Britain’s Brexit debacle shows how Donald Trump could still win in the US

The Donald has landed.
The Donald has landed.
Image: Reuters/David Moir/File Photo
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If Britain’s decision to leave the European Union is any indication, Americans cannot become complacent about Donald Trump.

Trust me, I understand why many of my fellow political writers on the North American side of the Atlantic are breathing early signs of relief. Trump is behind Hillary Clinton in all but a handful of recent national polls and has been far outpaced by her campaign in vital metrics, like fundraising. Could the long national nightmare of his campaign—one defined in large part by messaging that was anti-Mexican, anti-Muslim, and anti-woman—be nearing its end?

It’s not time to celebrate just yet. Despite the rush of negative press Trump has received over the past two weeks, the election is a long four-and-a-half months away. More importantly, however, there are some reasons to believe Trump could still win this thing, becoming in the process one of the most powerful US presidents in generations.

We should start with the incredibly complex and confusing US Electoral College map. According to the statistical averages at RealClearPolitics, if the election were held today, Clinton would have 211 electoral votes and Trump would have 164, leaving 163 left up for grabs in 12 toss-up states (a candidate must win 270 to make it to the White House). Even if Trump lost in the popular vote, he could win by turning enough of these states, even if he did so by small margins.

Remember, Trump has defied expectations in the past (including my own), so it would be foolish for the “experts” to count him out at this point. And despite the media’s reliance on them, polls are unreliable tools—especially when such a high percentage of voters remain undecided and both candidates struggle to maintain voter enthusiasm. Many in the UK wrote off early polls that showed the Leave side was gaining strength. Conventional wisdom seemed to be that ultimately, voters would “do the right thing.” Today, Americans woke up to a very different Europe, and it should give us all pause at home.

Then there are the handful of domestic factors that could yet become relevant between now in November. These scenarios include:

1. Clinton is indicted.

Because this is a wild card and completely beyond the control of anyone other than the FBI (who really need to stop dragging their feet on the investigation), it isn’t worth exploring in greater detail here. That said, it stands to reason that a sudden shift of focus to Clinton’s email scandal could be a game changer. Trump recent speculated that Bernie Sanders was refusing to concede the Democratic nomination for precisely this reason. However, experts are far from confident.

2. National voter turnout is low.

It is an axiom of American politics that low voter turnout favors Republican candidates, mainly because the predominantly conservative white base to which the GOP appeals makes a point of going to the polls. When it comes to the politics of 2016, that base’s activities have been impressive: According to a Pew study, Trump has inspired a higher voter turnout than any Republican primary year since at least 1980. While the Democrats have also seen a record turnout, it’s only the highest since 2008—and much of that seems to have been inspired by the campaign of Bernie Sanders, an undetermined percentage of whose supporters have expressed reluctance to back Clinton. 

3. Anti-trade and anti-immigration sentiment increases.

Much as the simultaneous elections of Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom and Ronald Reagan in the United States foreshadowed the rise of the New Right, so too does Britain’s exit from the European Union signal a similar simmering of tensions. We may not face the exact same problems as our allies across the Atlantic, but certainly Trump has tapped into a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment and fear of transnational financial alliances that both sides share. Indeed, there is some validity to the claim that the TPP doesn’t really have America’s best interests at heart. Nevertheless, there is also a great deal of xenophobia and conspiratorializing at work in the protectionist and separatist movements. And there’s nothing that Trump loves more than some good old fashioned protectionism.

4. Racist fear mongering remains part of the news cycle.

This would hardly be the first time a Republican president has been elected because of racism and paranoia. Richard Nixon’s victory in 1968 was in no small part attributable to fears of racial rioting, a backlash not dissimilar to the way Trump supporters have denounced Black Lives Matters protesters and other racial minority dissidents. Ronald Reagan did the same thing in 1980  his attack on “big government” as a not-so-subtle way to attack impoverished racial minorities (much as Trump does with undocumented Mexican immigrants today). Reagan also portrayed himself as a strongman who could stand up to Iran during the 1979-1981 hostage crisis (something Trump has tried to do as well, specifically in regards the perceived threats of Islamist terrorism). While his comments following Orlando were widely panned, some pollsters (although not all—see what we mean about polling?) believe Trump did receive a bump in support following the San Bernardino and Paris attacks.

In any other election year, the idea that Donald Trump could be president would seem ludicrous. But Trump is not an ordinary presidential candidate and this is not an ordinary election year. If Trump wins the presidency in November, he will ascend to power in 2017 with a Congress that will likely be overwhelmingly Republican (both houses of Congress are already controlled by Republicans and low voter turnout is unlikely to favor local Democrats.) Equally important, he will be armed with a brand new US Supreme Court pick.

While political gridlock has been a common occurrence over the past eight years, I also suspect the dynamics of a Trumpian 2017 would be quite different. Riding into the White House after pulling off the partisan equivalent of a revolution, Trump could convince Republican leaders to feel beholden to the voter uprising that elected him. This would provide the newly minted executive with some vital political capital, especially in his first term.

And what would a radical Trump agenda even look like in practice? Would America spend trillions of dollars on an ineffective wall on the Mexican border? Would we see mass deportations of undocumented immigrants? A ban on Muslims entering this country? Could he follow through on his threats to start a trade war with China, or prosecute journalists who criticize him?

Hopefully not, but your guess is as good as mine. But the fact that even one of those options might happen should be enough to worry even the most jaded pundits. While I agree with the conventional wisdom that holds that Clinton holds a slightly better hand, common sense demonstrates that a lot could happen before all the cards are played. Consequently, the prospect of Trump’s victory should be treated with gravity. The media erred by writing him off early in the election cycle. The stakes are too high for us to repeat the same mistake twice.

Follow Quartz’s Brexit coverage here.