Regardless of the damage it may wreak, the progress of Brexit is, at least, orderly. As for Trump and the US, the only certainty is volatility
It seems a long time since Boris Johnson tried to suggest last summer there was no comparison between Britain’s vote for Brexit and the emerging power of Donald Trump’s previously implausible ‘America First’ insurgency. If Boris believed it then, despite Nigel Farage and President Trump’s well-sourced insistence to the contrary, events have forced our closet-liberal foreign secretary to drop the claim from his repertoire of one liners.
Why? Because the likenesses between the new British and US governments and their efforts to square declared priorities with the constraints that come with ruling, are at least as obvious most days as the differences, painful to behold either way. No, Theresa May is neither a populist nor a demagogue. Can you imagine her tweeting about anything at 5am, let alone making inflammatory policy pronouncements or accusing Jeremy Corbyn of hacking her phone?
But style and anger management apart, both president and prime minister have put immigration restrictions centre stage and wrapped themselves in the flag. Both administrations or their self-appointed cheerleaders have attacked the courts for unwelcome assertions of constitutional independence. Both have promised to protect ‘just about managing’ voters without actually doing so. Far from it on policies like Obamacare ‘reform’ and grammar school nostalgia which look likely to harm the health and educational prospects of the poorest. And, of course, they famously hold hands on slippery slopes.
On taxes and spending policies May and Philip Hammond’s financial caution reflects the response of Margaret Thatcher and her chancellor, Geoffrey Howe, to the ‘voodoo economics’ – tax cuts and rapidly higher borrowing – that characterised Ronald Reagan’s 1980s version of supply side policy, much as it does Trump’s. How can the bond market and the stock market both be quite so bullish? How soon will it end in tears? Not next week. If he bothered with the details of ‘Spreadsheet Phil’s’ proudly dull budget it would send the man in the Oval Office to sleep.
But the crucial difference between the trans-Atlantic partners is surely that May’s remains essentially a traditional, primly conventional government as well as a wholly legitimate one. Assertions that she was ‘not elected’ to succeed David Cameron cut little ice because this kind of handover has often happened before, for Gordon Brown (2007), John Major (1990), Jim Callaghan (1976) to name but three. Claims that mild Mrs May is a ‘fascist’ or simply ‘UKIP lite’ are playground taunts.
The legitimacy issue in Britain is not about May’s authority, but about her government’s all-consuming policy of Brexit at any cost: no deal with the EU 27 better than a bad deal. That is what agitates assorted MPs and the cross-party coalition of peers, including the ancient rebel Heseltine. It bugs many economists and captains of industry. It agitates Scots and Irish voters, those in the bigger English cities too, especially the educated young, all who helped make up the 48%. Not overlooked either should be the silent minority, the 27% who didn’t vote at all on June 23, but certainly don’t want to become poorer as a result of their civic sloth. What is these cohorts’ duty now?
To pull together and make the best of what they fear will be a hard-to-bad-job? Eight months on from the referendum, that seems to be what most Remainers seem to think, though you would not know it from the desperate-for-fresh-scapegoats mentality evident in the Daily Brute, for whom Boris’s Free Born Brits are required to be conformist ones. The imperative to pull together is reinforced by the apparent unwillingness of many (‘why can’t we just leave?’) Brexiteers to share the heavy lifting ahead. What price their promises that the UK would remain in the single currency or the customs union? Not much, it seems.
Against which are arrayed assorted supporters of a second referendum – notably the Lib Dems – or of the change of heart envisaged by self-styled insurgents like Tony Blair, even more so by voters whose attachment to the idea of ever closer European Union is so transcending that any form of resistance short of violence is an obligation.
The petty sacking of pensioner Heseltine (Team May does have some authoritarian DNA) may provide them with further justification. But May will not heed siren voices urging her – courtesy of the Times this time – to crush dissent via a snap general election. As the Brexit saga has reminded us all, William Hague’s strategic advice is invariably wrong. The distraction of a divisive and unnecessary vote for party ends – just like you, Dave – would annoy voters when there is so much to do. May thinks so too.
Actually the schism among Remain voters between principle and pragmatism is not so deep: plenty think that challenging the government’s ‘there is no alternative’ mantra at every policy turn will cumulatively persuade voters that there is one, several actually. It is a form of ‘loyal opposition’ as taught to sixth formers doing A-Level constitutional history – but not practised by the sixth formers in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet who have decided that collaboration with Brexit is the wisest course. Appeasement is not to be scornfully dismissed out of hand, but it leaves the Commons looking like a see-saw with almost all the weight at one end: the basic mechanics of see-saws don’t work that way.
To set out the Brexit dilemma is to highlight how much greater is the challenge facing conscientious Americans as the Trump administration reaches its first 50 day milestone. Brexit may bring about all sorts of disasters, economic, social and political, down the road. To be scrupulously fair, it may instead create more countervailing benefits than Remainers fear. It may become an existential crisis, not yet.
But in itself it is a lawful policy, rooted in the verdict of a popular plebiscite, formally endorsed (thanks to the courts) by parliament before and after the event. It is being implemented on yet to be decided terms agreed under vague Article 50 of the EU’s Treaty of Lisbon by politicians whose most obvious vice – Boris excepted – is mediocre tedium, not rabble-rousing. Nigel Farage, the country’s rabble-rouser in chief, has semi-retired to backseat rabble-rouse against Paul Nuttall, the latest UKIP leader to fall below Mr Farage’s demagogic expectations.
So last summer’s British drama has subsided, at least for now, whereas last November’s astonishing upset in the United States brings fresh astonishment virtually every day. Do you not turn on morning radio or television earlier and more regularly than you did, just to check ‘what he’s done now’? I do and so do many of my friends, apolitical ones included. We wish we didn’t feel we had to. I’ve gone for decades listening to Radio 4 without succumbing to The Archers habit. But The Trumps have me hooked, even though their everyday story of Manhattan folk is far less credible than Ambridge story lines.
Ten days ago the President made his first speech to Congress, an audience more experienced and sophisticated than the kind (‘I love uneducated people’) he prefers, less adulatory too, even among wary conservative Republicans, something demagogue Trump is not.
Apart from that 10% boost to the US defence budget, he didn’t answer many questions. But he managed to sound conciliatory and inclusive, presidential even, for the first time since he joined the campaign to become Republican nominee. Trump’s approval rating rose, from an historic low of 39% (unprecedented for a president in his first month) to 43%, according to Gallup. Some 45% of Americans told the pollster they now felt more optimistic about the next four years – almost double the 27% who felt worse. Markets bubbled upwards.
Some pundits took this as their cue to say that Trump has finally grasped what being president means, a step towards the ‘normalisation’ of his rule, the abandonment of government by Twitter. The White House apparently liked the speech’s media approval so much – Trump’s obsession with a fourth estate he purports to despise confirms his outsider’s need for insider approval – that it postponed publication of the revised version of his chaotic ‘Muslim travel ban’. It didn’t work for long.
The following day the Washington Post reported that the new attorney general, Jeff Sessions (actually he’s one of many good ‘ole Alabama babies christened Jefferson after Jefferson Davis, president of the civil war Confederacy), had ‘spoken twice last year with the Russian ambassador’. That was contrary to what he told former Senate colleagues during confirmation hearings on January 10 and 17. Team Trump backed their man, Sessions denied he’d lied, but duly recused himself (itself an unTrumpian verb and concept) from the justice department’s ongoing investigation into the Kremlin Connection.
The president, who had already lost his first choice for national security adviser, General Mike Flynn, over covert Russian dealings, was reported to be furious with the concession and (again) blamed a partisan media for exposing the cover-up. There is talk of perjury charges and calls for Sessions to resign. Other meetings between Trump advisers, including son-in-law Jared Kushner at Trump Tower, duly tumble out. Far from being an ‘America First’ champion the new president is showing himself to be a ‘Trump First’ man, putting self-preservation ahead of national security, a man who had previously called Vladimir Putin ‘a better leader than Obama because Obama’s not a leader’. Why? Because Putin has ‘very strong control over a country’. Wow!
All this is pretty jaw-dropping. For a day or so, things seem normal. Trump stops tweeting in the pre-dawn hours, cabinet members are confirmed after Senate hearings. Sober commentators agree that General HR McMaster, Trump’s third pick for the NSA job, is a distinguished intellectual soldier, unafraid to speak truth to power, as LBJ’s generals were in Vietnam (McMaster wrote a book to their failure). He will join defence secretary, General James (not really such a ‘Mad Dog’) Mattis and other grown-ups in saving the republic from a vain, impulsive president and the ideological zealots in his entourage. Normalisation beckons.
Then the short cycle starts again. In the small hours of March 4 Trump accused Barack Obama of ordering the intelligence services of wire-tapping the Trump campaign last year – another Watergate break-in, this time by techies, not by burglars. It was promptly and comprehensively denied by the intelligence community as well as by No Drama Obama’s spokesman. The President produced no evidence and his critics quickly traced it to rightwing ‘alternative facts’ reports, notably on Breitbart News, the outfit run until recently by ex-marine, ex-Goldman Sachs (and Seinfeld!) banker Steve Bannon, now the president’s consiglieri and an avowed authoritarian nationalist who should be propping up a redneck bar in his native Virginia. Even George W Bush has joined the protests against Bannon-orchestrated attacks on the press.
This is a self-feeding loop, an alt right filter bubble. America has seen xenophobic demagogues before – Huey (‘Every Man a King’) Long, Depression Governor of Louisiana had a plan to defeat FDR in 1936 had he not been shot dead in 1935 – but never in the White House. This is not normal and hopes that Trump will ‘settle down’ must be offset against fears that he cannot, will not. In which case we should all worry.
Worldly cynics worry that not even Putin wanted to destabilise the US this much. He has too much to lose, including his wealth, much of its likely to be dollar denominated. The Trumps are not a radio soap like The Archers, they are real life. Since Theresa May’s Brexit inheritance has forced her to align her government with Washington, it matters for us more than usual and more than for most.
In the circumstances, conspiracy theories abound on both sides. Do the Russians have something really big on Trump? Are the intelligence services (often among the smarter elements of any government) in cahoots with the old elite or the military-industrial complex to neuter Trump – though the FBI gave a funny way of showing it when its boss, James Comey, dumped a fake smear on Hillary Clinton in election week? Or is it the other way around?
Does Trump create deliberately destabilising charges against his opponents to create confusion about the truth that will provide cover for some deep-state plot to destroy democracy or further enrich his fellow-rich, draining the Washington swamp in order to fill it with Wall St crocodiles? Or is it just a diversion to steer short attention spans away from his Russian ties, commercial or political? Is he Hollywood’s Manchurian Candidate finally made flesh? Or is he just a shallow narcissist, wholly unsuited for the job but smart enough to know? Is it more serious than that? Some people think so. ‘Watch his family,’ says some.
As with our own Brexit dilemmas, I intend to subscribe to the Keep-Calm-and-Carry-On Tendency over Trumpismo until that position, and the prospect of a Trump tamed by normalisation and reality-based facts like Chinese power, become unsustainable. If we are confident that Trump and Brexit are both wrong forks in the road we should let their advocates lead the country along them until the wiser among them can feel the tremors, see coming avalanche and the roar of wild beasts. We may need their support to make an orderly retreat or compromises with reality.
My hunch is that Trump’s egregious disregard for his commercial conflicts of interest may prove his downfall, especially if they turn out to have an undisclosed Russian dimension. Middle America thinks ‘they’re all as bad as each other’ (they’re not). It does not care much for their constitution’s first amendment protection for the snooty New York Times (second amendment protection for their private arsenals is something else). But fear of the Russians is deeply ingrained, already the evident fracture in the Trump coalition, more easily grasped than fancy footwork with the tax code to benefit the 0.1%.
On the current rate of attrition the time may soon come when no amount of paranoid and abusive Tweets or noisy ‘Rallys 4 Trump’ in the red state belt will be able to smother the bad smell, if there really is one. Strange times.
Michael White is a former political editor of the Guardian