Friends who were in Britain at the time tell me anyone who wasn’t can’t imagine how vile the Brexit campaigning on both sides was. That said, in the aftermath, the media should take the lead in getting a grip.

“In committing economic suicide,” Timothy Egan wrote this past weekend in a New York Times oped that didn’t help matters, “Britain is trying to close the door and hide from the world. It felt good, no doubt, to tell those overbearing bureaucrats in Brussels to bugger off. We’ll stick with our bangers and mash without any interference from Europe! But the Brexit vote was also a drunken swing at those ‘others’ remaking the image of a lost England. To hear the haters tell it, ‘Polish vermin’ and brown-skinned hordes have overwhelmed the little island nation.”

Brexit carried with 52 percent of the vote, and Egan imposes the worst possible motives on every one of those voters. They were the mindless isolationists getting their rocks off at Brussels—and those were the more enlightened ones. They were also the drunken haters of Asia’s hordes and Europe’s vermin. In the view of Americans stunned and stricken by the Brexit vote—myself among them—Britain is a wonderfully wise and civilized country laid low by the Neanderthals who people it.

But there were more legitimate reasons for Brits to want Britain outside the Economic Union, even if those reasons aren’t strong enough to impress Americans with a clear view of the British terrain from 4,000 miles away. For instance, author Stephen Kinzer made the following points about the EU in the Boston Globe: “First, it places utopian dreams of cooperation above the reality of nationalism. People want to be governed by leaders from their own ‘imagined community,’ not by outsiders,” he wrote. Second, “it is run by a corps of unelected bureaucrats, many of them unconnected to traditional society and contemptuous of public opinion. “

Without support from the scum of the earth, Brexit wouldn’t have carried; but that doesn’t mean the scum is either “Britain” or even a plurality of it. Egan didn’t care if he muddied those waters because Britain isn’t what was really on his mind.

Or on mine. Or on the minds of my Cassandra friends raging on Facebook. “Britain is cracking up now because it followed the crackpots,” wrote Egan, speaking for these multitudes. “The United States could make the same mistake—rejecting free trade and rejecting a welcome mat for free people.”

This brought Egan to what worries us all. The U.S. would make that mistake by letting itself be seduced by Donald Trump, who “wants us to follow the Brits into a corner of isolation—by race, religion and trade.”

Brexit chills us more as an omen of what could be ahead for America come November than for what might now be in store for Britain.
Fear focuses the mind—but what kind of omen is Brexit, really? Egan’s overwrought column made me think twice about this, and what I’ve decided is that Egan (and the rest of us) are ignoring something important. Brexit was a referendum on the way ahead for Britain, comparable to a referendum here on whether to withdraw from NAFTA. You and I might vote to stick by NAFTA, and we might be appalled by some of the louts egging on Americans to abandon it. But we’d be voting on the treaty, not the louts. A vote for Trump is a vote for the lout. To some voters he’s indistinguishable from what he preaches, but other voters will make the distinction. 

It’s possible for you to like all of Trump’s ideas about foreign trade and immigration and political correctness, and maybe even believe he has a point when he says the Bill of Rights needs tweaking, and still be unable to vote for him because (1) you can’t trust him to be serious about any of this and (2) you don’t think he’s either honest, competent, or even rational. There’s a constituency out there (I don’t know how big it is) that won’t vote for a fool they completely agree with—because he’s a fool.

The Brits voted to leave Europe. But they weren’t electing a fool.