Obama: Trump, Brexit Vote Both Tap Into Fear Of 'Funny-Looking People'

Jun 29, 2016
Originally published on June 29, 2016 4:34 pm

President Obama says he agrees with Donald Trump on one thing: There are "parallels" between the U.S. election and the United Kingdom's dramatic vote to leave the European Union.

Obama describes the parallels differently, however. Trump described Britons "taking their country back." Obama says the Brexit vote and Trump's campaign both are marked by "xenophobia" and a fear of "funny-looking people."

Obama spoke during a wide-ranging interview with NPR in which he critiqued Trump several times.

In other parts of the conversation, he said Trump "embodies global elites" and is not a "legitimate spokesperson for a populist surge from working-class people, on either side of the Atlantic."

His additional remarks, as seen in this video, were even more scathing.

"I think that some of the concerns around immigration, some of the concerns around a loss of control or a loss of national identity, those are similar," Obama said. "I think there is a xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment that is splashing up not just in Great Britain but throughout Europe, that has some parallels with what Mr. Trump has been trying to stir up here."

Obama went on to express confidence that the U.S. election would not have the same results as in the U.K. and Europe. For one thing, he said, the American economy is stronger.

"Overall, I think that the differences are greater than the similarities. But what is absolutely true is that the ability to tap into a fear that people may have about losing control, and it offers some sort of vague, nostalgic feelings about how, you know, we'll make Britain great again or will make America great again. And the subtext for that is somehow that a bunch of foreigners, funny-looking people are coming in here and changing the basic character of the nation — I think that some of that is out there, both in Europe and the United States."

NPR has several times invited Trump to respond to Obama's attack. As of this writing, Trump's staff has yet to respond.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Obama says he has an idea what drove the United Kingdom's historic vote last week. It was, of course, a vote to leave the European Union.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Afterward, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump said he saw a big parallel between the U.K. vote and the U.S. election.

INSKEEP: This week, we put questions to the current president. And he told us he sees similarities, too, though he phrases them differently than Trump does.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I think that some of the concerns around immigration, some of the concerns around a loss of control or a loss of national identity - those are similar. I think there is a xenophobia, an anti-immigrant sentiment that is that's splashing up, not just in Great Britain, but throughout Europe, that has some parallels with what Mr. Trump has been trying to stir up here.

INSKEEP: The president was talking on Monday in the State Dining Room at the White House. It's a high-ceilinged space with a painting of Lincoln over the fireplace. In this room, Obama gave reasons why he thinks the United States will vote differently than the U.K. For starters, he says, the U.S. economy is stronger.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

OBAMA: So overall, I think that the differences are greater than the similarities. But what is absolutely true is that - the ability to tap into a fear that people may have about losing control and to offer some sort of vague, nostalgic feelings about how, you know, it will make Britain greater again or will make America great again.

And the subtext for that is, somehow, that a bunch of foreigners and funny-looking people are coming in here and changing the basic character of the nation. I think that some of that is out there, both in Europe and in the United States. And again, that's not unique to England. You've seen in the Le Pen party in France. You see it in some of the far-right parties in other parts of Europe as well.

INSKEEP: You mention people fearful of change. The way that voters express that, when we talk with them, is they're concerned about changing the traditions, values or institutions of this country that have made the country great over time. Immigrants do bring new ideas, new cultures, different religions, other things. Does it matter, particularly, if they do change the country?

OBAMA: Well, I think that there are some bedrock values that shouldn't change and, in fact, haven't changed. It's the immigrants that change, not the values themselves - the values of our Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the values of free speech, the values of religious tolerance, the values of pluralism, the values of us being a nation of immigrants that can absorb people from every corner of the world and yet, at the end of the day, because we all pledge allegiance to a flag and a creed, we become one. Those traditions should not change.

I think, ironically, that if you look at it the values that immigrants bring when they come here, whether they're coming from Poland or Italy or, now, Vietnam or South Korea or India. The values they bring are quintessentially American values. They're strivers' values. They are the values that say - we're going to make something of ourselves, regardless of the station in which we were born. When you look at second-generation immigrants or third-generation immigrants, they are as American as any kid here. And that's been our strength. That's part of what separates us from the United Kingdom or Europe - is we've had that tradition of being a nation of immigrants.

INSKEEP: We ran across a statement of yours from 2008 about changing the trajectory of the country. You said that Ronald Reagan had changed the trajectory of the country, partly because the country was ready for it - it was his moment - that John F. Kennedy had done the same thing because it was the right moment. The country was going in a certain direction. You wanted to see such a moment. You believed there was such a moment for you in 2008.

Is there a risk that Donald Trump could say the same thing in 2016 - that he could be the man to change the trajectory of the country now? Well, if he won, he could say that.

INSKEEP: I mean to say, you think the country might be ready for that?

OBAMA: No (laughter). And I think that'll be tested over the next four months. But I think it's pretty hard to argue that somebody who almost three quarters of the country think is unqualified to be president and has a negative opinion about, is tapping into the zeitgeist of the country or is speaking for a broad base of the country.

But we'll find out. Look, that's what elections are for. And that - and I think it's important for Democrats, progressives, moderates, people who care about our traditions, who care about pluralism, who care about tolerance, who care about facts, who think climate change is real, who think that we have to reform our immigration system in an intelligent way, who believe that - in women's equality and equality for the LGBT community - I think it's important for those of us not to be complacent, not to be smug.

INSKEEP: That's part of our talk with President Obama Monday at the White House. Our conversation was part of a documentary project on Obama's years, which will be heard on many stations in coming days. We've now heard Obama hammer Donald Trump for two straight mornings on this program. We invited Mr. Trump on the program to respond. His staff did not answer that invitation, but it remains open. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.