Why Hillary Clinton Should Worry About Brexit

Anti-elite sentiment is erupting around the world. And it’s the main reason why Donald Trump remains competitive in the presidential election.

Supporters cheer for Donald Trump during a campaign rally in Greensboro, N.C., on June 14.
AP Photo/Chuck Burton
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
June 26, 2016, 6 a.m.

The out­come of the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion will hinge on wheth­er dis­af­fected voters be­lieve it is a choice between two can­did­ates or—like Brexit—a ref­er­en­dum on the dir­ec­tion of the coun­try. Hil­lary Clin­ton holds ad­vant­ages over Trump in nearly every way can­did­ates are usu­ally meas­ured: She’s qual­i­fied for the job, she’s run­ning a bet­ter cam­paign, and she has the tem­pera­ment to be com­mand­er in chief. But if anxious voters want to take out their deep-seated dis­sat­is­fac­tion on a feck­less and feath­er-nest­ing es­tab­lish­ment—con­sequences be damned—Clin­ton should be run­ning scared.

If there’s a par­al­lel between the Brit­ish vote to with­draw from the European Uni­on and Don­ald Trump’s pres­id­en­tial cam­paign, it’s the dis­con­nect between the elite and the people they rep­res­ent. The vast ma­jor­ity of the Brit­ish polit­ic­al es­tab­lish­ment, main­stream me­dia in­sti­tu­tions, and transna­tion­al busi­ness class sneered at people who wanted to break from Brus­sels—an at­ti­tude dis­con­nec­ted from the sen­ti­ments of a ma­jor­ity of the pub­lic. Like­wise, Trump’s het­ero­dox views on im­mig­ra­tion, glob­al­ism, as­sim­il­a­tion, and trade are en­tirely at odds with the pro­fes­sion­al class in both parties, but they res­on­ate with an as­cend­ant pop­u­list con­stitu­ency that has taken hold in 2016.

The demo­graph­ic break­down of the Brexit vote was re­mark­ably sim­il­ar to the con­tours of the pres­id­en­tial race. Older voters over­whelm­ingly sup­por­ted with­draw­ing from the EU; they also make up Trump’s base of sup­port. The work­ing-class towns out­side of Lon­don were the strongest bas­tions of Brexit. Like­wise, Trump is still run­ning com­pet­it­ively against Clin­ton be­cause of over­whelm­ing back­ing from blue-col­lar whites. The no­tion of “two Amer­icas” (pop­ular­ized by John Ed­wards, of all people) has nev­er been more rel­ev­ant.

The voters’ de­sire to give the pro­ver­bi­al middle fin­ger to the gov­ern­ing class is why Trump—des­pite his gaffes, ig­nor­ance of policy, and er­rat­ic tem­pera­ment—can’t be coun­ted out. Fo­cus groups show that even many Trump sup­port­ers have con­cerns about his abil­ity to serve ef­fect­ively as pres­id­ent. But they don’t care. On pa­per, a can­did­ate run­ning on Trump’s is­sues who un­der­stood the im­port­ance of put­ting to­geth­er a pro­fes­sion­al polit­ic­al op­er­a­tion would be a po­tent can­did­ate. But Trump’s un­will­ing­ness to take the job of run­ning for pres­id­ent ser­i­ously re­mains a huge vul­ner­ab­il­ity. His de­cision in re­cent days to pro­mote his golf course in Scot­land in­stead of ham­mer­ing home his own na­tion­al­ist­ic cam­paign mes­sage was one of many polit­ic­al op­por­tun­it­ies he has missed since lock­ing down the Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­a­tion.

Make no mis­take: Polit­ic­ally speak­ing, Clin­ton is just about the worst pos­sible Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee to run in these volat­ile, anti­es­tab­lish­ment times. She hob­nobs with the glob­al elite, main­tains close re­la­tion­ships with Wall Street honchos, has trouble con­nect­ing with work­ing-class voters, and car­ries an air of en­ti­tle­ment. Polls show that voters don’t trust her and don’t much like her. She’s of­fer­ing a status quo mes­sage to an elect­or­ate that thinks the coun­try is headed off the tracks.

Trump made an ef­fect­ive anti-elit­ist case against Clin­ton in a speech last week. He charged that in­siders like Clin­ton “wrote the rules of the game to keep them­selves in power and in the money.” It’s a sting­ing in­dict­ment that goes after her biggest weak­ness. His prob­lem is that he’s un­able to sus­tain the ar­gu­ment on his own without a tele­prompt­er.


1. The Flor­ida Sen­ate race has be­come a case study in Polit­ics 101: Can­did­ates still mat­ter, even if it’s harder for them to dis­tance them­selves from their party these days. Sen. Marco Ru­bio’s en­trance in the race alone sig­ni­fic­antly im­proved the GOP’s chances of hold­ing the battle­ground Sen­ate seat. But over­looked in much of the Ru­bio cov­er­age was the re­cord of his lead­ing chal­lenger—Demo­crat­ic Rep. Patrick Murphy. Need­less to say, he’s not one of the party’s strongest re­cruits this cycle.

Miami’s CBS af­fil­i­ate aired a dev­ast­at­ing two-part series on Murphy this week, por­tray­ing the 33-year-old can­did­ate as an empty suit without any qual­i­fic­a­tions to be a sen­at­or. It re­por­ted that he lied about work­ing as a cer­ti­fied pub­lic ac­count­ant and be­ing a small busi­ness own­er, while ex­ag­ger­at­ing oth­er parts of his résumé. It’s hard to ima­gine a more dam­aging in­vest­ig­at­ive re­port on a prom­in­ent statewide can­did­ate.

While it’s fash­ion­able to in­sist that con­gres­sion­al can­did­ates won’t be able win many cros­sov­er votes, there are plenty of ex­cep­tions to the rule—es­pe­cially in the Sen­ate. In 2010, GOP Sen­ate can­did­ates Ken Buck (Col­or­ado) and Shar­ron Angle (Nevada) were so weak that they wer­en’t able to take ad­vant­age of the fa­vor­able en­vir­on­ment for their party. In 2012, Demo­crats Claire Mc­Caskill and Joe Don­nelly were able to win Sen­ate races in Re­pub­lic­an-friendly states that Mitt Rom­ney car­ried against not-ready-for-prime-time op­pon­ents. If Ru­bio were fa­cing top-caliber com­pet­i­tion, this race would be a toss-up. But he holds a dis­tinct­ive ad­vant­age giv­en his com­pet­i­tion.

2. There’s a lot of talk that the polit­ics of gun con­trol fun­da­ment­ally changed after the Or­lando ter­ror­ist at­tack. Don’t bet on it. Here’s one sign: More Sen­ate Demo­crats up for reelec­tion in 2018 broke with their party on one of four gun-re­lated votes this week (Don­nelly of In­di­ana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Jon Test­er of Montana, and Joe Manchin of West Vir­gin­ia) than did Re­pub­lic­ans on the bal­lot this year (Mark Kirk of Illinois, Kelly Ayotte of New Hamp­shire, and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania). Many swing-state sen­at­ors in tough races, like Ohio’s Rob Port­man and Ari­zona’s John Mc­Cain, held the line against in­creased reg­u­la­tions on fire­arms.

It’s pos­sible these Re­pub­lic­ans are mak­ing a polit­ic­al mis­cal­cu­la­tion by sid­ing with the Na­tion­al Rifle As­so­ci­ation. But when vul­ner­able Demo­crats are also agree­ing with the gun lobby, it shows that gun con­trol isn’t quite the slam-dunk polit­ic­al is­sue Demo­crats want it to be.

3. The Pew Re­search Cen­ter un­covered a sober­ing stat­ist­ic about the state of our polit­ic­al po­lar­iz­a­tion: Only 8 per­cent of Demo­crats and 9 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­ans are mar­ried to a spouse of a dif­fer­ent party. As The Wash­ing­ton Post’s Aaron Blake re­por­ted, this is only a slightly high­er pro­por­tion of people than are mar­ried to someone of a dif­fer­ent race, ac­cord­ing to a sep­ar­ate 2015 Pew sur­vey.

That’s not all: More than half (55 per­cent) of Demo­crats say the Re­pub­lic­an Party makes them “afraid,” while 49 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­ans say the same about Demo­crats. Nearly half of re­spond­ents said dis­cuss­ing polit­ics with someone they dis­agree with is “stress­ful and frus­trat­ing.” This is the state of Amer­ic­an polit­ics in 2016.

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