Why Brexit isn’t good news for Trump.

Brexit Isn’t Good News for Trump. Nativism Is Still a Losing Proposition.

Brexit Isn’t Good News for Trump. Nativism Is Still a Losing Proposition.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
June 28 2016 2:03 PM

It Can’t Happen Here

Brexit isn’t good news for Trump. Nativism is still a losing proposition.

Donald Trump
Donald Trump takes questions at his golf course in Turnberry, Scotland, on Friday.

Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

Donald Trump, his surrogates, and other Republican politicians think the Brexit vote is good news. They argue that the vote reflects a popular backlash against immigration and that it suggests Americans are ready to support Trump’s agenda. Media coverage of the referendum, suffused with liberal panic, echoes this view. But polls don’t support it. The vote for Brexit didn’t show that a majority of voters in the United Kingdom opposes immigration. And while most Republicans support Trump’s immigration policies, most Americans don’t.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Let’s start in the U.K. Fifty-two percent of participants in the referendum voted to leave the European Union. Many of them were motivated directly by immigration concerns, but some weren’t. Here’s a sample of polls taken shortly before the referendum.


ORB, June 8-9. Respondents were asked whether “the economy is a bigger issue than immigration” in deciding their vote. Among “Leave” supporters, 57 percent agreed. Thirty-one percent disagreed.

ComRes, June 9-13. Eighty-one percent of leavers said they “would accept a short term economic slowdown in order to tighten controls on immigration.” Sixteen percent said they wouldn’t.

Survation, June 20. Likely voters were asked, “Which of these issues is the most important to you when deciding how to vote?” Among leavers, 32 percent chose “levels of immigration to the UK.” Another 26 percent chose “sovereignty and who makes British laws.” Thirteen percent chose “public services, including the NHS [National Health Service],” 8 percent chose “the British economy,” and 12 percent were divided among other considerations.

YouGov, June 20-22. Respondents were asked, “Which one of the following will be most important to you in deciding how to vote in the referendum?” Among leavers, 35 percent cited immigration. Another 45 percent chose “a better balance between Britain’s right to act independently, and the appropriate level of co-operation with other countries.” Eight percent chose “jobs, investment and the economy,” and 12 percent gave various other answers.


Ipsos MORI, June 23. The survey asked which issues would “be very important to you in helping you decide which way to vote.” Respondents were allowed to give multiple answers. Forty-five percent of leavers cited “the number of immigrants coming into Britain,” 19 percent cited “the cost of EU immigration on Britain’s welfare system,” and 14 percent cited “the number of refugees coming to Britain to claim asylum.” Thirty-three percent selected “Britain’s ability to make its own laws.” Thirteen percent cited “the impact on Britain’s economy,” 11 percent cited the “cost of EU membership fees,” 8 percent cited “the impact on British jobs,” 7 percent cited “the impact on me personally,” and 5 percent cited “Britain’s ability to trade with countries in the European Union.” The pollsters didn’t report the extent of overlap among respondents who cited multiple factors.

Opinium, June 20-22. Respondents were asked whether racial equality in the U.K. had gone too far, hadn’t gone far enough, or was about right. For each of these three response groups, the pollsters reported the percentage who favored leaving the EU. From these figures and the total number of respondents in each category, we can calculate how leavers answered the race question. Roughly 40 percent said racial equality had gone too far, 45 percent said it was about right, and 15 percent said it hadn’t gone far enough.

These numbers suggest that anti-immigration sentiment drove support for the referendum but wasn’t enough to pass it. On the most generous interpretation, 81 percent of leavers were driven by migration concerns. That translates to 42 percent of the electorate. If you define the anti-immigration vote more narrowly, it was about 30 percent to 45 percent of leavers, which works out to 16 percent to 23 percent of the electorate. You could argue that people who expressed concern about “sovereignty,” “Britain’s ability to make its own laws,” and “Britain’s right to act independently” were really just anti-immigration voters. But that slights their legitimate grievances about the British–EU relationship—an arrangement for which there’s no clear parallel in the United States. And even if you include these people, they don’t boost the anti-immigration “Leave” vote above 40 percent.

The Opinium poll goes further. It shows that most leavers didn’t believe—or at least weren’t willing to say—that racial equality in the United Kingdom had gone too far. People who expressed this view about race, and who voted to leave the EU, constituted 21 percent of the Brexit electorate.


These numbers don’t mollify some of Trump’s critics. They worry that pundits have consistently underestimated Trump and that his victory in the Republican primaries, followed by the Brexit vote, shows broad support for his nativist agenda. Brexit suggests that “victory is possible” when “hostility to migrants” is coupled with anti-intellectualism, writes Jonathan Freedland in the New York Review of Books. “There are lessons here aplenty for Americans contemplating their own appointment with nationalist, nativist populism in November.”

That’s true. Brexit is a warning, and we did underestimate Trump before primary season. But in the American electorate as a whole, as opposed to the GOP, there’s no majority for Trump’s views on immigration or ethnicity.

Look at the latest PRRI/Brookings survey, released Thursday. Among Republicans, it shows widespread agreement with Trump’s views. (See the table below.) Seventy-four percent think today’s immigrants, to the extent that they change American society and our way of life, are more of a bad influence than a good one. Sixty-five percent think immigrants burden our country (by taking “jobs, housing, and health care”) more than they strengthen the country with hard work and talent. Fifty-seven percent think immigrants increase crime in local communities. Seventy-two percent say discrimination against whites has become “as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.”


Data from PRRI/Brookings 2016 Immigration Survey. Chart by Natalie Matthews-Ramo/Slate.*

The poll’s GOP respondents broadly support Trump’s agenda. Seventy-three percent say immigration from predominantly Muslim countries is too high or shouldn’t be allowed at all. Sixty-eight percent say the same about immigration from the Middle East. Sixty-six percent want a wall on the Mexican border, 66 percent want a ban on Syrian refugees, 64 percent want a temporary halt to entry by foreign Muslims, and 60 percent favor “a serious effort to deport all illegal immigrants.”


That’s why Trump sailed through the primaries: He was competing in a party that shares his outlook. But the general public doesn’t. In the PRRI/Brookings survey, none of the views or policies I just mentioned garnered majority support. Most respondents didn’t agree that immigrants increase crime or that immigration from the Middle East is too high. Most opposed a border wall, a serious deportation effort, a Muslim ban, or a policy against admitting Syrian refugees. Trump, in advancing from the primary to the general election, has advanced from an audience that shared his worldview to an audience that doesn’t. His latest attempts to backpedal on the Muslim ban are an admission of this predicament.

So, no, Brexit doesn’t presage a Trump victory. Brexit didn’t show that most Britons support Trumpism. Trump’s success in the Republican primaries didn’t show that most Americans support Trumpism, either. What it showed was a widening gap between the GOP and the rest of America. That gap used to be America’s problem. Now it’s the GOP’s problem. And Brexit doesn’t change that.

Correction, June 29, 2016: This article’s chart originally misstated that 50 percent of all U.S. adults in the PRRI/Brookings poll agreed that “discrimination against Christians has become as big a problem as discrimination against other groups,” while 49 percent disagreed. This was a reversal of the correct numbers. The chart has been updated. (Return.)