LONDON – Donald Trump – his fickle god of polling having generally turned against him – now looks for inspiration across the pond. “I think we’re gonna have a Brexit situation,” he has said, claiming Britain’s unexpected vote in June to leave the European Union as an example of poll-defying right-wing populist intensity.
Presented with this comparison, Michael Gove, a member of Parliament and one of the architects of Brexit, emphasized the dissimilarities. Gove told me that the Brexit majority did include “nationalists concerned with sovereignty” and working-class voters who blame stagnant wages on unskilled migration. But there were also “free-market liberals” focused primarily on the “regulations and tariffs” imposed by the EU.
Euroskepticism, Gove argued, is broader than working-class populism. “The most ardent free traders are the most opposed to the EU,” he noted. “A closer analogy,” he said, “is 1776,” in which the colonists resented “paying for a distant, inaccessible empire that bossed them around.” This spirit of revolt against an unresponsive bureaucracy is different from Trump’s authoritarian populism. For its breadth, Gove also compared Euroskepticism to “the Cold War coalition, which included everyone from Ayn Rand to John Paul II.” Because of this diversity, Brexit may “mean free trade, or much less trade; it is an open question.”
The political comparison between the Trump movement and the Brexit coalition is weak. (And the idea that polls in Britain did not register the strength of Brexit support is a myth.) But center-right parties in both countries are facing similar ideological pressures. Many Western nations are experiencing an intense reaction against economic globalization and multiculturalism by voters who feel forgotten. In Britain, according to Gove, this involves a sense that “those who take 1 / 8economic 3 / 8 decisions are insulated from the outcomes.” That certainly has a trans-Atlantic resonance.
But Britain’s Conservative Party has two great advantages over the Republican Party. While the success of Brexit brought down Prime Minister David Cameron (who staked his reputation on the fight against it), his party did not turn to an unelectable demagogue. The new prime minister, Theresa May, was notable for spending much of her career unnoticed. She rose by laying low. She speaks rarely, with the authority that accumulates in the silences. And she has turned out to be a subtle politician, putting the most vocal advocates of Brexit in charge of the Brexit negotiation process. If the result is a disaster (as it may well be), the public will know who deserves the blame.
The Conservative Party’s other advantage over the GOP is the fact that its ideological opposition has essentially collapsed. The British Labour Party was so intent on rejecting Tony Blair and all his works that it chose as its leader a socialist ideologue with an expiration date of 1945. The field is essentially clear. Members of Parliament joke that May’s biggest opposition is the value of the pound.
So how does May intend on repositioning her party in the aftermath of Brexit? In her first statement as prime minister, she spoke directly to people who are “just managing.” “I know you’re working around the clock,” she said. “I know you’re doing your best, and I know that sometimes life can be a struggle. The government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours.”
May has gotten the values part right – a conservatism that speaks to wage workers facing profound economic rupture – but the appropriate policies are yet to be determined. People involved in her policy development process variously talk of “Mayism” as the promotion of social mobility, as the development of an “industrial policy” that includes a “massive skills step-up,” and as the pursuit of social reform on issues such as human trafficking and mental health.
In Britain, the center-right party has been sobered into self-reflection. In America, it is on the verge of being destroyed. Instead of doing something essential and difficult – finding creative ways to help the “just managing” working class without alienating rising minorities – Republicans are working out internal grudges and dealing with the demons of a narcissistic misogynist. And there is little hope that Election Day will end the bitterness. A recent poll found that Republicans, by a majority of 51 percent to 33 percent, believe Trump to be a better representative of GOP views than House Speaker Paul Ryan.
Only a leader larger than both is likely to turn the GOP toward necessary tasks. And he or she may be quieter than we imagine.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.