Politics & Government

Could a Brexit sentiment sweep Trump into office?

The presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump makes a speech at his revamped Trump Turnberry golf course in Turnberry Scotland Friday June 24, 2016. Trump, in Scotland the day after the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, saluted the decision, saying the nation's citizens "took back their country."
The presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump makes a speech at his revamped Trump Turnberry golf course in Turnberry Scotland Friday June 24, 2016. Trump, in Scotland the day after the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, saluted the decision, saying the nation's citizens "took back their country." AP

The 2016 race for the White House has weathered more shocks than an old pickup truck bumping along a pothole-covered road.

Now there’s Brexit, Britain’s stunning decision this week to bolt from the European Union, and possibly another jolt in America’s journey to the November election.

Political seismographs were busy Friday measuring the shock waves on this side of the Atlantic.

Does it help real-estate mogul Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, whose nativist, anti-immigration, anti-trade-deals campaign has channeled a similar current of anger among a large swath of Republican voters?

Or does former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic standard-bearer, benefit, given her foreign policy résumé at a time when the global order could come under increasing strain?

“What you’re watching right now is how candidates deal with it,” said Republican pollster David Winston. “Are they going to address the concerns, or have a traditional discourse of attacking their opponents?”

What you’re watching right now is how candidates deal with it. Are they going to address the concerns, or have a traditional discourse of attacking their opponents?

Republican pollster David Winston.

From the White House to the candidates, from pollsters to diplomats, there was a sense of the synergy between the forces that passed the referendum that rocked British politics and those that have commandeered the U.S. presidential race.

It’s a fair question to ask whether American voters are paying any attention to the turmoil across 3,500 miles of ocean. Do they care whether or not their English counterparts want to play nice with their European “neighbours” on economic, security, justice and foreign policy issues?

Democratic pollster Mark Mellman said that issues like immigration, jobs and the economy are, indeed, important to American voters. Still, he said, “I think among elites, everybody will be sitting at dinner tonight discussing Brexit. But if you look at the average American family having dinner, I don’t think they’ll be discussing Brexit.”

While there is a wait-and-see attitude about the fallout, the vote had an immediate and powerful impact. British Prime Minister and chief anti-Brexit cheerleader David Cameron said he would step down.

The victory fed on fears about a host of concerns: the loss of jobs, trade agreements, immigration, security, unresponsive leaders and of powerful elites controlling the lives of the people – in Britain’s case, at EU headquarters in Brussels across the English Channel.

“This is as much about disillusionment with the political status quo, with inequalities, with a sense that politicians say anything to get elected and then don’t do what they’re supposed to do, and a continuing sense – certainly in America – in Britain ... that it’s been the hardworking, tax-paying middle classes who don’t feel listened to, or that their interests have been sufficiently taken into account,” Sir Peter Westmacott, former British ambassador to the United States, said on a media call Friday arranged by the Atlantic Council, a foreign policy think tank.

The world has shrunk. It is interconnected. … It promises to bring extraordinary benefits, but it also has challenges and also evokes concerns and fears.

President Obama

U.S. political leaders on both sides of the aisle offered supportive bromides to chastened British officials, speaking of the longstanding “special relationship” shared between the U.S. and its oldest ally.

President Barack Obama had previously urged British voters to vote against Brexit and was accused by some critics of interfering in the country’s politics. Speaking at Stanford University Friday, he spoke of the “ongoing changes and challenges” of globalization and alluded to the fears that Brexit revealed and that have surfaced in the U.S., as well.

“The world has shrunk,” Obama said. “It is interconnected…It promises to bring extraordinary benefits, but it also has challenges and also evokes concerns and fears.”

In a statement, Clinton offered a not-so-veiled political plug for herself: “This time of uncertainty only underscores the need for calm, steady, experienced leadership in the White House.”

She also threw a dart at an unnamed Trump, whose campaign has been marked by a series of personal attacks on opponents, critics, members of the media and others: “It also underscores the need for us to pull together to solve our challenges as a country, not tear each other down.”

For his part, Trump, on a non-campaign trip to Scotland tending to his golf courses, said British voters are “angry over borders. They’re angry over people coming into the country and taking over, and nobody even knows who they are. They’re angry about many, many things.”

They “took back their country,” he said, echoing a political catch phrase that resonated with the political revolt in 2009 that produced the tea party and the town hall protests against Obamacare a year later. Both developments charted the growing divide between the political establishment and the voters.

Those efforts produced mixed results. Some tea party candidates gained power; Obamacare became law.

Does a similar sentiment behind Brexit boost Trump?

“We will see,” he said.

David Goldstein: 202-383-6105, @GoldsteinDavidJ

Hannah Allam and Anita Kumar contributed.

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