As Donald Trump stood in front of the Trump Turnberry golf resort, in Scotland, the morning after the vote for Brexit, he was asked to contemplate his own place in the world, and his power over the minds of the British. "Do you think anything you said in the United States influenced voters here in Britain when it comes to leaving the E.U.?" a reporter asked, as a bagpiper stood watch. "Good question," Trump replied, squinting from under a white "Make America Great Again" baseball cap. "If I said yes, total influence, you'd all say, 'That's terrible, his ego is terrible,' right? So I will never say that, Tom. I'd like to give you that one, but I can't say that." Donald Trump, once again silenced by his own humility, would answer Brexit questions for a good half hour, in the course of which he did allow that he'd heard talk of "a big parallel" to his own campaign: "People want to take their country back," he said. "They want to take their borders back. They want to take their monetary back. They want to take a lot of things back." Most of all, perhaps, "they don't necessarily want people pouring into their country."
Trump had begun his press conference, as he began his Presidential campaign, by supplying ample material for farce. In his opening remarks, before he took questions, he noted that the day was a historic one, "for a lot of reasons, not only Turnberry," as though Britons had to be reminded that something else had happened that morning, apart from the post-renovation reopening of a golf course. (His son Don, Jr., had described the occasion, the reason for Trump's trip, as an effort to "make Turnberry great again.") Although Trump would later muse that "people like to see borders," his only real priority at first, it seemed, was to insist that they see the suites at the Turnberry, which were the most luxurious one could imagine. The sprinkler system was now at "the highest level," as was the course design itself. "Even people who truly hate me are saying it's the best they've ever seen," he said. The catalogue of Turnberry treats went on for several minutes, leaving many wondering what they were watching—wasn't this the Presidential candidate for a major American party? Didn't he know that a continent was in crisis? Would this finally expose him as unacceptably unserious? In some of his tweets, he seemed not to acknowledge that the sentiment in Scotland was for Remain—did he understand the political structure of the United Kingdom? Given the gravity of the moment, he appeared, at that juncture, absurd, just as Nigel Farage, the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, and Boris Johnson, the Tory former mayor of London, often do. During the Leave campaign, Johnson played Paul Ryan to Farage's Trump—the more socially acceptable peddler of destructive ideas. There was a flotilla on the Thames; it was laughable. But they won. After Trump began taking questions, a reporter asked about Prime Minister David Cameron's criticism of his policies, such as his proposed ban on non-citizen Muslims entering the United States. Cameron had shunned Trump, the reporter suggested. Trump interrupted him.
"Excuse me, where is David Cameron right now?" Trump said. Cameron had been at the front of the campaign for Remain; early that morning, he'd announced that he would be stepping down. "Right now, I don't think David Cameron wants to meet anybody," Trump said.
This is not to say that, once the questions and the discussion of Brexit began, Trump avoided gestures of extreme recklessness or, for that matter, self-parody. Speaking of fears of immigration in Europe, he cited some German friends of his who were members of his Mar-a-Lago Club, in Palm Beach. They were, he said, "very proud Germans, to a level that you wouldn't believe." (The British, thinking about extreme German nationalism, probably had no trouble believing.) "They would be bragging about their country, they would be talking about their country as though there was no other place"—and yet, because of all the immigrants they saw coming in, they were thinking of leaving Germany. Trump shook his head in sympathy. He seemed indifferent to the effect all this might have on markets: the Fed didn't know anything, and neither did foreign-policy experts. Everyone was just going to have to wait to see what happened to the pound, whose crash, he believed, might be "a positive" for Britain: "They're going to do more business. You know, when the pound goes down, more people are coming to Turnberry, frankly."
But only the right kind of people, it seemed. "You're going to let people that you want into your country. And people that you don't want, or people that you don't think are going to be appropriate for your country or good for your country, you're not going to have to take," Trump said. Should Scotland leave the United Kingdom, a move that many Scots want to take, in order to stay in the E.U.? "That's up to the people of Scotland," he said. But he figured that the European Union would fall apart anyway.
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.
Hillary Clinton, who had earlier warned against Brexit, said in a statement on Friday morning, "This time of uncertainty only underscores the need for calm, steady, experienced leadership in the White House." The fear is that it may also point to the desire, in some quarters, for something different. Trump, at any rate, when asked if Clinton had "misread" the situation, seized the opportunity to push a favored conspiracy theory. "The only reason she did it was because Obama wanted it. If Obama wanted the other way, if he said leave, she would have said leave. She does whatever he wants her to do. Now you know why, but that's O.K., we don't have to get into that." (For those who are not regular viewers of Trump's speeches, this is a reference to the idea that Obama is blackmailing Clinton with the threat of jail for supposed crimes related to her e-mails.)
"And 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.
For more on Brexit, you can read Anthony Lane on the run-up, John Cassidy on what happens next, Benjamin Wallace-Wells on the consequences for liberalism, and Ed Caeser on the vote in the M.P. Jo Cox's district. Or you can look at Kim Warp's cartoon and Barry Blitt's new cover.
Donald Trump and the National Rifle Association aid and abet violence.
- An American Story