When Donald Trump promised that his election would be “Brexit plus plus plus”, many of us took him at his word. Britain’s Brexit vote had been momentous, and unsettling for politicians of most stripes, not simply because of the strength of public feeling which the vote exposed, but because of what the referendum result meant.
The UK has spent the months since the referendum struggling with the constant questions which Brexit raises. It will take many years of wrangling to answer those questions and people on both sides of the debate will remain unsatisfied for the foreseeable future.
Like the Brexiteers, Trump was promising a period of upheaval and of change. But to what end? What did his supporters want, and were they different to those who voted for Brexit in the UK?
As the dust begins to settle after the US election, an accepted wisdom is being created. The rise of the right across Europe and the US is due to globalisation, the dominance of a liberal elite, the marginalisation of the white working class, even political correctness gone too far. The balance is now apparently being reset.
Brexit is being held up as the first example of this backlash against traditional politics and the political elite, while Trump is being held up as the latest.
Neither are one-sided events, something which is being increasingly overlooked. Of those who voted in the EU referendum, 48.1% voted to remain in the EU, while 51.9% voted to leave. Trump won the presidential election and the majority of the electoral college votes, but not the popular vote. While the media and those on the winning side use words such as “revolutionary”, these victories need to be viewed in context. What they tell us is that both the UK and the US are divided nations, with different geographical areas having different priorities and needs.
In the referendum, a simple question was asked regarding Britain’s membership of the EU. While some people will have inevitably used this vote as an opportunity to express dissatisfaction, as happens during general elections, the majority of individuals inevitably voted on the issue at stake – Britain’s position within the EU.
While that vote has undoubtedly shaken the political establishment, it cannot and should not be dismissed simply as an expression of general irritation. Perhaps what it demonstrates most clearly is that national government and the media cannot continually blame the EU for unpopular policies for decades before changing their position and arguing it is in fact a positive part of political life.
The situation in the US appears to be different. In the presidential system, voters select an individual to represent and lead their nation. Trump, a 70-year-old white, male, property tycoon and billionaire, painted himself as the champion of the underclass, of the forgotten white working class in the American rust belt. As unlikely as it appears, Trump was able to claim he was not part of the establishment, just as Nigel Farage, a former banker and MEP, had done before him.
Trump, like Farage, is the epitome of the establishment, but with no political record to defend, they both found themselves in the position of being able to criticise their opponents with very little comeback. While their opponents may have argued their plans were untested, extreme and unachievable, this sounded like political fudging to the public.
Hillary Clinton was painted by her political opponents as the nasty face of the political establishment, just as Jean-Claude Junker, Donald Tusk, David Cameron and Nick Clegg were in the UK. Trump and Farage – and many of the Brexit supporters – were able to link dissatisfaction with the status quo to the records of their opponents. They then claimed their solutions would deal with underlying problems.
Whether they will or not remains to be seen, but it’s already clear that there are very many underlying problems within both the US and the UK – as well as in France, Germany and Italy. All these countries are expecting to see a rise in right-wing parties over the next year.
By dismissing the votes in June and November as simple “disatisfaction” the political elites face a long walk in the wilderness. Similarly, if Trump and the Brexiteers ignore the specific wants and needs of their supporters, instead favouring their own political agenda, they will find that their support will ebb away as quickly as it did for their political opponents. Democracy cannot be dismissed by anyone because you don’t like the result, and that applies to Trump just as much as anyone else.