Liberals, in the wake of the recent United Kingdom referendum on leaving the European Union, have begun arguing that leaving would be economically dangerous and xenophobic–an argument which sounds eerily similar to the left’s criticism of American presidential candidate Donald Trump. Some, including including Bill Maher, have claimed that Brexit’s momentum will carry Trump to the presidency. In short, you must support Trump if you supported the UK’s decision to leave the EU.
This conclusion about Brexit, however, isn’t correct: the anti-establishment nature of the Brexit vote is not the same as supporting Trump.
It is without doubt that the United Kingdom’s referendum to leave the European Union was the most politically significant news of the month. Many conservatives were cheering for “Brexit,” while many liberals wanted to “Bremain.” The process of departure will be lengthy and difficult, though over 3 million Britons have signed a petition to hold a do-over and halt the pending “Brexodus.”
We must note that there are currents of populism behind the UK’s decision, the same populism on which Trump thrives. Like many government institutions, the European Union far outlasted and outgrew its initial purpose, and became a target for those who hate establishment style politics. It grew into a bureaucratic leviathan that only suppressed its member countries’ abilities to rule themselves.
Yet, many on the left seem to forget this reason for leaving: obviously, the only reason the British would ever want to leave must be because they are racists and xenophobes. This charge comes after years of migration from Syrian refugees, who are allowed to pass freely through the entire EU. Migration reached an all-time high of 336,000 in 2015. After several terror attacks were committed by non-EU nationals, members of the British government expressed concerns about the influx of immigration, and rightly so.
While the charge is partly true, it is vastly overblown in the media. As former Prime Minister Tony Blair noted in a recent interview, “Particularly on the issue of immigration, there was a huge amount of anxiety and concern about that. I personally don’t think we will deal with that concern by leaving Europe.” Additionally, one of the top demographics to support Brexit was the Asian community.
It is clear, in reality, that the reasons people have for supporting Brexit are numerous. Free exercise of national sovereignty sits on top of that list, and immigration was merely the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Ultimately, Brexit came from a desire for national sovereignty over and above government overreach, with concerns over immigration and national identity thrown in for good measure.
Ultimately, the reasons Brexit won the day sound an awful lot like classical liberalism, not populism. It is a huge reach to say that this is the root of Trump’s crass perversion of conservatism, and an even bigger one to claim that all Brexit supporters must, therefore, support Trump as well.