Ordinary Capitalism: Neoliberalism, Precarity, Occupy (Oxford, 2015).