Brexit, Donald Trump, and the summer of our discontent

Imagine a land where the more populated south is the more prosperous and cosmopolitan region; a place where the reality of economic globalization and technology is generally accepted as a fact of life.

Imagine in that same land the middle and northern regions have undergone economic disruption, with traditional industries and agriculture undergoing sweeping change that has left people feeling uncertain, left out, and even a bit angry.

Am I describing the “two” Great Britains in place in advance of that’s nation’s referendum on exiting the European Union? Yes, but it also describes Wisconsin.

Much like Great Britain, which is dominated by globalized London in the south and post-industrial cities, villages, and rural areas in the Midlands and the north, Wisconsin can look like two very different states.

Southern Wisconsin is anchored by Madison and Milwaukee, the state’s two largest cities, as well as Illinois border communities that have more or less recovered from the 2008 recession.

Much of Central and Northern Wisconsin have been slower to recover due to irreversible declines in some long-standing industries, such as papermaking, as well as a slow but steady loss of working-age people to fill jobs that often require higher skills.

There’s a long tradition of out-state resentment toward Wisconsin’s largest cities, but the divide seems sharper today in the wake of an economic downturn that hit less populated parts of Wisconsin harder — and stayed longer.

If there was a vote tomorrow to pull Wisconsin out of the North American Free Trade Agreement, basically the U.S. equivalent of the European Union, would state voters elect to keep existing trade relationships with Canada and Mexico?

Despite the fact our national neighbors to the north and south are Wisconsin’s biggest trade partners, it’s conceivable my imaginary Wisconsin advisory referendum on NAFTA might wind up much the same as Great Britain’s “Brexit” vote. 

One could argue long and hard that such a vote wouldn’t make sense for Wisconsin economically, because tens of thousands of Badger state jobs are tied up in producing goods and services for people who live far beyond our borders — many of whom live in different hemispheres and continents.

That was the case in Great Britain, as well, and it didn’t prevent 53% of the voters who came to the polls from acting against their logical self-interests in favor of sending a message of anger and resentment with the status quo.

Enter Donald Trump, the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee for president, who wasn’t supposed to survive past the New Hampshire primary election but now stands one election away from the Oval Office. Trump’s message, which combines raw nationalism, economic resentment, and a strong dose of fear, has resonated with far more U.S. voters than the pundits imagined.

For the most part, these are voters who fly under the radar of polls, surveys, and focus groups. They are citizens who feel disenfranchised for many reasons, not the least of which is the sense that someone else “took” something from them; something they may have never actually possessed but believed was within their reach.

That was the surprising secret of the successful “Leave” campaign in Great Britain, which tapped into a vein of discontent — even absent a solid plan for what should happen after a vote to exit the 28-nation European Union.

It’s why Republicans and Democrats alike in Wisconsin should take seriously the possibility Trump could carry the state in a November election. The polls don’t predict that outcome today, but those same polls have under-estimated Trump’s appeal in the past. Trump didn’t carry Wisconsin in the April presidential primary, but he fared far better among the state’s “Brexit” voters than other candidates.

In a world that seems beset with troubles ­— from Baghdad to Orlando, and from Damascus to Dallas — those in power must take seriously undercurrents of unrest among those not in power. A “Brexit”-style election is not out of the question in an economically and socially divided America.

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