Donald Trump’s instinctive response to his most recent crisis was predictable. As the tales of groping multiplied and swirled, he claimed the high ground. His accusers, he said, were ‘horrible, horrible liars’, whose attacks were being ‘orchestrated by the Clintons and their media allies’. He was willing to suffer for his ‘disfranchised’ followers, however, and they would collectively ‘take back our country’. The election, he promised, was going to be ‘our Independence Day’.
As far as the US media took any notice – and many, in their mainstream way, were focusing instead on the complaints of Trump’s alleged victims – there was confusion. Was Trump drawing on the science fiction movie of the same name, wondered the New York Daily News? The 1996 film shows the White House destroyed by aliens. Worldwide havoc ensues. America’s president leads the counterattack that eliminates the intruders for ever (sequels notwithstanding). In Trump’s eyes, that's not fantasy so much as cinéma vérité.
The inspiration for his speech, however, is almost certainly closer to home. At a Brexit debate in Wembley Stadium on 21 June, Boris Johnson used very similar language to wrap up the Vote Leave campaign. Inviting audience members to ‘take back control’ in the name of millions who ‘currently have no voice’, he said that ‘this Thursday can be our country’s independence day.’ Johnson was channelling Nigel Farage, who has been using the phrase since February, and it was the Ukip leader’s presence at a rally in Mississippi on 24 August that led Trump for the first time to equate his election with ‘American independence’. A week earlier, just after an organisational overhaul that put his current advisory team in place, the Republican candidate had tweeted: ‘They will soon be calling me MR BREXIT!’ At rally after rally, Trump now invokes the British referendum to promise Americans that independence is at hand.
The Brexiteers and Trump are both tapping anxieties among voters who feel ignored, and though the target of the grievances may differ – Eurocrats here, world government there – the promise of regained control has transatlantic appeal. There are significant inconsistencies between and within the two programmes though. In Florida last Thursday, for example, Trump said that Brexit has allowed British voters to ‘liberate themselves from global government and global trade deals and global immigration deals’. If Liam Fox and David Davis are to be believed, global opportunities are the very reason we left the EU: prosperity is going to be assured by free trade agreements and immigration reforms that entice all the world’s best and brightest.
And there is a crucial difference between the British and American political landscapes. Brexit is now government policy, whereas Trump’s solutions are still just hot air – and it looks increasingly unlikely that the election of 8 November will put him in a position to change that. But defeat could have consequences even more dramatic than victory.
Trump’s claims that there is a plot among corrupt media and government officials to rig ballots against him, which began as sporadic outbursts, are now incontinent. The idea that he could gracefully concede to Hillary Clinton is all but unimaginable. That is unprecedented enough. But a refusal to accept the result could take deeper root. Both Trump's senior campaign advisers are media-savvy right-wing ideologues: Roger Ailes was CEO of Fox News and Steve Bannon is the chair of Breitbart. Trump is well positioned to launch a new TV network in the event of a Clinton victory: an outlet so partial it would make Fox look fair and balanced.
If he does, the scapegoating dynamic that energises his calls for independence will reach its culmination: a self-perpetuating rage that Brexit’s narrow victory forestalled in Britain, or at least postponed. Trump TV will target its enemies with unparallelled virulence, watched by a wedge of electors who imagine themselves the victims of compounded frauds. Their fears will be rationalised by presenters, while a thwarted proprietor takes the fury as justification to battle on. Their independence day won’t have come, but codependency will have been institutionalised.