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With Trump, May in doldrums, now what happens?: James Miller

Posted 6/5/19

With less than two years to complete his first term, Donald Trump’s presidency is effectively over. There will be no major legislative accomplishments before the next election. Anything Trump …

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With Trump, May in doldrums, now what happens?: James Miller


With less than two years to complete his first term, Donald Trump’s presidency is effectively over. There will be no major legislative accomplishments before the next election. Anything Trump does between now and his potential second term will be unilateral; the Democrat House has him hamstrung.

Across the impotent pond, Theresa May’s prime ministership has come to an anti-climatic close. Her failure to secure an actual Brexit deal lost her the support of her own party and has just about scuttled negotiations to extricate the U.K. from its matronly overseer, the European Union. May never had her heart in Brexit to begin with — what little blood she displayed in trying to rally the country behind her exit offers has been drained.

With Brexit stranded on the shoals and Trump nerfed and neutered, the heady populist days of 2016 seem far away, almost like a dream that never happened. In the course of one year, the world’s two Anglophone superpowers had their ruling classes rocked by national elections. The established ideology — neoliberalism, or democratic capitalism — became passé. Nationalism and sovereignty were in. There would be tariffs and borders and country-first hymns to replace the new ancien régime of globalized humanism.

Those romantic feelings quickly turned doleful. The forces of nationalism met their match in an old foe: bureaucratic intransigence. The political clerisy who established post-World War II statecraft would not go quietly away.

Trump found himself the subject of an intensive investigation, the subject of which — foreign collusion — tainted his presidency from the start. His victory was all but disregarded, ignored as illegitimate.

Brexit was even more of a cockup. Premised on a near-impossible goal, and with no dedicated leader willing to take the reins after the national plebiscite, Brexit became the international-relations equivalent of the dog finally catching the car. None of the Leave campaign’s prominent advocates stepped up to do the hard work of preparing the official terms of exit. Whom Brexiteers got was May, an initial opponent of leaving the European Union and whose charisma is equal to afternoon tea with a comatose patient.

There was no plan, no conspectus of what exiting the European Union meant in word or deed. There was no precedent, either; May was plotting a course in uncharted waters as, meanwhile, mutineers on board distrusted her commitment since cast off.

May lacked the steely Thatcherite resolve to concretize Brexit out of an abstract ballot proposition. Her incompetence launched the Labour leadership of backbencher Jeremy Corbyn, who’s become infamous for keeping close company with anti-Semitic types. Tory disarray could very well see Corbyn leading the country.

Ironically enough, Tory incompetence also led to its own routing in recent European Union elections, which saw the Brexit Party, newly founded by Nigel Farage, the man who mainstreamed the idea of leaving the European Union, win a bravura victory, with the pro-Remain Liberal Democrats also having a successful night. Had May handled Brexit any better, her party could have had even more gains, solidifying its authority and providing leverage in negotiations.

The entire exiting business wasn’t helped by the European Union making it as difficult as possible to leave, offering little in concessions or leeway to make a clean cut. The question of border openness between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, the latter of which would be closed under Brexit, impossibly complicates matters. Labour’s unwillingness to even offer a modicum of support for any Brexit deal makes for good politics but lousy good will.

Brexit Party notwithstanding, a deal to leave the European Union looks increasingly unlikely. Just as well, Trump is having great difficulty corralling the support and money needed to fulfill his main campaign promise: erecting a barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border. After squandering two years failing to repeal the Affordable Care Act and passing a large tax cut, Trump has little else to point to heading into the 2020 elections. Sure, he’s roasted some Democrats (and not quite a few Republicans) over Twitter. But, illegal immigrants continue to enter the U.S. in record number. Manufacturing-job gains are a mixed bag, with GM recently shuttering yet another plant in Lordstown, Ohio.

Right-wing, anti-establishment parties continue to win national elections, but populism, to stick with the seafaring metaphors, is a schooner without a worthy captain at the helm. Instead, more often than not, the designated skipper is drunk in the wheelhouse.

Speaking of, Steve Bannon, the populist flag-bearer and former White House strategist, is keeping busy undulating slug-like across West, trying to recreate the populist movement he thought he had a hand in making in America, leaving a fetid trail of slime along the way.

Conservative nationalists have won major elections in Italy, Brazil and Australia, but not because Bannon showed his pustulous face in those countries. Instead, voters continue to signal strong disapprobation with the status quo.

The problem is, policymakers just aren’t listening.

After 2016, Western elites were irate and on guard against what they saw as a mass-driven movement against their usual ministrations. In the press and on television, they professed empathy for voters who rejected their rule. But, in action, they evinced resentment, crying, “Hell is empty, and all the devils are here!”

The populist cause has made little headway against bureaucratic resistance because it’s held too fast to its principle of lauding common, everyday wisdom over learned leadership. Political movements need skilled operators. You can’t remake the system from totally without.

Populist figureheads have so far proved inadequate to tack a new course and guide their respective countries to a new nationalist future. What happens when voters, seeing the democratic system failed them yet again, demand an even more radical governing alternative?

Will our elites heed the warning, or abandon ship?

James E. Miller, a native of Middletown, lives in northern Virginia with his wife and daughter. He is the author of the novel “To Win And To Lose.”