June 25, 2016.
The new question roiling American politics is whether the triumph of the Trump position in the Brexit referendum has any significance in predicting the outcome of this year’s American Presidential election. Before you scoff, consider modern history.
In fact, the history of the last 80 years shows a common pattern, a similar ebb and flow in the politics of the United States and the United Kingdom as reflected in the voters’ choice of their presidents and prime ministers.
The Special Relationship of the two countries was epitomized by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the aristocrats who led the Allies to victory in World War II. The two wartime captains had very different views on most political issues but in both nations the war overrode all other political considerations – for a time.
They were followed by two men, President Harry S. Truman and Prime Minister Clement Attlee, both political liberals who labored in their predecessors’ shadows but led the West in the post-war recovery and laid the foundation for the institutions that waged the Cold War.
During the 1950’s Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s counterparts in the UK were Conservative fellow wartime leaders, Prime Ministers Churchill (again), Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan.
Macmillan remained during the term of President John F. Kennedy. Both men were centrist politicians and firm warriors in the Cold War. They were actually related by marriage, Kennedy’s brother-in-law being the nephew of Macmillan’s wife.
President Lyndon B. Johnson and Prime Minister Harold Wilson were committed liberal politicians, elected in 1964 who expanded the welfare state in their countries during expanded economic prosperity.
In the 1970’s the two countries elected conservative politicians, Presidents Richard Nixon and Prime Minister Edward Heath. Later in the decade the two countries suffered through economic turmoil, led by liberal politicians, President Jimmy Carter and Prime Minister James Callaghan.
The election of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister in 1979 seems a precursor to the election of President Ronald Reagan the next year. Reagan and Thatcher were close personally and politically. Both led a conservative revolution domestically and pursued strong opposition against the Soviet Union. Reagan, however, was quick to accept Thatcher’s advice that Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was “a man we can do business with.”
Reagan and Thatcher were succeeded by less charismatic leaders of their own conservative parties, President George H.W. Bush and Prime Minister John Major who governed in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War.
Both the United States and the UK in the 1990’s elected youthful center-left politicians, President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Tony Blair. Both were married to independent outspoken lawyers, one of whom, it seems, is still politically active.
Blair remained in office through much of the Presidency of George W. Bush, during which their relationship and that of their countries was dominated by Blair’s staunch support of Bush’s post 9-11 anti-terrorism efforts and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2007 Bush was joined on the world stage by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron.
President Barack Obama is sui generis among American presidents on the subject of the Special Relationship. He famously returned to the British Embassy from the White House, a bust of Winston Churchill, presented to President Bush by Prime Minister Blair in a gesture of Iraq War solidarity. Armchair psychologists attribute Obama’s skepticism of the Special Relationship to his father’s Kenyan anti-colonial animus.
The gossipy details of the Kennedy-Macmillan-Hartington family connection and the Blair-Clinton lawyer-spouses are of no significance to the main point here. A couple of the comparisons are somewhat strained. Electoral terms and election dates create imprecise comparison. However, there is certainly a pattern to this history.
It is not at all illogical that democratic government, a common language (notwithstanding Shaw’s quip), instant mass news communication by satellite, similar free-market and free-trade economies and a common cultural history should combine to produce relatively similar economic and political developments.
In the run-up to the Brexit vote Donald Trump and President Obama staged a sort of debate before the British public. During a visit to 10 Downing Street, the President had urged Britons to vote against leaving the EU, warning that, otherwise, Britain would, in terms of a separate trade deal with the U.S., “go to the back of the queue.”
Trump, in contrast, stated that he did not have a personal view on how the British should vote, although he also volunteered that, if he were a British voter, he would “probably” vote to leave the EU. He also sharply returned a verbal volley to President Obama, stating to the British “You would certainly not be back of the queue — that I can tell you.”
After British Prime Minister David Cameron called Trump’s views on Muslim immigration “divisive, stupid and wrong,” Trump said he would have difficulty working with Cameron.
Like many others who have traded insults with Donald Trump, Cameron will soon be gone.
The British referendum removing Britain from the European Union found Donald Trump astride his Trump Turnberry golf course in Scotland. Trump characterized the Brexit vote as the British reclaiming their country and borders which he called a “parallel” to the mood in the United States.
Observers and polls agree that British voters were heavily influenced by fears of uncontrolled immigration and its effects on employment and, to the extent assimilation does not seem to be occurring, their very national identity. Concerns about terrorism also played a role. These fears are very much a presence in other European countries and, to a lesser extent, the United States as well.
Moreover, the Brexit support revealed British voters’ disdain for their political establishment, most of which opposed leaving the EU.
Brexit support was under-polled because voters knew that the political elites, including pollsters, regarded their anxiety about immigration as ignorant racism.
Beyond the superficial shock of peculiarly coiffed hair and brash manner, it is unclear what similarities exist between Trump and possible Cameron successor Boris Johnson who himself has taken a shot at Trump. When Trump criticized public safety in London due to Muslim immigration, Johnson, a former Mayor of London, shot back that there were parts of New York he would not visit for fear of encountering Donald Trump.
Uncharacteristically, Trump did not return fire. Instead he praised Mr. Johnson who “got it right” on Brexit. Trump said he was “sure” Johnson would make a good Prime Minister. Both men are colorful, polarizing figures. More significantly, both are nominally conservative politicians with sometimes unorthodox views.
Will the British electorate prove a leading indicator of its US counterpart? Will fearful silent voters elect Donald Trump? History says “probably” but history is only sometimes right about the future.