Skip to navigationSkip to content

What it will feel like to wake up in America the morning after a Trump victory

Donald Trump rally
Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
Good morning, America.
  • Cassie Werber
By Cassie Werber

Cassie writes about the world of work.

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.


In the middle of the night of June 23rd, a friend sent me a text:

“Are you up? I’m feeling depressed about the country.”

A couple of hours later it was clear: More than half of voters wanted the UK to leave the European Union. In the grainy light of early morning, the others who voted to remain began to come online. Many had come to realize over the previous weeks and months, with a creeping sense of dread, that this could happen. Others had never accepted the possibility.

It’s not unusual for voters to end up with leaders they didn’t choose. But this was different. The stakes seemed higher—more important, more permanent.

It felt, at the time, like a shift in a new and dangerous direction. As the winners—the majority—celebrated, the mood sank lower among groups who mostly voted the other way, including the young, the educated, and ethnic minorities. A door had closed that we never expected to be shut to us.

Shock came first. Then anger and disbelief. Later, sadness and also fear. How did this happen? Why was it such a surprise? What happens next?

Ultimately, there was this knowledge: The country that signed up to this is the one we’ll have to live in.

* * *

Right now, supporters of Hillary Clinton are gearing up to celebrate her victory in the US presidential election. On this side of the Atlantic, that confidence looks premature.

Although Donald Trump sometimes calls himself ”Mr. Brexit,” and recently said that his election will be like “Brexit times 10,” the nature of Britain’s referendum and America’s election are different enough to make direct comparisons problematic. But there are enough parallels between the two—not least in the liberal-leaning groups that support Clinton and EU membership, and the broad contours of the two campaigns—to make this British observer wary of any pre-vote certainty in the US.

I’ve seen how this goes.

A week before the vote…

Polls suggested the Brexit vote was too close to call. But it’s easy to read into poll data what you want to believe. Narrow leads can be deceptive, particularly when voters face unconventional choices and the old left-right loyalties appear to break down. What’s more, the polls were badly wrong ahead of the UK’s May 2015 general election.

Anecdotally, talking with people who planned to vote to leave, it was clear that anti-EU passions ran deep. One retired market trader told me he didn’t know anyone who would vote to remain. Was he in the majority? With the polls so close, surely the status quo would prevail.

A month before…

These were bad days for the Brexiteers. Bookies gave the leave camp a 20% chance of victory, and polls-of-polls put Remain up by six percentage points, well beyond the margin of error and double Clinton’s current lead. Surveys had established a clear demographic pattern—women and the young leaned towards remain, while white men tended to back Brexit.

World leaders, including president Obama, weighed in on the race, mostly urging Brits to vote to stay in the EU. But amid the anti-establishment fervor, could this possibly be doing more harm than good?

A year before…

Unexpectedly (see the point about polls above), David Cameron emerged from a noisy general-election campaign—navigating televised debates featuring a very crowded field of candidates—with an absolute majority in parliament. That meant he actually had to go through with a pre-election pledge to hold a referendum on EU membership, made—perhaps—when the odds of receiving such a mandate looked slim.

Anyway, the vote split Cameron’s Conservatives, with the rightwing of the party seizing on Brexit as the radical change in direction the country needed to restore its former glory. Years of getting pushed around by others—forced into substandard trade deals, helpless to stop rising immigration—had eroded the country’s sovereignty and integrity. It was time to “take back control,” they said.

Meanwhile, having committed to the referendum, Cameron and most of his cabinet colleagues would campaign against change. The possibility of Brexit was introduced by their party—nominated by it, you could say—but establishment figures wanted nothing to do with it.

The present day

Four months after the Brexit vote, there has been a lot of soul-searching by “remainers” trying to understand how they became so out of step with fellow citizens. Although the gloomiest pre-vote predictions about the economy have not come true, the long-term outlook isn’t great.

In the meantime, attitudes have hardened—anti-immigrant sentiment, in particular, was stoked during the campaign and has not subsided. The country doesn’t feel quite the same as the one before the vote. Have existing rifts merely been exposed? Have things suddenly changed? Is there an understandable, rational explanation for what happened? Whatever the case, the sensation is profoundly unsettling.

The UK is not the US. But Clinton could lose, and I know what her supporters will feel like if she does.

📬 A periodic dispatch from the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly in NYC.

By providing your email, you agree to the Quartz Privacy Policy.