There are basically two complementary take-aways. One is that negative campaigning against demagoguery may backfire; that is what we've seen as Trump shrugs off even the most damning evidence of his lack of fitness for the presidency. Number two is that the Clinton campaign has to give the voters "something positive to rally behind." (That something positive may be Bernie Sanders' and Elizabeth Warren's economic messaging.)
John Cassidy at the New Yorker picks apart various explanations of the "Leave" campaign's Brexit win. He closes with a lesson for the Clinton campaign.
Looking ahead, the fate of the Remain campaign should serve as a reminder of the limits of negative campaigning—a reminder that Hillary Clinton would do well to take note of as she goes up against Donald Trump. In confronting populist demagoguery, it isn’t enough to attack its promulgators. To get people to turn out and vote in your favor, you also have to give them something positive to rally behind. The Leave campaign, for all its lies and disinformation, provided just such a lure. It claimed that liberating Britain from the shackles of the E.U. would enable it to reclaim its former glory. The Remain side argued, in effect, that while the E.U. isn’t great, Britain would be even worse off without it. That turned out to be a losing story.
Amy Davidson, also in the New Yorker, has more about what we need to learn from Brexit.
The Brexit results are a strong warning for anyone complacent about Donald Trump. Brexit didn’t happen because people in Europe listened to him; but he is a voice in a call-and-response chorus that is not going to simply dissipate. As my colleague John Cassidy wrote yesterday, there are structural economic issues that have left both Leave sympathizers and Trump voters with real grievances, and it will be disastrous if bigoted nationalists are the only ones who engage them. The political institutions are very different: we don’t worry so much here about the labyrinthine regulations put out by Brussels bureaucrats; they don’t quite have super pacs. But the word “rigged,” or its local variations, is probably the key one on both sides of the Atlantic. Both Trump and Farage and his allies have made openly racist and ethnic appeals. The European Union is a great idealistic project, and it is a tragedy that it might be torn down now. A lesson for Americans is that fortified idealistic structures can be torn down, by means of some of the same wrecking tools Trump has been willing to deploy, even if those who are considered the serious people, in a country that reminds us of our own, warn against doing so. One pattern seen in the Brexit results was a disconnect between party leaders—in all of the major parties—and their bases. Sneering is not going to save the republic.
"The beautiful, beautiful, beautiful thing is your people have taken the country back,” Trump said toward the end of his press conference. “There’s something very, very nice about that. And they voted, and it’s been peaceful.” (This ignored the assassination, last week, of Jo Cox, a pro-Remain M.P.) “And it was strong and very contentious, and in many respects—I watched last night—it was a little bit ugly. But it’s been an amazing process to watch. It’s been a big move.”
That move is one thing that British voters can’t take back, at least in the short run. If Trump wins, our country might have a hard time taking that back, too.
I'll add a third lesson. Democratic institutions are more fragile than most people think. A mounted attack by right-wing racists, including an assassination of a pro-remain MP, was successful in persuading the old, the poor, the under-educated, that separating from the EU was a good thing, consequences be damned. Here at home, Republican supporters of Trump are dismissing warnings of the threat posed by Trump. Here are snippets from one of my earlier posts.
For instance, the New York Times reports this morning that legal experts worry that a Trump presidency represents a genuine authoritarian threat and could precipitate a real constitutional crisis. In the article, Senator John McCain gamely defended Trump, saying he did not think that a Trump presidency endangers the nation. McCain added: “We have a Congress. We have the Supreme Court. We’re not Romania.”
Meanwhile, in a radio interview earlier this week, [Senate Majority Leader] McConnell said he did not fear Trump would trample the rule of law. “He’ll have a White House counsel,” McConnell said. “There will be others who point out there’s certain things you can do and you can’t do.”
As I also pointed out, Trump shows no signs of recognizing the "certain things ... you can't do." If his record of outright lying to his supporters is scary now, think about what he might accomplish with the bully pulpit and the power of the president.
Complacency must not be in the Democratic playbook.