Brexit Plus, Plus, Plus: Trumpism Sweeps America, And the Globe

Omar Bekdash ‘18, Junior Columnist

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When Donald Trump first vowed to “Make America Great Again” two Junes ago, a small yet fierce crowd in Trump Tower erupted in cheers. Cheers turned into poll numbers; poll numbers turned into primary victories; primary victories turned into winning the nomination. Then he won the presidency.

Never had such an oddball candidate—a billionaire with three wives to-date and a loose-cannon mouth—become such a challenge to mainstream politicians. Neither his candor, nor his temperament, nor his sheer lack of preparation disqualified him from the race. Trump’s carefully-tailored rhetoric—viewed opportunistic at best and racist at worst—would catapult him to win the Republican nomination, and then the White House.

That small campaign kickoff in midtown Manhattan, viewed as a joke by many initial observers, would swiftly strike a nerve with voters all across America. His iconic slogan interestingly bears a striking resemblance to Ronald Reagan’s campaign slogan, “Let’s make America great again” [1]. Voters swiftly fell for Reagan’s “change” message after a decade of government corruption and ineffectiveness. Trump’s strategy in 2016 was similar—with one blatant difference. Reagan remained unabashedly optimistic about America, calling it “a shining city upon a hill” [2]. Trump would go on to call this country “a divided crime scene” that only he could fix. He would present a deeply pessimistic vision of a country overrun with terrorism, crime, and economic failure. He would resurrect old racial tensions and xenophobic fears that presidential nominees—both Republican and Democratic—had not dared touch in decades. Yet race was hardly the deciding factor.

Ryhan Moghe ‘18 warns against blaming racism as the main driving force behind Trump’s victory: “The most important message of his campaign was that globalization and free trade, which has devastated our manufacturing sector, must be reversed. Trump’s strategy of tapping into the anger of many desperate people is what allowed him to beat Hillary Clinton in the Midwest.”

This former manufacturing area to which Moghe refers is known as the Rust Belt. Throughout the Rust Belt, the decline of American industry became the centerpiece of Trump’s message. The Washington Post in October noted that the amount of American factory workers had essentially been cut in half since Reagan took office, due to free trade and automation [3]. Unemployment remains consistently high—hovering at 11% even during economic expansion—in former manufacturing powerhouses such as Detroit [4]. The angriest men and women in America just so happen to be longtime residents living in these areas, usually middle-aged whites who have experienced their way of life slowly disintegrate around them. Shocking statistics quantify their despair; white American suicide rates have surged nearly 20% in the past three years in these impoverished areas [5]. A new opioid epidemic has plagued rural America, causing the deaths of nearly 4,000 people in Ohio alone in 2015 [6]. These problems are merely symptoms of a decades-long trend.

Trump repeatedly claimed that the only way to break free from this trend was to elect an incendiary, trade-war-promising businessman to “shake things up.” And it worked for him. According to The New York Times, nearly forty-two states lurched to the right, handing Trump a significant electoral victory. Aided by record turnout among uneducated whites in the Rust Belt, Trump shattered Clinton’s supposed “blue wall” (Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania) in a stunning repudiation of the establishment. To many around the world, the rise of Trump and Trumpism in America was a shock. Yet America was not the first and will by no means be the last to experience this trend of populist resurgence.

Populists have always maintained a presence in democracies. Often, economic isolationists, as well as right-wing and anti-immigrant populists (though there are left-wing populists like Bernie Sanders who do not fit this description), in democracies normally occupy the fringes of government. Only during times of extreme national pessimism can populists suddenly arise, out of nowhere, to send shockwaves throughout the establishment. The Great Recession of 2008, coupled with the slow-moving stagnation of the working-class, has provided an environment in which populists thrive.

This is by no means an American phenomenon. The Brexit vote was an equally surprising if not equally controversial result that has foreshadowed a populist surge in other Western democracies.

“The same type of voter who despised globalization and free trade, hated immigration policy, and mistrusted politicians in the United States was a Brexit voter in Britain,” Sikata Sengupta ’18 points out. These voters had their own version of Trump: Nigel Farage. The head of the United Kingdom Independence Party, Farage skillfully invoked fears that pro-immigration policymakers in Brussels controlled the British economy [7]. The BBC notes that the polls showing the “Remain” campaign ahead by a few percentage points were utterly wrong; nearly 52% of the UK voted to leave the European Union, a decisive victory for “Vote Leave.” The spine of the leave bloc consisted of older, uneducated working-class whites—fitting the profile of the average Trump supporter.

“The election of Donald Trump and the Brexit share so many parallels. The demographics of the voters, the issues discussed, and the shocking outcomes were very similar,” continues Sengupta. Oddly enough, in the aftermath of slumping poll numbers just days before the election, Trump presciently declared that he would win in an historic upset, promising “Brexit plus, plus, plus.”
The populist resurgence will not stop with Brexit or Trump. These recent upsets have energized Europe’s far-right, which has enjoyed a surge of support in the face of the massive refugee crisis.
The National Front’s Marine Le Pen, who once compared Muslims praying in the streets to the Nazi occupation, is now polling at 30% for the French presidential elections set to take place next year [8]. Francois Fillon, who recently won a French primary for the center-right party, Les Republicains, has not yet formed a coalition of moderate conservatives and socialists to defeat Le Pen.

In Austria, after an election in April that was deemed too close to call, a December 4 re-vote could very well place the first far-right leader since World War II at the helm of a Western European government [9]. Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party of Netherlands, which has advocated for a ban on mosques, is virtually tied with the liberal party for elections held next March [10]. All of these populists have three things in common: they all despise the establishment, view immigration as an impending doom, and abhor the European Union, which they see as a pernicious outside power.

A reckoning has arrived in many Western democracies. Shocking upsets have forced the ruling elite to rethink economic and immigration policies written in stone decades ago. Frustrated voters no longer look to the enlightened patriot, like Reagan, to lead the country through times of doubt. Rather, a dark candidate, who has promised little other than to whack the whole system with a hammer, has increasingly come under high demand. The only hope is that this self-adjustment phase occurring in many democracies will bring more deep reflection than chaotic divisiveness.


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