interesting times

The Difference Between Boris Johnson and Donald Trump

Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

So much has happened in the time since I last wrote in this space. And yet so very little. Things are proceeding very, very quickly in these fetid times. And yet, beneath the surface, they are also going very, very slowly.

Let’s start with Britain (I’ll get to the U.S. in my next item). In the U.K., we now have a second Brexit deal negotiated with the E.U., which, unlike the previous one by Theresa May that lost by 230 votes, actually won a preliminary 30-vote majority when the House of Commons took a first look at it this week. (The majority included 19 votes from Labour MPs in Leave districts, mainly in the industrial north.) Woohoo! A breakthrough, surely.

The new deal was achieved by Prime Minister Johnson in Brussels against the odds, (just) in time for the October 31 deadline. It included a big concession to the E.U., redrawing a customs barrier outside the island of Ireland and into the Irish Sea, but also signaled more future trade independence for the U.K., bringing the Tory Brexiteers along. Even Emmanuel Macron was impressed by Boris’s needle-threading: “He may be a colorful character sometimes, but we all are at times. He’s got a temper, but he’s a leader with a real strategic vision. Those who didn’t take him seriously were wrong.”

To top this off, Johnson also offered yesterday to extend the E.U. deadline of October 31 a couple of weeks to get the thing done, without any undue parliamentary rush, prior to a post-Brexit general election on the future on December 12. Win-win, right? Orderly withdrawal from the E.U. is accomplished, but plenty of questions about future trading arrangements with the E.U. or about domestic politics outside of Brexit could be debated and resolved going forward. The impasse of a government without a working majority would also be resolved by a fresh election.

And yet … not. The Labour opposition declared Thursday that they would not support the current withdrawal bill any longer and would abstain in a vote scheduled for Monday on a general election for good measure. It was a subtle message of “fuck you” followed by a clarifying “FUCK YOU!” As of this writing, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has ruled out a new election for December 12 by denying Johnson the two-thirds majority required to dissolve the current Parliament. The Liberal Democrats, for their part, want a do-over of the 2016 referendum entirely before any election so that this time, the voters will give the “right” answer they clearly flubbed the first time. So, back to square one.

It’s enough to make you bang your head against the wall. It’s clear to me now — as it should be to any dispassionate observer — that the pro-Remain parliamentary and media elites in all parties have never had any intention of honoring the result of the 2016 referendum. And they still don’t. They are sabotaging that democratic decision simply because they did not like the result, and they’re too chicken to take that case to the polls. So they’re keeping this zombie minority government in power, while preventing it from achieving its primary goal indefinitely. For all this, in my view, they deserve nothing but contempt.

Look at the record. Every single major Remain supporter has explicitly said in public they would accept the 2016 result and implement some kind of Brexit that a majority of voters supported. But almost none have walked the walk. When Theresa May came up with a deal generous to the E.U. and Remain position, they voted overwhelmingly against it (alongside the Brexit purists). As the deadline approached without a new deal, these same parliamentary elites insisted that the default of crashing out without a deal was unacceptable, and so voted to extend the deadline, not once but twice. But when Boris Johnson shocked everyone by meeting the second deadline and successfully getting a second deal, the Remainers first voted for the bill in principle, covering their asses, and then voted to stall its process through Parliament because they said they needed more time to examine the fine print. Now that they’ve been given more time — surprise! — they don’t want it if they have to face the voters afterward. I give up.

The new official Remainer position is that they will not vote for an election until any risk of “no deal” ever is removed from the table — and since after a successful deal to withdraw, there would have to be at least another year of negotiations with the E.U., which may conceivably break down again and lead to a small risk of no deal, that means no support for any deal or even an election for another year. So the Remainers don’t want to crash out of the E.U., don’t support an orderly exit, don’t support a second referendum (yet), and don’t want an election. What do they want? A repeal of reality, it appears.

The Remain strategy is helpfully laid out by my Remainer chum David Frum here. Basically: Claim the referendum is not dispositive because one side made false claims, and the British people were too stupid/ignorant/bigoted to know what they were voting for. Argue that the Brits have “changed their minds” since and therefore the referendum is now moot and can be ignored. Prevent a general election to resolve the question, because the Tories might win. Wait for enough 2016 voters to die and, at some point, hold another referendum to revoke the first one. David rejoices: “Brexit advocates often use the phrase now or never to convey the urgency they feel. This weekend, the British Parliament decided ‘not now.’” Suddenly, and for the first time since June 2016, ‘never’ looks plausibly like the ultimate outcome.” He’s psyched.

But note the condescension to the majority of British voters inherent in dismissing the 2016 result that way. Note also the slightly misleading formula: David says the British people “have changed their mind about Brexit” in favor of staying. But he’s relying on one poll that asks how voters feel, in hindsight, about their vote in 2016, which gives Remain a small lead that’s been very gradually widening for the least year and a half. Okay. But here’s a series of polls on a much cleaner question (“How would Brits vote if there were another referendum between Leave or Remain now?”), polls which have been run regularly since June 2016.

And, yes, the Brits have changed their minds. Repeatedly. Just before the referendum, polls suggested a Remain win of 50-47. Leave won by 52-48. Just one week after the referendum, Remain was ahead again by 53-47. A year later, Leave was ahead 53-47. A year after that, it was 50-50. Two polls this month show one with a 51-49 lead for Remain and one with 55-45 for Remain.

More to the point, when you ask Brits if they believe that the result of the 2016 referendum should be respected, however they personally voted, a poll last month found the public backing this by a margin of 54 to 25 percent. This doesn’t surprise me. Who doesn’t think the clear, if narrow, result of a binary referendum should be respected? Imagine if you extended the Frum principle that new polling invalidates and instantly revokes previous election results. Trump would have been removed before he was even inaugurated!

Did the Brits, as David implies, ignorantly vote under the illusion that Brexit would entail no sacrifices or economic collapse? Let’s say — for the sake of argument — that they did. So what? Are voters now to be overruled by their more knowledgeable overlords in retrospect? But they didn’t do so blindly anyway. The entire Remain campaign was based on two central assertions: that this was it, a Rubicon, that could never be altered; and that Brexit would be an economic catastrophe from which Britain would never recover. They called it Project Fear. The message was broadcast far and wide, as crudely as possible. It was unmissable. Yet the British people still voted for Brexit in the biggest turnout of any election or referendum in the country’s history. And since the referendum, the widely forecast economic catastrophe has not materialized.

Look: I supported Remain in the Brexit referendum. I even remember as a kid wearing a “Britain in Europe” button to school during the original 1975 referendum campaign. I backed the liberal, pro-E.U. Toryism of David Cameron and George Osborne, and didn’t support a referendum on E.U. membership. I think Britain’s departure from the E.U. will lead to a tangible if manageable loss of future economic growth, hurt industry, stress-test the U.K. as a single entity, and hit the financial sector. I don’t want the U.K. to crash out of the E.U. without a deal, and would do what I could, if I were in Parliament, to prevent it. I can see the arguments for the Remain cause, as they have operated until now. Many Remainers are my friends and in my family. If a referendum were to be held for the first time tomorrow, I’d still vote to Remain.

But, call me crazy, I also believe in abiding by the result of legitimate national, democratic votes. Upholding that principle, even when it goes against our own strong wishes and personal vote, is foundational to liberal democracy. And retroactively nullifying by waiting out a referendum result solely because you lost is unacceptable, period. Consistently bullshitting about your own motives thereafter is contemptible. Preventing a new election in order to keep a zombie government in power, even when it is begging to be put out of its misery, is unprecedented.

Yes, I’ve become radicalized. But anyone who believes in democracy or national sovereignty should be radicalizing every day this anti-democratic stonewalling farce continues.

Pass the deal. Get out of the E.U. already, as vouched for on June 24, 2016. Get a new Parliament, of whatever sort, and a new government of whatever stripe. Respect the majority vote of the past; get a new majority vote to address the future. It’s really not that hard. It’s called practicing democracy. And at some point, the Remainers will have to confront it.

And Then There’s the Republicans

In the U.S., in a somewhat similar fashion, we have a clear breakthrough in the impeachment inquiry: the willingness of several key witnesses in the administration to testify to Congress under oath at length about the president’s high crimes and misdemeanors, in defiance of orders from the top. This week, for example, Bill Taylor, the chargé d’affaires at the U.S. embassy in Kiev, showed up, despite instructions not to, and dotted I’s and crossed T’s. The accounts of his testimony and his opening statement are devastating to any defense of President Trump’s actions in regard to Ukraine. We haven’t seen or read the full testimonies, and maybe there will be wrinkles, but the sheer weight of evidence for an impeachable offense, given the whistle-blower report and the rough phone-call transcript, is now overwhelming, and dispositive.

At the same time, close to 50 percent or so of the country supports impeachment and/or removal — far higher than previous polling for Nixon (until the summer of 1974, when he quit) or Clinton (ever). And the particular nature of the Trump offense — a secret attempt to pressure a foreign government to influence U.S. elections on the president’s behalf — is smack-dab in the center of the high-crime category the Founders were obsessed with. I’ve not been an impeachment fan, even as I have regarded the president as mentally ill and characteristically tyrannical from the get-go. I was long unconvinced by the Russia “collusion/conspiracy” claims, saw impeachment as inapplicable in most cases of executive wrongdoing, and only switched sides this year when evidence of obstruction of justice in the Mueller report became undeniable. But the Ukraine matter? If you were to look up an impeachable offense in a metaphorical dictionary, you’d see Igor Fruman and Lev Parnas as illustrations.

Alexander Hamilton’s core contribution to the impeachment question in the Federalist Papers comes immediately to mind. He sees our core threat, tyranny, as foretold by Plato and Aristotle: “Of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.” And he echoes the Founders’ obsession with what George Washington called “the insidious wiles of foreign influence.” Those two core concerns were fused in Hamilton’s impeachment remedy; and they capture the Trump administration with pinpoint accuracy. No previous impeachment — not Johnson nor Nixon nor Clinton — comes close to being as constitutionally merited as this one.

You could argue that foreign influence is not what it was, and that this weakens the current case. In the late 18th century, the U.S. was a fledgling republic, easily manipulated by great powers like Britain and France. But the internet has empowered foreign governments in manipulating U.S. public opinion, and globalism has effectively subjected much of the U.S. economy to the influence of the techno-communists in Beijing. Foreign influence is back, baby, and more relevant than ever. You could also argue, I suppose, that “abuse of power” is not an impeachable “crime” (as the neck-free former acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker, told Laura Ingraham), or that Trump could shoot Joe Biden dead in a debate and still be immune from prosecution while in office, as the president’s lawyer, William Consovoy, baldly claimed this week.

But that these extreme arguments are being aired at all is proof of the weakness of the president’s underlying constitutional position. So too are thuggish stunts like the 2000 Brooks Brothers riot rerun in Adam Schiff’s SCIF. Ditto Lindsey Graham’s absurd and mendacious pretense that a House impeachment inquiry is the same as a Senate trial, and should always be public, with Trump capable of self-defense. Butters — as I have long called Graham — is a laughable, pathetic, lying fool. The truth is: The GOP’s got nothing to work with. This should be over already — and yet the president still enjoys overwhelming support from his base, faces weak opponents among Democrats, still hovers above 40 percent support, and confronts no single opposition figure capable of making the case against him with the urgency and potency it deserves.

Some part of me retains some hope that a Senate trial will be harder than the Trump-sympathetic GOP now thinks it will be. Yes, impeachment is a political decision and not a legal one. But the broader context of a trial is legal in form. It requires the weighing of evidence and witnesses in a trial to determine guilt, presided over by the Chief Justice. It’s possible to ignore all the evidence in a semi-legal proceeding, but it’s hard to do so in broad daylight, when there seems to be no chink in the case.

If you can’t fight the facts, you’re reduced to promoting the notion that leveraging a congressionally mandated national-security pledge in order to get a foreign leader to dig up dirt on a domestic political opponent is no big whoop. That’s Tucker Carlson’s position — you can’t defend the crime, but it isn’t high enough to remove Trump from office — and it’s the smartest one. But if what Trump has clearly done isn’t a big deal, or a high crime, then you have surely nullified the impeachment clause for the indefinite future. If the clause doesn’t apply to secret quid pro quos with foreign leaders that abuse congressional funds in order to skew the course of a domestic election, what on Earth could it apply to?

If the Senate GOP lets their madman off the hook, all post-Trump presidents will be constitutionally licensed to spend or withhold Congress’ money on whatever they want, for any purpose, including conspiring with a foreign government to influence a U.S. election; and they’ll be able to do so knowing they have total impunity. Heck, if it’s only Trump who knows he can get away with this (and more) again, what sliver of hope do we have for any resistance to full-on tyranny in the executive branch in the next one or five years?

If the Senate GOP wants to exculpate Trump, and nullify any check on executive power outside of elections, they are perfectly capable of it. Mitch McConnell has no principle but short-term power. If they want permanently to alter the checks and balances against executive abuse carefully vested in the impeachment clause, they can. If they want to be a party that views perjury in a civil lawsuit as impeachable but gross, self-serving violations of the rule of law and the Constitution as not, they sure know how to do it. But will they actually go there, when it comes to the crunch? Some tiny vestige in me (and one-in-five odds in the betting markets) suspects they may feel forced to do their constitutional duty in the end.

This isn’t hard. (It’s as easy as respecting the result of a legitimate referendum, as the Remainers should do in the U.K.) It’s just that when you’ve been captured by an authoritarian cult, it seems that way.

But you can escape the cult if you want to, and cut your ties to the lawless, louche demagogue who’s gripping our liberal democracy ever more tightly by the throat. You can set yourselves (and all the rest of us) free.

Is There a Democrat Who Can Win?

Some thoughts on the Democrats — all of which may prove wrong in the end, but hey, let’s have an honest accounting of how things look now. Joe Biden’s strength in the polls remains impressive, but his candidacy is crippled. In the last debate, he was easily the worst performer: confused, addled, over-briefed, and clearly past his expiration date as a pol. Close your eyes and he sounds exactly like Abraham Simpson. His crowds are anemic, his speeches lame, his self-defense as Trump lunged biliously at him and his family a case study in ineffectiveness. This is not a criticism of Biden’s career or character. He’s done his part for decades, and I am deeply fond of him. On the issues, I’d prefer him to most of the rest. He would have won easily in 2016, if he hadn’t been consumed with grief or if the Clintons and Obama hadn’t kneecapped him. But this soufflé will not rise, even as I wish it could.

Sanders has had a heart attack. He came back swinging in the debate and looks fine. But come on — he’s had a heart attack at the age of 78. What happens if he has another one at any point before the election? Why should a party risk that? He’s also an actual socialist, and he hasn’t entertained — let alone engaged with — a new idea in decades. That’s appealing to millennial Marxists who have no memory of the 1970s, but Jeremy Corbyn was also a superstar with the youngsters a while back.

Warren is surging, but she is, I fear — yes, I’ll say it — unelectable. I may be wrong, but by pledging to rip everyone off their current private health insurance, it certainly seems like she has thrown away the core advantage of her side — health security. By floating the notion in the CNN forum that her future Secretary of Education would have to be approved by a transgender 9-year-old boy, she’s placing herself firmly inside a cultural revolution most Americans are deeply uncomfortable with.

And the Trump game plan against her writes itself: She’s a supercilious, smug, know-it-all Massachusetts liberal who reveals contempt for the deplorables the way Clinton did last time. The “first woman of color” to get hired as a professor at Harvard Law School is the stuff that GOP dreams are made on. That any suspicion of the viability of her candidacy will be ascribed entirely to misogyny will only help Trump, the way it did in 2016.

Booker lacks a connection with anyone, and still seems to be campaigning for a Rhodes Scholarship. On paper, he’s perfect. In reality, he comes off as an earnest cyborg from outer space. Harris has revealed herself as a feckless, authoritarian, lying opportunist who treats the Constitution as cavalierly as Trump, but without his excuse of total ignorance. Tulsi is despised by too many Dems to have a hope (I can’t quite figure out the reason for their hatred, but it’s a fact). Klobuchar is a ball of nerves and insecurity who seems to shrink upon exposure. Buttigieg is easily the best debater, and most appealing to independents and a few wavering Republicans, but the big question still hangs over his candidacy: Will more culturally conservative minority voters — not to mention white working-class ones — show up for a gay man in the numbers that Democrats need? The cause for concern is real.

O’Rourke is a woke, moronic bigot, who believes we live in a white-supremacist country, and would happily remove tax exemptions from most traditional churches, synagogues, and mosques, because they still believe in the literal teachings of the Bible or the Koran. Of all the candidates, he’s the only one I actively loathe. Castro is an open-borders globalist panderer dedicated to the vital cause of free abortions for transgender male illegal immigrants. All of them have staked out “left Twitter” positions on immigration, race, and “social justice” that make Obama seem like Steve Bannon in comparison.

The only true bright spot is Andrew Yang — fresh, real, future-oriented, sane, offering actual analyses of automation, trade, and technology that distinguish him from the crowd. Like Buttigieg, I suspect he’d be a superb foil for Trump and could flummox the dictatorial dotard into incoherence and open bigotry. He’s a fascinating character to me. When he’s asked a question, his nearly expressionless, wrinkle-free face, which seems to spring directly from his chest, seems about to offer some canned pabulum, and then almost always responds with a flawless, thoughtful, and entirely relevant, even insightful answer. I’m rooting for him (and Pete), but I’m not delusional.

Yang and “Booty-judge” are the future that possibly has arrived too soon, like Obama in 2007. But neither, alas, has Obama’s aura, emotional intelligence, and natural command. Who even has Bill Clinton’s roguish charm and policy brilliance?

Don’t get me wrong. I’ll vote for anyone, including Warren or Sanders or even the vacuous “Beto” to defeat Trump. We proud human scum will not be distracted from the central task at hand. But let’s be honest: This is a field that has largely wilted upon inspection. For what it’s worth, I suspect Warren will win the nomination and dutifully lose the election just like Mondale, Dukakis, Gore, Kerry, and the second Clinton. She has that quintessential perfume of smug, well-meaning, mediocre doom that Democrats simply cannot resist.

See you next Friday.

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