As I watched the results of Britain’s EU referendum in Washington last night, it was clear by 10:30 that the Leave vote would prevail, a shocking development given the forceful campaigning for Remain by people we traditionally think of as powerful, credible, and more or less trustworthy. These are people like prime ministers, long-serving members of parliament (on the right and the left), business leaders, and other high-profile figures. Even President Obama added his voice to the debate a couple months ago. Yet none of that prevented one of the most startling political upsets of our time.
This morning brought another striking development: CNN carrying live coverage of a press conference by Donald Trump in Scotland alongside live reporting of the Brexit vote. Trump was promoting one of his business ventures, but that clearly was a secondary goal. The first was to align his candidacy with this populist win to show that his campaign, like the Leave campaign, is not a fringe movement, but something serious and popular enough to lead to another shocking outcome – in this case, the election of a candidate as unconventional and controversial as Donald Trump.
If we look at the concerns that back each movement, they share quite a few similarities, chief among them economic anxiety among middle class citizens. The most economically depressed areas of England voted overwhelmingly in favor of leaving the EU. The wealthier parts, including Cambridge and London, voted strongly to remain. Immigration concerns are connected to this anxiety and fear about tougher competition for a dwindling share of decent-paying jobs—all similar themes we’ve heard often this election season in the U.S.
Trump’s brilliant PR move also deftly aligned Hillary Clinton with a political class that appears increasingly out of step with regular citizens across the Atlantic and in America. It is far from clear that is enough to prevail against her in November, but this vote demonstrates that simply having the traditional leaders from business and government behind an idea is not enough. What happens on Election Day 2016 could be equally shocking as what happened in Britain last night.