A few weeks ago, Donald Trump seemed unfamiliar with what Brexit meant, but in the days since the U.K. voted to leave the European Union, the presumptive Republican nominee has found himself right in the middle of the debate.
He made headlines the day after the referendum when he said a falling British pound will draw more customers to his golf course in Scotland. The same day he also invoked a maelstrom of creative insults after tweeting the Scottish people “took their country back.” (Scotland voted to remain in the EU, 62 percent to 38 percent.)
But the relationship between Trump and Brexit runs deeper than Twitter gaffes and the golf business. Not only have both upstart campaigns proved more successful than expected, but they’ve also flipped conventional political wisdom on its head. Critics, including FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver, dismissed the Trump campaign for months leading up to the primary season. And, after 17 years of talking about the U.K. leaving the EU, Brexiter Nigel Farage got the last laugh at the European Parliament on Tuesday.
Though Trump’s candidacy and the Brexit campaign are complex and multi-faceted movements, the data shows that, at their core, they share key similarities. Both have been fueled by many of the same anti-immigration, anti-elitist sentiments, and both have struck a chord with similar demographics.
One central argument for Brexit was that leaving the EU would give the U.K. more control over its borders. According to data from Eurostat, more than 1 million people sought asylum in the EU in 2015. The Leave campaign in the U.K. alleged that additional migrants would burden public services and take jobs. As the InsideGov visualization shows, migration in the U.K. has indeed been on the rise. In 2015, approximately 188,000 non-EU citizens moved to the U.K., and another 184,000 EU citizens (which include refugees who have acquired citizenship) entered the country.
Trump echoes a nearly identical theme to drum up support for the wall he hopes to build along the U.S.-Mexico border. On his campaign website, Trump lambasts years of “disastrous” immigration policies that he says have hurt the labor force and shrunk the middle class. His InsideGov position chart further outlines his consistent anti-immigration stance.
However, anti-immigration rhetoric on both sides of the Atlantic goes beyond simply protecting jobs — it often paints newcomers as an existential threat to British and American society. Farage, who leads the U.K. Independence Party and once called for keeping HIV-positive migrants out of the U.K., came under fire days before the Brexit referendum after defending the campaign’s latest poster, which some criticized as overtly racist. The poster depicted Syrian refugees, primarily men, crossing a border and read “The EU has failed us all.” In early June, Arron Banks, cofounder of the Leave.eu movement, drew negative publicity after tweeting a cartoon so racially controversial that some likened it to Nazi propaganda.
Trump is no stranger to racially charged comments, either. He infamously characterized Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug dealers in his candidacy announcement speech, and defended his remarks weeks later even after businesses began cutting ties with him. He twice called for a temporary ban on Muslim immigration into the U.S. after the shootings in San Bernardino and Orlando. He also questioned federal Judge Gonzalo Curiel’s ability to fairly preside over lawsuits against Trump University due to what Trump cited as Curiel’s “Mexican heritage” and Trump’s positions on immigration. (Curiel was born in Indiana, after his parents immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico and became naturalized citizens.)
Along the way, critics of both movements said such disparaging messages would ultimately lead to their demise. They were wrong. The U.K. voted to leave the EU, and, barring a massive shakeup, the Republican Party will have Trump on the top of its presidential ticket.
What gave these campaigns so much momentum?
Looking at polling and voting data, it is evident the us-versus-them messaging Trump and Leave used resonated with large demographics who feel distrustful of outsiders and failed by the political elite.
A Pew survey from early June measured Republicans' feelings toward Trump on a temperature scale — "very cold" meaning the most negative, "very warm" meaning the most positive. It found that among Republicans who said the growing number of foreigners in the country “threatens U.S. values,” 60 percent had “somewhat warm” or “very warm” opinions of Trump. Among Republicans who believe white people becoming a minority in the U.S. would be “bad for the country,” Trump received 63 percent “somewhat warm” or “very warm” responses. The Centre for European Reform, an EU think tank, found a strong relationship between immigration views and Brexit voting. According to the CER study, people who wanted to leave the EU were less likely to think immigration enriches Britain’s cultural life.
Both Trump and Brexit supporters also express a general distrust of people in power. In a survey by the Telegraph, a British newspaper, 70 percent of Leave supporters agreed with the statement: “[political parties] are out of touch, and they don’t fight for people like me.” The Washington Post found similar populist sentiment among Trump voters. In terms of measures of anti-elitism, mistrust of experts and national identity, Trump supporters scored higher than people who backed the presidential campaigns of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
Demographically, the movements share similar support. Brexit garnered the most support in less wealthy and less educated areas of Britain. Remain received about 60 percent support in London, where 51 percent hold secondary degrees and household income averages £23,607. In the West Midlands region, where 30 percent have higher-level diplomas and household income stands at £15,611, about 59 percent voted Leave. For a point of reference, the median household income in the U.K. is £17,965.
Trump support follows similar trends. Take, for example, South Carolina, one of the first states where Trump separated himself from the pack of Republican candidates. Though he won most counties, his largest margins of victory tended to occur in places with lower household income and/or fewer college graduates. One of Trump's biggest wins came in Colleton County, where the median income is $32,224 and 14.1 percent of the population hold college degrees. He won by 24.6 percent.
Though anti-immigration, populist sentiments contributed to the U.K.’s vote to leave the EU, could they be enough to propel Trump into the White House? With the election more than four months away, the answer is unclear. Trump’s campaign must overcome a number of obstacles, including a net favorability rating of -27 percent, a 6.2-point polling deficit and a cash-strapped fundraising operation.
And, fundamentally, Trump is a bigger pill to swallow than Brexit. Last week’s referendum revealed how a majority of U.K. voters felt about one particular issue. But a vote for Donald Trump is a decision about many issues, ranging from national security to health care. Though Brexit and Trump share similar sentiments and support, they remain distinct and complex movements. With a contentious general election standing between Trump and the presidency, a Brexit victory doesn’t guarantee his own.