Shock, confusion, despair. I encountered these emotions in June while in England, and again on November 9 on campus. I was staying with my father in London, and most people had already assumed that the United Kingdom would stay in the European Union. I walked past a mural of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson—the most prominent Leave campaigner and now the British Foreign Secretary— kissing; two strikingly similar men from different countries. “At least Donald Trump won’t get elected,” I thought to myself. How could these two shocking events happen in the same year?
As the votes demonstrate, Trump saw something many astute commentators could not. These events are related; he understood that the British populist movement that won against the predictions of the polls was similar to the growing movement in the United States that succeeded in propelling him into the White House. American voters were cited as saying that immigration and terrorism were the top two reasons they voted for Trump, mirroring the British voters’ anger about immigration and free borders in the European Union. James Hartley, a professor at Mount Holyoke College, stated, “A large portion of the electorate in both countries is tired of the intellectual elites telling them what to think and looking down on them for having a different opinion.” The demographics of the voters are also strikingly similar, with older, lower-educated, working-class whites fueling the movement against immigration and changing cultural norms. “Make America Great Again” and “Take Back Control” both reveal the wish to return to the past and prey on the nostalgia and anger of the disaffected voters.
Many economists theorize that Trump’s victory could fuel more political isolationism in other countries, as it is a reinforcement of the populist sentiment. Resentment towards immigrants was the key factor in the Brexit vote, including towards those immigrants from the EU who have an automatic right to live in Britain and those from the Indian subcontinent, the Caribbean, and Africa. The campaign slogan was “Control our Borders” and supporters harshly rejected the free movement of people around the EU. Britain failed to integrate its immigrant communities, particularly those from South Asia, the Caribbean, Africa, and the Baltic State, which contributed to the country’s xenophobia and the Leave campaign’s success. Donald Trump’s movement was also fueled by xenophobia and the promises of banning Muslims and deporting approximately 11 million undocumented people. Both groups of voters yearned to return to a more ethnically homogenous and “economically stable” past.
As with the U.S., the UK has struggled with their economy after the 2008 global financial crisis. In both countries, wage growth has been largely flat and people haven’t been satisfied with the governments’ attempts to stimulate the economy. Some commentators have observed that the unintended consequence of the crisis has been to enrich the wealthy and impoverish the poor, which leaves room for extremist movements that target the middle class. Trump promises to bring back jobs to blue-collar workers, as he rejects free trade and backs tariffs to protect U.S. industries. Markets had a volatile reaction after both of these elections, but the U.S. market rebounded the day after, while the pound is still much lower than it was before Brexit.
Britain and the U.S. are indeed quite similar in the results of 2016, but now it is unclear how their relations will proceed. Earlier in the year, Parliament debated banning Trump from Britain and David Cameron described him as “divisive, stupid, and wrong.” Even though David Cameron left office, it may take some work for Trump to restore the diplomacy that the United States once had with Britain. All political systems around the world are connected, and it is striking how economic resentment manifests itself as anger towards immigrants in multiple countries. This phenomenon, however, doesn’t seem to be coincidental. These movements recognize their beliefs with others around the world through social media and the news. Both the voters and the politicians are connected. Nigel Farage, the former leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party and the current interim leader of United Kingdom Independence Party, appeared with Donald Trump in the campaign trail and stated, “I commend Donald Trump for the courage with which he has fought this campaign and I look forward to a closer relationship between the U.S. and the UK. We now have a president who likes our country and understands our post-Brexit values.” And it doesn’t just stop here. Marine Le Pen of the far-right National front now is a more likely candidate for president, and an anti-immigration party is picking up momentum for the federal election in 2017. The future holds turmoil and uncertainty, and only time will tell how these movements will change our global landscape in the next couple years.