LONDON — Barring some unfortunate mitigating circumstance—a Paris-style terror attack, a more serious bout of pneumonia, or a particularly egregious polenta recipe contained within John Podesta’s emails— there is an excellent chance that Hillary Clinton will be the next president of the United States. However, one place where this contingency is not viewed with quite as much Nate-Silverish equanimity is post-Brexit England.
Here, I found, the weary liberal has come to do more than doubt every poll and every reassurance of the opinion writer. He now doubts his own ability to decipher what kind of country he is living in and what it is really thinking. Donald Trump, he fears, can still snatch victory from the jaws of choke artistry, and so the liberal’s warning to his transatlantic cousins is this: Be afraid. Be very afraid.
The reasoning, though somewhat tinged with the bitterness of recent experience, is sound.
First there was the all-but-ruled-out defeat of the Labour Party in the 2015 general election, which, under even the awkward leadership of Ed Miliband, was guaranteed every success owing to the perceived resentment toward an austerity economy, a depressed job market and overflowing food banks. Well, that vote returned David Cameron to 10 Downing Street, albeit briefly, and certified the ill-fated referendum on Britain’s membership in the European Union the following year, the result of which was equally jarring to those who might have known better. The “elites” got it wrong twice in a row. Now they’re left sniffing the exhalation of their own herd.
My friend Ben Judah, author of an incredible book on how contemporary London no longer resembles the city in which he grew up (because now that city’s fault-lines zig-zag through class, race and nationality) told me that if it can happen here in the U.K., it can happen there in the USA.
“Both times,” Judah said over lunch in Notting Hill, almost a self-parody of a Remain precinct, “pundits and journalists found themselves stunned at the end of the campaign: all the way along they were commenting on what the polls said, a neck-and-neck liberal advantage. Not what they saw, heard, and felt on the ground, which was a conservative surge. Now in the States I am seeing way too much polls commentary and not enough ground commentary to be comfortable.”
There’s a famous photograph of the morning after Brexit which ran on the front page of the Guardian. It shows a bearded man in Remain HQ who’d clearly been up all night, cradling a bottle of beer at around 5 o’clock in the morning as the “Leave” camp came in ahead. That man is Michael Harris, the publisher of the left-wing journal Little Atoms.
Over a decidedly more felicitous pint at a pub in Whitehall, Harris told me his theory for how Trump wins. It’s the inverse of the American liberal mantra that high voter turnout usually lands a progressive in the White House (or Congress) because now, he says, crowd-sourcing turns back the clock.
“Brexit is a wake-up call for those who still put their faith in pollsters,” he said. “For the first time in a generation, a group of people angry at the pace of globalization went to the polls en masse to stick it to the political class. Many of these people had not voted for decades. Turnout in the EU referendum was 72.2% — the highest turnout in any U.K.-wide election since the general election of 1992.”
Quite apart from the referendum being driven by IMF and World Bank statistics, it was driven by an ardor to do in one stroke what the vital center could not do with decades of policy: deliver a future based on nostalgia. A virtual wall on immigration should go up; money spent on Brussels (or not actually spent, as the case may be) should be spent on the National Health Service and domestic needs; England should be returned to its former independent and sovereign glory, whatever that was before the Poles and Romanians and Pakistanis started arriving in droves.
England had been here before, 100 years ago, when the Liberal Party under H.H. Asquith and Lloyd George committed suicide by, among other things, wedding its electoral fortune to Irish Home Rule, thereby prompting a cynical Tory and Unionist backlash that nearly took the country from constitutional crisis to civil war (it was only rescued from that eventuality by world war).
That backlash, as recounted by George Dangerfield, author of the finest book on that vertiginous period, The Strange Death of Liberal England, took the form of a nervous breakdown. It was “the unconscious rejection of an established security. For nearly a century men had discovered in the cautious phrase, in the respectable gesture, in the considered display of reasonable emotions, a haven against those irrational storms which threatened to sweep through them. And gradually the haven lost its charms; worse still, it lost its peace. Its waters, no longer unruffled by the wind, ceased to reflect, with complacent ease, the settled skies, and untangled stars of accepted behavior and sensible conviction; and men, with a defiance they could not hope to understand, began to put forth upon little excursions into the vast, the dark, the driven seas beyond.”
Since World War II, the vast, dark, and driven seas have been kept more or less at a distance by liberal institutions which, if never quite the havens of prewar imagining, were at least guarantors against drowning. Until they weren’t.
The inheritors of their slow-motion collapse are once more varied radical and reactionary movements, from Spain’s Podemos to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party (a patchwork of Stalinist and Trotskyist influences, whose chances of a general election success even the poll-leery liberal is certain are slim and none) to Andrzej Duda’s Law and Justice Party in Poland to Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France to, indeed, The Donald’s GOP.
All of these forces do have one salient point: their success owes to the great ignored, those who feel cheated by their countries’ establishments and worse, arrogantly dismissed as not having the capacity ever to exact revenge.
“Perhaps unwittingly,” said Padraig Reidy, an Irishman living in London and the editor of Harris’s Little Atoms, “we had bought into [Francis] Fukayama's ‘End of History’ shtick, at least domestically. But very few people watching the U.S. election from here feel confident or complacent about the result. We’ve seen what can happen when you drop your guard.”
If Trump does somehow pull it off, it will be the comeuppance of liberalism’s hubris.