After UK election, Trump sees ‘harbinger’ of things to come
Washington — After a tumultuous tenure in office, a controversial candidate expanded his grip on power, surpassing a weak opponent and drawing support from unlikely pockets of voters.
That’s what happened Thursday in Britain, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party claimed a commanding majority in Parliament, sidelining far-left Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. It’s the same scenario President Donald Trump is eager to replicate in next year’s American election and Democrats are desperate to avoid.
After congratulating Johnson on Friday, Trump said of the British results: “I think that might be a harbinger of what’s to come in our country.”
Others cautioned against drawing too many lessons from the British elections. Despite deep historical and cultural ties, the U.S. and U.K. have vastly different demographics and systems of government. The contours of the 2020 presidential election are also still evolving, with Democrats choosing between moderates and liberals, experienced politicians and fresh faces, as they weigh who will take on Trump.
Still, there are striking parallels, as well as recent precedent, in the political landscape on both sides of the Atlantic.
In 2016, British voters stunningly decided in a national referendum to withdraw from the European Union, ignoring dire warnings from political elites about the economic and cultural consequences. Four months later, American voters did the same, sending Trump to the White House over establishment favorite Hillary Clinton.
Johnson took up the mantle of the Brexit campaign earlier this year, stepping in as prime minister and drawing immediate comparisons to Trump. The two speak frequently by phone, forging an easier relationship than Trump had with Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May.
Johnson faced this week’s campaign with significant liabilities, as will Trump next year.
Both men are personally unpopular with wide swaths of their countries’ voters and appear to take some measure of pride in agitating their detractors. Each has a history of making controversial comments, including about women and minorities. And their terms in office have been punctuated by chaos and controversy, including setbacks for Johnson in Parliament and the looming impeachment vote and trial against Trump in Congress.
But in their own ways, Trump and Johnson have also proved to be effective communicators and advocates for their priorities, forgoing complex policy proposals for bumper sticker slogans.
For Trump, it’s “Make America Great Again” and “Build the Wall.” Johnson campaigned in the election on a pledge to “Get Brexit Done” — a straightforward slogan that belies the complex negotiations still to come with the EU.
“It’s simplicity and it’s connecting to something at an emotional level that somebody believes in — whether it’s true or not,” said Heather Conley, a former State Department official and current Europe scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The 2016 Brexit referendum and Trump’s victory rested in part on shifts in traditional voting blocs. Trump pulled a trio of states that have long voted for Democrats in presidential elections into his column: Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. In the U.K., working-class towns in central and northern England that have long elected Labour lawmakers turned against the party and backed Brexit.
The results in the U.K. this week proved that those shifts were more than an anomaly. Conservatives took a swath of seats in post-industrial former mining, milling and fishing towns that voted for Brexit, though some of those areas had never elected a Tory lawmaker before.
On both sides of the Atlantic, much of the blame focused on Corbyn, the deeply unpopular Labour leader with socialist views. Corbyn was criticized for silencing critics within the party and failing to root out anti-Semitism among his supporters. Centrist Labour politicians were quick to call for him to step down following Thursday’s rout.
In the U.S., some took Labour’s stinging defeat under Corbyn’s leadership as a warning for more liberal American presidential candidates like Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
Joe Biden, a more moderate 2020 hopeful and chief rival of Warren and Sanders, predicted the takeaway from the British results would be “look what happens when the Labour Party moves so, so far to the left. It comes up with ideas that are not able to be contained within a rational basis quickly.”
Other Democrats argued that opponents of Johnson and the British exit from the European Union muddied their message during the campaign and didn’t do enough to make an affirmative case for their own vision.
They also suggested that Johnson’s opponents banked too much on British voters being weary of the chaos and controversy that has accompanied his tenure — all mistakes they fear could follow in the campaign against Trump.
“I’m just not convinced that the Democrats are making the case as of right now as to why Donald Trump doesn’t deserve to be reelected,” said Boyd Brown, a Democratic strategist based in South Carolina.
Brown said there is a clear message out of the British election for Democrats seeking to defeat Trump next year: “Get your stuff together or this maniac is going to be elected for a second time.”