We start a new year in a state of transatlantic political paralysis. In Britain, parliament has taken back control from a flailing government in pursuit of the least bad option. Brexit, it transpires, does not mean Brexit; it means whatever we can agree on, which may be nothing at all. In the US, it turns out, not only will the Mexicans not pay for the wall, but the Americans aren’t too keen on stumping up for it either. Sightings of butt-naked emperors are now no longer newsworthy.
The simultaneous unravelling of the Trump agenda and the Brexit process provides a useful lens through which to understand the trajectories of the past few years in both countries. Oppositional in nature, both Trump and Brexiters thrived on galvanising longstanding discontent and prejudice through inflammatory rhetoric and egregious falsehoods, and aspired to make noise not change. They did not invent these states of affairs – they inherited them and exploited them. Both Republicans and Conservatives were already riven and prone to gesture politics. “We have to get something out of this,” insisted former Republican congressman Marlin Stutzman during the last major US shutdown of 2013 with characteristic futility. “And I don’t know what that even is.”
In both cases they won not arguments but elections, by narrow margins, against all expectations, including their own. Globally, these victories cannot be understood outside the broader rise of the populist right from Brazil to Germany. Locally, they can be misunderstood as an ideological assault, rather than a political and electoral realignment, following the financial crisis. Boris Johnson is no Margaret Thatcher and Steve Bannon is no Milton Friedman. Amid all the talk of rightwing populism on both sides of the Atlantic, it is worthwhile remembering just how unpopular they are. Republicans have only won the popular vote once since 1988; the Tories have only won a parliamentary majority once since 1992. Meanwhile, Democrats and the young are growing keener on socialism than capitalism, and in the two British national electoral contests since 2016 the right lost significant ground. [Continue reading…]