The Sources of Brexit and Trumpism Are Not the Same

The Sources of Brexit and Trumpism Are Not the Same
A ‘Baby Trump’ balloon rises after being inflated in London’s Parliament Square, as part of the protests against the visit of US President Donald Trump to the UK on July 13, 2018 (Press Association photo by Yui Mok via AP Images).

Since Donald Trump’s shock victory in the 2016 U.S. presidential election many commentators have compared his rise with the victory of the anti-EU Leave campaign in the referendum over the U.K.’s EU membership the same year. Across Europe and North America, voter groups facing social change were drawn to populist nostalgia that promised to roll back migration and globalization. Yet too often such comparisons have ignored huge differences between these political earthquakes whose effects are still being felt after Trump’s defeat at the hands of President Biden in 2020 and the signing of a U.K.-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement in 2021.

The pro-Brexit Leave campaign was the product of an ideologically diverse alliance that had no clear plan for putting such an immense project into practice. With the U.K. now paralyzed by the scale of the challenge of adapting to life outside the EU, infighting over how to manage the Brexit process has exacerbated deep divisions within the governing Conservative Party. Yet even as the Brexit project has fallen apart, pro-EU Remainers and an opposition Labour Party have struggled to develop a model for closer relations with Brussels that faces up to how the EU has changed since 2016.

By contrast, Trump’s rise was part of a wider radicalization of the U.S. political right that swept aside its few outward-looking conservatives. The gradual collapse of bipartisan traditions that had been the foundation of U.S. political stability was visible as early as 1992, when Pat Buchanan delivered his relentless ‘Culture War’ speech at the Republican Party convention that year, in which he emphasized a strategy of ideological polarization. The success of Newt Gingrich and other Republican leaders in taking over the House of Representatives in 1994 presaged the techniques Donald Trump would use to outflank his opponents twenty years later. Gingrich succeeded by pursuing electoral escalation focused on base mobilization, and vicious attacks on Democrats as well as moderate Republicans.

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