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In the wake of the Brexit vote, it is natural to consider what the populist victory — unexpected by elite officials and opinionmakers — might mean for elections elsewhere. Does polling underestimate Donald Trump’s true level of support? Is Trump a US equivalent of Boris Johnson? Will nationalist movements on the European continent be able to make headway too?
Certainly there are similarities, lessons, and areas of overlap. However, I believe those areas of overlap are insufficient in a critical way. The vote for UK sovereignty hinged on two separate questions: 1) Does the European Union make decisions that are good for the UK? and 2) Should the EU make decisions for the UK? Most of us at Ricochet might consider those questions indistinguishable, but the distinction is important. Some UK voters didn’t mind belonging to the EU as long as the UK continued to benefit. Others objected on principle to ceding decisions to Brussels. These are both forms of populism, but are founded on different sets of values. For years, the UK Independence Party argued against tighter integration on the basis of constitutional nationalism, and could garner only limited support. The success of the Leave movement is that its leaders formed an electoral coalition of both the pragmatic nationalists and the constitutional nationalists.
The issue that catalyzed support for Leave was the migrant crisis. As long as the EU regulated local economies consistent with what most people wanted, the loss of sovereignty was largely a theoretical proposition for them. But when EU elites coupled fecklessness with a willingness to supplant local culture with a foreign one, Leave synthesized a compelling dual argument: that UK sovereignty was imperative whether you care most about ends or means, whether you care about procedure or competence.
So does Brexit presage populist success elsewhere? For better or worse, I think it does not. No other populist movement appears to understand the importance of having both flavors of nationalism, the constitutional along with the pragmatic.
Consider Europe. Its nationalist parties continue to make pragmatic arguments. That is, they appear to oppose greater union on the grounds that Brussels is failing their respective countries. They do not, however, advocate for the principles of subsidiarity, less regulation, greater economic liberty, or broad individual freedom. No doubt, nationalist parties in Germany, France, and elsewhere are gaining some support as disillusioned citizens see the EU fail in real time. However, their support is bounded above as long as most voters share Brussels’ goals — including support (at least in theory) for the resettlement of migrants — and believe in the legitimacy of the EU’s authority. In fact, continental nationalists may not even have a play here; I see little evidence that there is much of a European constituency for the principled case that voters should chafe at having important decisions made for them by faraway politicians from other countries.
In the US, fortunately, there is such a constituency of constitutionalists. However, Trump’s candidacy is exclusively an appeal to pragmatic nationalism. His outspoken objections to illegal immigration have not been paired with an argument for limited and constitutional government. He does not express opposition to centralization or extraconstitutional measures, as long as a national government enacts policies he agrees with. So, although Trump has built support with his agenda, he’s been unable to consolidate a winning nationalist coalition. His support hovers at 40 percent in most national polls.
This is a tragic missed opportunity. The GOP could have done as the Leave camp did, and fused pragmatic and constitutional nationalisms into a winning populism. Instead, its voters selected a candidate who supports the former and opposes the latter, with the likely result that — as on the European continent — victory will continue to accrue to the centralizers and internationalists.