As the results of the 2016 election came in on Tuesday night I kept saying to myself, “wow, that’s amazing.” And then a second later: “No it’s not -- I’ve seen this movie before.” On the June 23 of this year, to be precise.
That was the night the British people voted to leave the EU, in what has now become well known here in America as “Brexit.” That evening started, too, with the pundits and the pollsters and all the establishment figures in politics, the media and business predicting a solid victory for the status quo.
But pretty soon, smug establishment complacency turned to shock and then pure bewilderment as the truth sank in: the people had risen up, rejected the ruling class, and voted for radical change.
Donald Trump’s victory is a much bigger deal, and a much more remarkable political achievement than Brexit. But there are two big similarities (as well as one big difference), and it’s worth noting them as we try to make sense of the extraordinary conclusion to the 2016 presidential race.
The first similarity is in the underlying economic and social realities that explain the vote for Brexit and the vote for Trump.
As I’ve argued previously, a shockingly high number of Americans are really struggling financially, and have been for years, even decades. Their incomes are down, they see jobs disappearing, and opportunities for their kids vanishing.
Worse, they have seen this happen, unabated, regardless of whether Democrats or Republicans have been in power.
No wonder they’re angry and want change. No wonder they responded to a political outsider who wasn’t tainted with the failures of the last twenty years. And no wonder that they were even prepared to overlook Donald Trump’s personal flaws and checkered history in order to give a massive middle finger to the political, media and business establishment that made itself richer while they, working Americans, got poorer.
To dismiss all that as racism, sexism and all the other -isms that the politically correct establishment threw at Trump and his supporters (just as the establishment hurled similar insults at Brexit supporters here) is just a cynical attempt to evade responsibility for the failure of the ruling elite’s policies.
For many years, we’ve been living in a world run by bankers, bureaucrats and accountants who have pushed a technocratic agenda of globalization, centralization and unlimited immigration that has improved life for poor countries, and for rich people in rich countries, but which has undermined the economic security and social stability of working people in the west.
The effect has probably been starker in America than anywhere else. But it was almost totally missed by the establishment. They failed to see that policies which they viewed as being ‘cosmopolitan’ and ‘progressive’ were actually causing real hardship in parts of the country they rarely, if ever, visited.
Instead of understanding, empathizing and trying to do something about it, politicians and, vitally, most of the American media simply dismissed any opposition as prejudice.
That’s why so many Trump supporters ended up quietly resolving to vote for the insurgent candidate they saw as their champion, but refusing to tell friends, colleagues -- or pollsters! -- that they were in his camp. Who needs the abuse?
And that’s the second similarity with Brexit, right there. In the UK in June, there was a hidden Brexit vote comprised of people who had gone underground, politically speaking, as a result of the moral shaming handed out by contemptuous elites. Ditto for Trump.
The biggest difference with Brexit is the biggest opportunity for America. Unlike Brexit, the election this week was a contest of different political philosophies and, vitally, competing agendas. There was a clear winner -- not just for the presidency but in Congress, too.
That means that we now have the possibility of united government ready to implement a clear reform plan. Since Brexit was not decided in a conventional election with alternative plans on offer, there was no clarity about the specific details of what leaving the EU should actually look like.
By contrast, a new and dynamic conservative agenda seems to be taking shape right before our eyes, with Donald Trump and Paul Ryan already setting out their intention to work together to deliver a pro-growth economic reform plan, surely the most urgent priority today.
So while we can certainly identify the ways in which Trump’s victory reminds us of Brexit, it’s the difference that should give Americans the greatest grounds for optimism today.