Surprise and Change on Both Sides of the Pond

Populism led Britons to Leave EU And Redefined U.S. Political Landscape

Attendees listen to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump during campaign rally at Madison City Schools Stadium in Madison, Ala., on Feb. 28. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Attendees listen to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump during campaign rally at Madison City Schools Stadium in Madison, Ala., on Feb. 28. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted November 9, 2016 at 2:52am

Donald Trump, perhaps the most unlikely president-elect in American history, seemed to know something the rest of us didn’t in the days before Election Day.

The media scoffed. Hillary Clinton’s campaign doubted. And political pundits criticized his zigzagging in the final days across the country to states they calculated he would lose. The Republican nominee certainly didn’t hide his shrewd assessment of the state of the race.

In fact, at campaign rallies and on television interviews, he boasted about it. He promised it would propel him and his movement into the White House.

“I’ve had people call me wrong. They’ve been calling me wrong for so long,” Trump said the day before Election Day. “I watch these characters on television. They don’t have a clue. Some of these guys, I watch them and … they’ve been calling it wrong for so long.

“They don’t know that we’re going to have a very big victory,” he said to applause on Oct. 29 in Golden, Colorado. “This is going to be big, this is going to be beyond Brexit. I call it beyond Brexit.”

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Few took him seriously. The kind of down-market — and some have said knee-jerk, emotion-based — populism that led Britons to vote to leave the European Union could never happen in the United States, they argued, even as polls tightened after FBI Director James B. Comey announced that his agency was looking anew at Clinton’s use of a private email server during her tenure as secretary of State.

As Clinton and her camp stumbled, it was Trump’s turn to scoff.

“Tomorrow’s going to be a very historic day,” he said Monday in Raleigh, North Carolina. “I really believe that. … I think it’s going to be a Brexit plus, plus, plus.”

Trump recognized and tapped into what was missed — and ignored — by what he labeled the “crooked establishment.” And that is the large swath of the country — especially in the South, Midwest and Mountain West regions — that feels economically and politically disadvantaged by, as Trump said many times, a system “rigged” against them.

They lost manufacturing jobs. Their wages plummeted to or stagnated at late-1980s levels. It became harder to make it into the middle class, and then, harder and harder to make ends meet when they did. At the same time, America elected its first African-American president at a time the country was becoming less white and more brown.

The American dream was slipping away. And Donald Trump, a New York real estate mogul and former reality television star, said that he — and he alone — could, in that now famous phrase, “make America great again.”

[Election Results 2016]

“I want the entire corrupt Washington establishment to hear the words we’re all about to say,” Trump roared Monday in the capital of North Carolina, a state he won the next night. “It’s called ‘drain the swamp.’”

Without hesitation, the large crowd roared in unison: “Drain the swamp!”

Britons, frustrated by many of the same forces in their country, voted to erect an economic and political moat around the United Kingdom. Five months later, millions of Americans used the ballot box to turn a movement into a bona fide revolution.

What happens next, just as in the U.K., is a bleary Wednesday morning. After all, the president-elect ran a campaign based more on bold rhetoric than clear policy plans.

“It will be amazing,” he assured supporters hours before the polls opened. “It will be amazing.”

Contact Bennett at johnbennett@cqrollcall.com. Follow him on Twitter @BennettJohnT.