Trump, Brexit and the dumbing down of democracy

Informed Dissent: The parallels between MAGA and the U.K.’s hard-right turn to leave the EU.

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Trump, Brexit and the dumbing down of democracy
EU2917EE Estonian Presidency via Flickr/CC 2.0

At a campaign rally last week in Michigan, the president of the United States and keeper of the world’s largest nuclear arsenal — after asserting that he’s smarter than all the elites and lying that the Mueller probe had been a “total exoneration, complete vindication” — told a sea of white people that had Hillary Clinton been elected, America wouldn’t be producing as much oil and gas. “You’d be doing wind. Windmills. Wheeee. And if it doesn’t blow, you can forget about television for that night. ‘Darling, I want to watch television.’ ‘I’m sorry! The wind isn’t blowing.’ I know a lot about wind.” (Fact check: He doesn’t.)

A few days later, the brain genius announced that, to stem the surge of migrants fleeing poverty in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, he would cut off aid to those countries, because nothing makes poor people want to flee poverty more than making them poorer. Donald Trump also threatened to shut down the Mexico-U.S. border, which would disrupt $300 billion in trade and wreak economic havoc. 

Border Patrol officials reported more than 100,000 apprehensions in March, the highest in a decade. Nearly all are seeking asylum — a right guaranteed under U.S. and international law — and nine in 10 entered at legal ports of entry. The wall won’t stop them, and cutting off aid will only make things worse. Cutting off aid while shutting down the border would be both self-defeating and cruel. 

Which is to say: Of course that’s what Trump’s going to do. 

Which is also to say: American politics is so incredibly dumb right now. The only consolation, if you can call it that, is that British politics is somehow even dumber.  

Caveat emptor: I claim no expertise on British politics, nor the intricacies of Brexit. But the U.K.’s looming maybe-divorce from the European Union — a tangled knot of economic and cultural connections that proved easier to talk about undoing than to actually undo — shares a lot of DNA with the menace of the Trump administration. In fact, these events share a common foundation in a moment of populist insanity. 

The 52–48 Brexit referendum, passed five months before Trump’s election, was a populist revolt against the urban, multicultural elite, couched in the rhetoric of economic anxiety, not-so-thinly masking resentment of immigrants and refugees. It was propped up by sweeping promises — untethered to reality — of better health care and trade deals. It also passed because few thought the country would be insane enough to pass it. The polls showed “Remain” in the lead, so “Remainers” were complacent. 

Sound familiar? 

The biggest outstanding issue is the Irish border. Since the 1998 Good Friday agreement, the border between the independent Republic of Ireland and the U.K.’s Northern Ireland has been completely open for trade and movement. Post-Brexit, that could no longer be the case; there would be checkpoints, inspections and customs. And nobody wanted that. But years of negotiation failed to produce a viable workaround. The last-ditch effort was the so-called Irish backstop, which would keep Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market until at least December 2020 and effectively commit the U.K. to the EU’s customs union until both entities agree it’s no longer necessary. 

But that’s proven too soft a Brexit for the hardliners in Prime Minister Theresa May’s party, and not soft enough for the members of Parliament who think Brexit was idiotic to begin with. As a result, no position — a hard Brexit, May’s deal, a softer Brexit, or abandoning Brexit altogether — could achieve a majority.

It was, as the Brits say, a shambles. 

Friday was supposed to be Brexit Day. May, however, got a reprieve from the EU to give her one last chance to sell her agreement. But Parliament rejected it for the third time. 

On Monday — after I file this column — Parliament was set to consider six alternatives, none of which have passed before: May’s deal, but giving the U.K. the unilateral right to exit the backstop (assuming the EU agrees); a no-deal, hard Brexit (which experts believe would be catastrophic); two proposals to keep the U.K. in an EU customs union (one of which nearly passed last week); and two motions to call a second, “are you sure about this?” referendum (as in 2016, polls show a slim lead for “Remain”). 

The Brits could get a do-over pretty soon, with a better understanding of the consequences that furtive spurt of right-wing populism actually entailed. Americans will have to wait until November 2020 to decide whether this is the kind of country we want to be.


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