interesting times

Did Trump Just Help Stop Brexit?

He may have unintentionally done Theresa May a favor. Photo: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Can Brexit still be stopped? I gave up on that possibility a long time ago, but politics is fickle, and contemporary politics is full of shocks. And I’d say that the odds of pulling back from the brink, still low, measurably improved this past week. I know that sounds unlikely given the political chaos in London, and Donald Trump’s explosive intervention in the Sun tabloid last night, but bear with me. It’s precisely the chaos and the president that might offer hope.

In fact, last week was the first time I began, perhaps foolishly, to suspect some method in Theresa May’s blithering badness. To see why, it’s worth remembering that May was always a centrist Tory, devoid of ideas or inspiration, but diligent, earnest, competent and, ahem, persistent. She’s not an ideologue. She had a reputation for steeliness and a mastery of her brief in her long stint at the Home Office, which oversees immigration, policing, counterterrorism, and other domestic policy. And she was long pragmatically in favor of remaining in the European Union, indeed voted to remain, even if she kept relatively quiet about it.

Since the referendum, she has never publicly disavowed her previous pro-E.U. position, even though the press has tried to coax her several times. And the only reason she ended up prime minister after the Brexit decision at all is because, after David Cameron quit, the candidates ahead of her to replace him, chief Brexiteers Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, knifed each other in the back and front so comprehensively that they both lost support. May emerged as the least objectionable alternative. So she became prime minister by default to execute a policy she didn’t believe in.

This was, as she understood, easier said than done. The country was deeply and evenly split, 52–48. The potential shift, if sudden and severe, could devastate Britain’s economy, at least in the short term, and arguably for much longer, as well as effectively end Britain’s status as a global power. Her own party had only a small majority in the Parliament, narrowing her space to maneuver even farther, and was itself deeply split over the form Brexit should take. And so she thought her best bet last year would be to throw the dice, call an election, and try to get a hefty mandate and a much bigger parliamentary majority that would give her the flexibility she needed at home, and the leverage she wanted with the E.U. This wasn’t a crazy idea. She was 20 points ahead in the polls, at the time.

But it wasn’t to be. As we all discovered, she was a crap campaigner and in the end, the Tories lost their majority altogether. It seems to me that a hard Brexit effectively died that day. May didn’t have the popular mandate or the parliamentary votes to get what the right of her party demanded.

But she still needed the Brexiteer Tories in order to pass anything in the Commons, because they accounted for the bulk of her parliamentary votes, and so she played for time, trying to consolidate her much-weakened leadership. She let the Brexiteers vent and posture and threaten and slowly blow themselves out, as the clock ticked forward. With only nine months now to go until Article 50 kicks Britain out of the E.U., with the country still deeply divided, big business still terrified, and without any actual final negotiation with the E.U. at all, she finally pushed and shoved her cabinet into backing a very soft Brexit at Chequers, the prime minister’s country estate, last weekend.

They all signed up for it, including Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary. The “Chequers Deal” meant pursuing Brexit but effectively also remaining in the customs union, and in much of the single market. Brexit In Name Only — yes, it’s BRINO! — was suddenly the official government position. Britain would still abide by most E.U. regulations and laws, it would even be subject to the European Court in some respects, but, being outside the E.U. proper, would have no say in any of it.

No wonder Boris Johnson called the policy an unpolishable turd and a form of “vassalage” before quitting with his usual, cynical flourish on Monday. On Sunday night, Britain’s chief cabinet negotiator with the E.U., David Davis, had also resigned because he could not support the compromise. The Tories’ momentary unity on the subject, painfully achieved only two years since Brexit, lasted two days. The hard Brexit faction in the House began making insurrectionary noises; Westminster went febrile; the chance of a Tory Party coup against May was on everyone’s mind; further resignations were expected. The Tory press went apeshit. The Telegraph asked: “Is Theresa May Guilty of Treason?” It seemed like another nadir for the unfortunate prime minister.

But she didn’t seem so gloomy this week. I watched her in the House of Commons on Monday after her two cabinet heavyweights quit. And far from seeming beleaguered, she actually came across as remarkably upbeat, almost liberated, a twinkle in her eye. She swiftly replaced the Brexit quitters in her cabinet, rallied the rest around her, said she’d fight any rival for the leadership — and the Brexiteers responded by … fighting among themselves. Should they try to end her career? Should they shut up and go along with their own prime minister for a while? Would they risk bringing down the government and seeing the most left-wing Labour Party in history win a new election? Were any of them viable as future leaders who could replace her? No, no, no, and no.

Within days, it was quite clear the hard-Brexiteers were far too divided to launch a putsch, and no one had the support or the guts to bring her down. Johnson’s reputation even among the Tories is far from what it was; Davis didn’t go in for the kill; and the other leading Brexiteer, Michael Gove, firmly backed May. Advantage Theresa.

The Brexiteers’ next gambit was nihilistically lashing out, by using Trump to piss all over May’s compromise, which he duly did, the day after behaving like someone on PCP at the NATO summit. “I would have done [Brexit] much differently. I actually told Theresa May how to do it, but she didn’t listen to me,” he told the Murdoch-owned Sun, adding that any new trade deal with the U.S. would be off the table if May got her way. He also went on to tout Boris Johnson as a potential alternative prime minister. And this all spilled out at the very moment May was pleading with Trump at the dinner at Blenheim Palace to give her a new trade deal to ease the pain of leaving the E.U. It was a brutal and unprecedented attack on a sitting prime minister as she was actually hosting the American president for a visit. It was a knee-capping.

It was also, in my immediate view, a serious Brexiteer blunder. Trump is despised in Britain, as he is across Europe. His endorsement of the Brexiteers at this critical moment is humiliating for May but potentially a boon for her as well. If Donald Trump is now the face of Brexit in Britain, Brexit is in trouble. And Brits will not take kindly to their own prime minister being dictated to and humiliated by an American president, as he lands on British soil. That he is also touting Boris will only deepen the reaction.

The joke, however, is that May’s final have-our-cake-and-eat-it-too compromise is not just unpalatable to Trump; it remains unacceptable to the E.U. (they’ve already said no countless times), unpopular at home (only 13 percent support it) and couldn’t get a majority in the Commons anyway. And so the real endgame comes into sight. Britain faces the prospect of the worst of all worlds Brexit — a staggering, chaotic, and catastrophic departure from the E.U. with massive collateral damage, an outcome now endorsed by a loathed American president.

Am I exaggerating? Among the immediate doomsday possibilities the government itself is worried about in a crash exit are the effective, immediate collapse of the port of Dover — grinding trade to a halt — and the dispatch of thousands of electricity generators on barges in the Irish Sea to keep Northern Ireland’s lights on, because the province’s ability to share a single electricity market with the whole island of Ireland would end with an E.U. exit. Northern Ireland itself could explode in sectarian violence again if a hard border is erected between north and south, as it would have to be. Scotland would move toward independence. Critical shortages of food, fuel, and medicine would open up within two weeks, by the government’s own estimation. The military would have to be deployed to ensure transportation of essentials. Stocks and the pound would plummet. A steep recession at home, and maybe also abroad, could follow. It would be one of the most harmful things a democratic country ever did to itself, or to its neighbors.

So what happens when all this keeps coming closer and closer? Who knows? But with parliament deadlocked and the E.U. implacable, a simple solution could present itself as the only way out for a Tory Party desperate to keep Labour out of power: The transition period could be extended, and a second referendum called. On the ballot this time would be the two actual, non-fantasy options: a brutal exit, or remaining in the E.U.

This wouldn’t be a referendum to undo the first one; it would be to clarify it, after the actual, tangible, non-fantasy options are available. People voted for Brexit with no one actually knowing what kind of Brexit, or any clear idea of what it would entail, and many voters were confused about the intricacies. Two years later, and the confusion is even deeper, and the divide greater.

I don’t know what the result of such a second referendum would be, but I know that it is the only way not to permanently divide and embitter the country, and to end the debate for good. I suspect that a doomsday Brexit would concentrate the mind; and that sticking with the status quo, after the last two chaotic years, might seem a little more enticing that it once did. In that scenario, Brexit may — just may — be reversed by the people. That’s my hope anyway. Some small part of me wonders whether it isn’t Theresa May’s hope as well.

U.S. Democracy’s Hastening Demise

A small update on the dynamic nature of democratic collapse into tyranny, as we reel from Trump’s week abroad. It is never a straight or gradual line. And it is often an accelerating one. Tyrants respond to their early successes not by resting on their laurels but by constantly upping the ante more and more, purging the disloyal, and forcing the loyal to submit to more and more ludicrous positions. Tyrants’ claims to power get progressively more grandiose, their fantasies more delusional, their follies more transparent, as their self-confidence expands. They never moderate. And with Trump, all of this is self-evident, textbook, and getting worse every day. For those with eyes to see, we have the forms of democracy, but it is the strongman who now rules us. We are putty in his hands.

In the last few weeks, Trump’s outright lies seem to be more frequent and he repeats them ever more shamelessly. They are now pure expressions of power, open demonstrations that his followers will accept anything he says, obey anything he commands, abandon any belief that he opposes. This is not representative democracy; it’s submission to a king. It’s not just an attack on the bedrock American principle of self-government; it’s a determination to extinguish it. And it is more ascendant now than at any time since the inauguration.

The fantasies now dominate foreign policy as never before. Trump keeps insisting, for example, that there is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea, that he has solved the problem, that Kim is embarking on total nuclear disarmament, and that he deserves a medal for this spectacular achievement, which somehow eluded every previous president. He says that 200 MIA bodies have been returned to the U.S. Yesterday, Trump tweeted out a letter from Kim lavishing praise on him, as evidence that his delusion is reality. But the letter was dated July 6, just as Pyongyang was humiliating Pompeo on his recent trip. And it was dated before the North Koreans were a no-show at the first scheduled talks on POW remains. No remains have been returned, even as the president says 200 have. This is now the insane world we live in.

With NATO, more fantasies. He suddenly demanded that NATO allies meet the standard of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense by next January, as opposed to the agreed date of 2024. He knows that’s impossible but demanded it nonetheless. Then he upped the ante, demanding they spend 4 percent of GDP on defense — more than the U.S. does. And in the process, he threatened to walk out of NATO altogether, effectively ending the trust essential to sustain the alliance. As Bob Kaplan notes, “These are not negotiating tactics. They are the tactics of someone who does not want a deal.” More to the point, they are tactics of someone who wants to vandalize the international system created and backed by America for decades, because he feels like it and because he can. The cherry on the top was the trashing of the special relationship with the U.K. By intervening so crudely into domestic politics, in a way that will lead to nothing but more strife, he has broken the trust and respect the alliance once took for granted.

And what’s so notable about this wanton vandalism and recklessness is that Trump knows he can get away with it easily. All that matters in the GOP is fealty to the cult-leader. He has done things in foreign policy — allying with the Kremlin against Western Europe, launching an impulsive trade war against allies and rivals, assaulting NATO, boosting foul dictators for nothing in return — that the Republican Party would crucify any Democratic president for. And still they worship.

Free trade, NATO, steadfast resistance to totalitarian regimes like North Korea, suspicion of the Kremlin, and support for law enforcement, including the FBI and CIA, were all nonnegotiable elements of GOP policy only two years ago. They’re all gone now. How’s that for authoritarian power? And there is almost no congressional Republican pushback, and fewer and fewer conservative critics. Even on trade, where it is abundantly clear that the Congress has the sole constitutional authority to act, apart from national security emergencies, there is no resistance to strongman rule in this, our very stark non-emergency. The House Speaker, Paul Ryan, even explained this week that because the president will not sign a bill that reclaims congressional control of trade, it can’t become law. It is as if the veto-override and an equal branch of government didn’t exist! Which in reality, of course, they no longer do. Increasingly, the U.S. Congress looks like the Russian Duma in the early years of Putin: a Potemkin façade as pointless as it is despised, a rubber stamp for whomever the president wants to advance and any measure he wants to sign.

And what will be left to restrain him once the judiciary has been filled with those who worship executive power and believe, like Brett Kavanaugh, that the president is effectively above the law while in office, except for impeachment, and that the special counsel law is unconstitutional? Trump has already decimated the credibility of the press. He even wins Twitter. And what happens with tyrants like Trump is that the more power they get, the more infuriated they become with the smaller restraints that remain. Trump knows now that he can survive anything the law and the Constitution can throw at him, because his cultlike grip on 40 percent of the country is total. And if you believe that a character like this, as his power grows, will ever voluntarily relinquish it, you are, it seems to me, missing the core predicament we are in.

We have become numb to this. We still believe, despite the mounting evidence to the contrary, that America will somehow never become Turkey or Hungary or Russia or China. But without a huge wave in the midterms that can halt this slide, it could be only a matter of time.

The Worst Form of Affirmative Action

I’ve long believed that affirmative action is unjust, immoral, and racist. Open discrimination with racial bias is always poisonous and when it comes to access to critical institutions of higher learning, it’s a piece of social engineering that has been extended way past its expiration date.

I’m talking, of course, about legacy admissions: the open discrimination that favors the dumb rich over the bright poor and wealthy whites over the brown and black poor, as well as the permanently assaulted Asian-Americans. It’s how Jared Kushner — the dimmest of dim bulbs — walks around with a Harvard degree, thereby devaluing everyone else’s. Because his dad went there first and threw in what was effectively a bribe of an alleged $2.5 million.

ProPublica reports: “Overall, across six years, Harvard accepted 33.6 percent of legacy applicants, versus 5.9 percent of non-legacies, according to Duke economist Peter Arcidiacono, an expert witness for Students for Fair Admissions, the plaintiff challenging Harvard’s affirmative action policies.” This is therefore not a minor injustice; it’s a major scandal. And it has a manifest racial tilt: over a fifth of accepted white candidates are legacy admissions, recipients of a de facto white affirmative action program. In the 2019 class, 11.6 percent of incoming students are white legacy, more than the entire 11 percent who are African-American. It’s a boost that exceeds that given to Hispanics, Native Americans, and the poor. It’s giving the actual super-privileged more privilege, while narrowing the spaces available for truly deserving applicants.

Of course, I take the terribly naïve view that those most gifted intellectually should get into the best colleges, and that test scores are the most objective measure, with some credit for extracurriculars and personality. But if you hold this view, and oppose the use of race as an admissions tool, you simply have to concede that using money and family is just as noxious. I’d go further and make any abolition of racial affirmative action contingent upon the simultaneous abolition of legacy admissions. And I have no doubt that the places freed up could well increase minority representation in a way that requires no engineering, condescension, or left-racism.

If race-based affirmative action is to be abandoned — and it sure might with the new shape of the Supreme Court — it seems to me that conservatives, liberals, and even the left should unite, for once, against actual, tangible privilege and injustice. The Ivy League can take the financial hit, it seems to me. And a small effort to weaken our increasingly deep caste system in America in favor of meritocracy would be a huge benefit for us all. Plus: no more Kushners. What’s not to like?

See you next Friday.

Did Trump Just Help Stop Brexit?