Last week, as soon as it seemed likely that a narrow majority of Britons had voted for their nation to leave the European Union, Nigel Farage, one of the most vociferous Brexit campaigners, gave a triumphal, populist speech. He said the referendum was "a victory for real people, a victory for ordinary people, a victory for decent people" in the face of "multinationals," "big merchant banks" and "big politics." Britain, in this reading, had reclaimed its supposedly lost sovereignty from technocrats in Brussels and corrupt power brokers in London.
Donald Trump spins a pretty similar story. In a speech Tuesday, he hailed the outcome of Britain's E.U. referendum. "Our friends in Britain recently voted to take back control of their economy, politics and borders," he said, and then framed the outcome in partisan domestic terms. "I was on the right side of that issue -- with the people -- while Hillary, as always, stood with the elites, and both she and President Obama predicted that one wrong."
Trump projected the same narrative onto the United States at the event in Pennsylvania. He bemoaned "a wave of globalization" that gutted the American middle class, sent jobs overseas and brought immigrants, and then he let loose at the custodians of the status quo. Hillary Clinton "has betrayed the American worker," Trump said.
"We're going to have to reject the campaign of fear and intimidation being pushed by powerful corporations, media elites, and political dynasties," he said, according to Politico's transcript.
The message, at this point, ought to be rather familiar. Like Britain's Brexiteers, Trump is marshaling populist ire to his political cause.
President Obama, often the target of Trump's attacks, had waded into the Brexit debate ahead of the referendum, expressing his hope that Britain would remain in the European Union. Otherwise, Obama suggested, Britain would find itself behind the much bigger E.U. bloc as a key U.S. trade partner.
This rather matter-of-fact observation elicited howls of protest, both from Brexit supporters and Trump. This week, Farage, still basking in his victory, went on Fox News and lambasted Obama for his earlier intervention.
“[Russian President] Vladimir Putin behaved in a more statesmanlike manner than President Obama did in this referendum campaign. Obama came to Britain, and I think behaved disgracefully, telling us we would be at the back of the queue,” said Farage. “Vladimir Putin maintained his silence throughout the whole campaign.”
In the eyes of Farage and Trump, Putin -- unlike Obama or Clinton or the cosmopolitan jet-setters of London -- is not part of the establishment that must be crushed. After all, this establishment embraces universal liberal values. It embraces globalization. It embraces multiculturalism. And it isn't allergic to immigration.
On Tuesday, Farage, who represents the far-right, Euroskeptic U.K. Independence Party, went to the European Parliament and exulted in his triumph in a speech where he predicted Britain would not be the last nation to quit Europe.
"When I came here 17 years ago and said I wanted to lead a campaign to get Britain to leave the European Union, you all laughed at me," Farage said. "Well, you're not laughing now, are you?"
The "elites" have become a stand-in for the prevailing international system. And for right-wing populists, they provide the easiest punching bag.
To be sure, as we discussed yesterday, there are many reasons that a huge number of people in the West feel alienated from the top rung of society. Wages have stagnated. Working-class jobs have evaporated. Inequality grows and grows.
The widespread gloomy response to the Brexit vote -- which led to markets tumbling and fears of a forthcoming British recession -- did, to a certain extent, gloss over the genuine dissatisfaction with the E.U. that exists across the continent. James Traub, writing in Foreign Policy, penned a story with the headline "It's Time for the Elites to Rise Up Against the Ignorant Masses," conjuring up a political clash that pits "the sane vs. the mindlessly angry." Others inveighed against the undemocratic nature of referendums, whose stark binary choice is not a true representation of the will of the people.
Still, some offered important notes of caution:
- Daniel Larison in the American Conservative: "Technocratic rule may be tolerable if the technocrats are perceived to be good at their job and retain some political legitimacy in the eyes of the voters, but when they aren’t and don’t it is hard to take their complaints about ill-informed voters seriously."
- Matt Taibi in Rolling Stone: "Were I British, I’d probably have voted to Remain. But it’s not hard to understand being pissed off at being subject to unaccountable bureaucrats in Brussels. Nor is it hard to imagine the post-Brexit backlash confirming every suspicion you might have about the people who run the E.U. Imagine having pundits and professors suggest you should have your voting rights curtailed because you voted Leave. Now imagine these same people are calling voters like you “children,” and castigating you for being insufficiently appreciative of, say, the joys of submitting to a European Supreme Court that claims primacy over the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights. The overall message in every case is the same: Let us handle things."
But that still doesn't get at the most searing irony of the Brexit movement. It's championed by elites themselves, funded by billionaires, and intimately connected to influential media. The comparison to the Trump campaign, the latest career move of a business mogul and reality television star, seems pretty clear.
Case in point is Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London who helped lead the "leave" campaign and now stands to replace his former schoolmate, the equally posh Prime Minister David Cameron, as the next head of Britain's government. He, like his other "leave" ally, conservative politician Michael Gove, is a former journalist with a prominent column. Neither, as The Washington Post's Anne Applebaum observes, can be "accurately described as poor, provincial or anti-establishment."
One of the more excoriating dismissals of Johnson's opportunism -- he flip-flopped his position on Brexit to find himself a stone's throw away from 10 Downing Street -- was written by the British journalist and editor Tina Brown, who accused Johnson of a "fundamental lack of seriousness" and suggested he never "dreamed that Brexit would actually succeed."
"Johnson’s fake disarray—his bonhomous tanker of beer and Falstaffian spilling gut, his genial, jokey façade concealing a deeply opportunistic nature—allowed him alliances with such odious figures as UKIP’s xenophobic leader, Nigel Farage, whose rat poison salesman persona would never have won Brexit without the fig leaf of Boris’s charm," Brown wrote in the Daily Beast.
Brown pulls no punches, but she is hovering around a real conundrum for the "leave" camp.
A campaign characterized by airy promises and a consistent dismissal of the concerns of experts and pundits now is struggling over what to do next. Some of its main figures have visions of a deregulated, privatized state, while the bulk of its voters want something altogether different -- a return to a world with fewer foreigners, more jobs and the revitalization of their forgotten communities.
"The idealists want pure sovereignty; the hedge funds want deregulation; the voters voted for the welfare state," writes Applebaum. None of this adds up.
It's important to respect the democratic mandate of the "leave" camp, writes Daniel Drezner in Post Everything. "But it’s also fair to point out ... the negative consequences of the vote, as well as the mendacity of the leaders of the Leave campaign. They now admit that they have no plan for Brexit, and even if they weren’t admitting it, E.U. officials are delighted to point it out to them."
Earlier, this week, Guardian journalist Nick Cohen offered perhaps the most starkly worded verdict on the referendum: "The real division in Britain is not between London and the north, Scotland and Wales or the old and young, but between Johnson, Gove and Farage and the voters they defrauded."
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