Brexit came first. Americans vowed they would never allow a Trump victory. Then came the Trump victory. Stunned, American liberals sought to understand ex post how they could have gotten it so wrong. Voter misinformation was one possible culprit. The increasing polarization of American politics, driven by a racist backlash against America’s first black president, was another reason rapidly scribbled on a post-it note for later analysis. The Russians were behind it all. Trump could not have won without outside help. The Brexiteers could not have won without outside help. Here we are, three years removed from the last elections, and Brexit has won again. Now is the time to pay attention.
Recall the narrative that followed both conservative victories, on both sides of the Atlantic. First, with Brexit, media articles went to great lengths to show that voters were misled and lied to regarding the benefits that would follow from leaving the European Union. Unwary voters were scared into voting; they voted out of fear, out of ignorance, out of despair. Russian agents had deployed a massively successful misinformation campaign that changed hearts and minds through memes, fake Facebook accounts, and sophisticated microtargeting techniques. In the US, largely the same reasons were given for Trump’s victory.
One would think that, after all that media coverage, voters wouldn’t be duped again and would, sensibly—in the media’s view—reverse course to repudiate Brexit. Well, they voted for Brexit again. Not only did they vote for Brexit, but the Conservatives thoroughly walloped the Labour Party, Brexit’s main opposition.
What does this tell us? Well, for one, it should worry America’s democrats. The renewed mandate granted to the Tories tells us that people voted for Brexit for reasons other than misinformation. It wasn’t all about racism. It wasn’t all about sexism. It wasn’t all about immigrant fear or hatred. It wasn’t all about these social categories that so consistently hold an outsized significance in liberal politics. It was, at least partly, out of a recognition that something wasn’t right with the current world order. If votes in favor of Trump and Brexit were anything at all, they were votes of defiance against a world system that proclaimed it knew best.
I would love to be a student again in my Global Affairs classroom. It might be difficult to convince us now that comparative advantages, in all circumstances, should be pursued and encouraged, as the Trump and Brexit votes signaled a desire for increased self-sustainability. Now, a desire for self-sustainability doesn’t mean comparative advantages aren’t better, from a resource management perspective, but maybe pulling back from interdependence grants you an independence you previously gave away in the name of resource allocation.
It might be difficult to convince us now that global trade, in all circumstances, is desirable and advantageous, when we read stories about, and recognize the plight of, workers abused in the factories of multinational corporations, where massive benefits in the form of profits make these companies almost lawless entities against inept and, ultimately, ineffectual regulatory government bodies. The “massive” and “historic” fines levied against Facebook or Google, for instance, amount to a fraction of their total revenue that would be recouped in a quarter’s time.
It might be difficult to convince us now that Hobbes and Machiavelli were wrong—that power, in fact, was not the only thing that mattered. The Prince, the Leviathan, Brexit and Trump show these ideas not only to be alive and well, but that they are powerful models against maintaining course. Ask yourself, what country would tolerate America’s interventions, America’s dietary and societal meddling, America’s hegemony if it wasn’t for the unequaled power of America’s military? In the end, you can get a Brexit and Trump vote because Britain’s and America’s power allows for it. What these votes say is, while the rest of you are stuck following a system we created, we continue to have, and will continue to have, the ability to play by our own rules when we want to. Why? Because we have the power to do so.
If you wanted to stand against us, you’d have to do so with comparable power. Think of North Korea. How could such an isolated, poor country command America’s attention for decades? And Iran? How is it that both these countries are important debate topics in every presidential election? More than deterring their ability to acquire nuclear weapons, America wants to deter their ability to gain leverage (nuclear weapons is the course North Korea and Iran have decided to gain that leverage). We recognize that power is ultimately what matters because if you cannot stand on your own, you have no choice but to join with others in the hope that your combined strength can match our one output. For America to play along with the international world order ushered in after World War 2, it would have to intentionally hobble its own might for the sake of international cooperation and dependence. Trump and Brexit don’t see the need for that hobbling.
And now, given Trump’s continued stay in the White House, the arguments against intentionally hobbling America’s power are even weaker. Trump came into office demanding that, fine, if we are to have international military alliances, EU countries can no longer expect us to pay much more than they have. Trump came into office saying, fine, if we are to keep trading, let’s re-negotiate these trade deals that have had disastrous effects on not negligible parts of our country, and so he slapped tariffs on China, got out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and renewed NAFTA in the form of the USMCA. And Trump has so successfully deflected attention away from the Russians that I wouldn’t be surprised to find some pundit making the argument that Trump has definitively put an end to the Cold War.
All of which go into another Trump argument that, fine, if we are to be involved with the world, we will do so only to the extent that we need, but we expect surrounding countries to pick up the slack and address dangers much more proximate to them. Isolationism, critics decry. Perhaps, but after years of well-broadcasted wars, followed by years of leaks proving the duplicitous motivations that initiated and continued those unpopular wars, I expect public sentiment to remain on the side of Trump, even if he faces a pacifist like Bernie Sanders.
This takes us to the difficulty of defeating Donald Trump now. Brexit voters weren’t embarrassed by Theresa May’s failures. They aren’t embarrassed by Boris Johnson’s purposeful disheveled persona. Trump has given his voters plenty to be embarrassed about, and yet, they continue supporting him. Somehow, the entire Republican party has come around to him, even while some congressmen have announced their surprising retirement. The recent Brexit vote dispels the narrative that people didn’t know what they were voting for. With the upcoming 2020 election, it would be good if Democrats recognized what the American people wanted to vote for, here.