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Why a 'Brexit' could be a good sign for Trump

A man passes a mural that has been painted on a derelict building in Stokes Croft showing US presidential hopeful Donald Trump sharing a kiss with former London Mayor Boris Johnson on May 24, 2016 in Bristol, England.
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A man passes a mural that has been painted on a derelict building in Stokes Croft showing US presidential hopeful Donald Trump sharing a kiss with former London Mayor Boris Johnson on May 24, 2016 in Bristol, England.

The "Brexit" debate, about Britain possibly leaving the European Union, isn't as boring as it sounds to a lot of non-international investors or globalists. Brexit is actually all about sovereignty, nationalism, borders, and throwing off the status quo. And that's why this referendum could be an indicator for the U.S. presidential election, which is increasingly becoming about the exact same issues.

To put it even more brashly: If pro-leave Brexit wins, it's a signal that Trump could win. And the UK polls are starting to show that "leave" is likely to win.

It's easy to understand that the "start over" philosophy describes both the "pro-leave the E.U." and pro-Donald Trump camps. That is not to say that Brexit supporters support Trump and Trump supporters support or even care about the Brexit vote. But it does mean they share the same kind of disenchantment with the political status quo and they support what's been portrayed as a radical solution to change it. Especially after the Orlando terror-shooting incident, both the "pro-leave the E.U." forces and Trump voters are willing to embrace a decidedly risky choice as opposed to those who say leaving the E.U. or voting for Trump would be too risky. And this great divide in Britain and the U.S. is growing along the same economic, ideological, and generational lines.

In the Brexit debate, there's a clear difference between how the pro-E.U. forces in the U.K. and the pro-leave groups look at money and democracy. Is money the key to everything, not only in economics, but also politics, nationalism, and the very notion of personal liberty? It sure seems that the pro-stay politicians and corporate leaders think so. And thus, the pro-stay forces have already won a tremendous victory because almost every published and broadcast story about the vote focuses only on the immediate economic effects. The pro-E.U. forces say leaving will hurt the U.K. economically, while the pro-leave camp disputes that. The pro-stay forces are betting British voters will not want to risk suffering those immediate economic effects and will simply be frightened into remaining in the E.U.

Those arguments have ideological appeal to free-market capitalists with historical knowledge, and even economic liberals who happen to be fans of political liberty and democratic accountability, (remember those people?).

"Both the “pro-leave the E.U.” forces and Trump voters are willing to embrace a decidedly risky choice as opposed to those who say leaving the E.U. or voting for Trump would be too risky."

In Britain, the line is drawn along generational lines: Younger Britons from every political party and economic background are much more likely to favor remaining in the "big government" E.U. One recent poll shows an eye-popping 75 percent of U.K. voters aged 18-24 are "pro-stay." Meanwhile, 67 percent of voters 65 years and older want out. It turns out the younger generation in the U.K. isn't so sold on the benefits of more liberty and accountability, even when the government controls almost every conceivable aspect of their lives from single-payer health care to sales tax. Older Britons certainly don't show any desire to weaken public services, but perhaps the rise of terrorism in Europe and their memories of the Soviet Union and other tyrannical regimes in European history have aroused their nationalism and desire for more local government sovereignty. You'll notice that these issues have nothing to do with money; they're about freedom and how comfortable different generations in Britain are with the idea of trading that freedom in return for a large multi-national body that promises to "take care" of everyone.

Sound familiar? When it comes to the U.S. presidential election, you can't open a newspaper, turn on the TV, or even log on to CNBC.com these days without reading and hearing loads of market experts and corporate leaders warning us about the immediate economic dangers that would result if Trump wins the White House. They're betting that everyone has already accepted that Trump is a risky proposition and that most voters will consider him too risky no matter how much they're suffering economically at the moment. The Trump supporters believe the system is so broken, they're willing to take a big risk and they're not about to be bought off by promises of better mutual fund returns.

And, just like the pro-stay forces in Britain, younger voters made up the bulk of Bernie Sanders supporters during the primary process. They were attracted to his promises to expand big government "protections" and entitlements similar to the promises of greater riches the pro-stay campaigners have made in Britain. But older voters make up the bulk of Donald Trump's supporters as they mirror the older voters in Britain who value nationalism and border security above most other issues. It's important to remember that the older "pro-leave" voters in Britain and the older voters supporting Trump in the U.S. are still very concerned about economic issues. It's just that they can't be won over with the "stick" of threats about GDP numbers or the "carrot" of promises of free college and housing. Even though it's usually the older voters who want to protect the status quo and younger voters who want to tear down an existing system, in both the Brexit vote and our American presidential election that stereotypical dynamic has been flipped on its head.

That's why, if the pro-leave campaign wins the referendum later this month, the Trump camp should feel more confident that a global movement to blow up the status quo is gaining steam. This kind of thing has happened before, as it did in 1979 when Margaret Thatcher became Britain's prime minister on a domestic and foreign policy platform quite similar to Ronald Reagan's winning formula in the U.S. one year later.

But if the pro-stay forces triumph on the 23rd, it could be a great sign for Hillary Clinton supporters who are hoping the worldwide desire for extreme change isn't so strong after all. It all comes down to risk and the free world's appetite for it. Either way, how the British feel is very likely the same as we feel in America right now. And unless there's a big change in sentiment here between the months of June and November, the Brexit vote results will be repeated in our presidential election.



Commentary by Jake Novak, supervising producer of "Power Lunch." Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.