Michael Barone / Jul. 26, 2019

A Big Wednesday for ‘Populists’ on Both Sides of the Atlantic

Power shifted Wednesday. Some observers will depict these two events as steps forward for populist politics.

Power shifted Wednesday, on both sides of the Atlantic.

In Washington, the dim performance of Robert Mueller, in the hearings House Democrats insisted on, took the last air out of the Collusiongate balloon. The notion that Donald Trump would be hounded out of office has been revealed as the fantasy it always was.

In London, Boris Johnson met with the queen and left Buckingham Palace as her 14th prime minister. He proceeded to No. 10 Downing Street and reiterated his promise to deliver Brexit — British exit from the European Union — by the statutory deadline of Oct. 31.

Some observers will depict these two events as steps forward for populist politics, personified in the two exotically coifed Anglopshere leaders. President Trump has been saying nice things about Johnson for more than a year now, and Johnson has been praising Trump (and conveniently forgetting disparaging comments he made years ago).

But they’re not really clones. Trump was a real estate developer and a reality TV show host. Johnson worked as a journalist, as editor of the weekly London Spectator at age 35 and as a highly paid columnist for the Telegraph till last Monday. Trump famously doesn’t read books. Johnson has written over 10 of them, including a novel and a biography of Winston Churchill.

Many Johnson critics regard him as a buffoon who wisecracks his way through serious difficulties and masquerades as a P.G. Wodehouse-style befuddled aristocrat. My sense is that he cultivates this persona, complete with references to ancient Greek philosophy, to make what might otherwise be pedestrian politicking distinctive and memorable.

It also bears remembering that Johnson was elected mayor of London in 2008 and re-elected in 2012, as a Conservative in a city that has usually voted Labour; and that the city prospered — and crime dropped — during his years in office. For all his fusty oratory, he supports metropolitan values like gay rights and celebrates the metropolis’ rapidly increasing ethnic diversity.

All of which he considers consistent with his support for Brexit, in the campaign running up to the June 2016 referendum and today. More British citizens voted in that clearly worded referendum than in any other election in the nation’s history, and they approved of leaving the European Union by a solid 52 to 48 percent margin.

As I noted in 2017, Brexit in Britain, like Donald Trump in the United States, sparked a political realignment, with the capital pitted against the countryside; the elites ensconced in the very largest metropolitan areas versus small-town traditionalists and their former partisan opponents in beleaguered mining and manufacturing centers. London (and Scotland) voted 60 percent against Brexit, the rest of England 57 percent in favor.

By endorsing Brexit, the Eton and Oxford graduate Johnson opted for the countryside, just as Trump did, even when riding down an escalator on Fifth Avenue. Globalist elites responded with scorn — until the votes were counted. Then, far from taking defeat in sportsmanlike stride — as Richard Nixon did in 1960, to take just one example — they went to work trying to undermine the legitimacy of the result and reverse it by fair or foul means.

The voters on the winning side were racists, they claimed, voting to suppress people of color, manipulated by crafty Russians, old people resisting the future. In America, they bogged down the Trump administration by blocking appointments and promoting lengthy investigations of far-fetched charges. In Britain, the unelected civil servants on whom Prime Minister Theresa May relied worked with unelected European Union leaders to block Brexit from ever happening.

Some establishment types may really believe that Trump is Hitler and that Brexit will plunge Britain into another Great Depression. Most of them drip with contempt for ordinary citizens and, astonishingly, seem to think it entirely healthy and consistent with democracy to overturn the decision of the voters. They’re sure they’re better than ordinary people.

Those attitudes are unjustified. Johnson’s three top Cabinet appointees are of Muslim, Hindu and Jewish ancestry: Nationalism doesn’t mean white supremacy. He’s looking for advice not from unelected civil servants but, reportedly, from Dominic Commings, mastermind of the 2016 Leave campaign, who has repeatedly outstrategized them.

Politically, Johnson’s in no position to break his promise to deliver Brexit by Oct. 31, with or without an EU agreement. He brushes aside establishment predictions of economic disaster (all wrong so far) and talks of what his “amazing country” will do once freed of undemocratic EU ukases, like its member states’ ban on genetically modified crops. Power is shifting. How far, we shall see.

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