Current political strife in the United Kingdom and the United States has been providing a study in political pathology, partly involving parallels between the two countries and partly involving contrasts. A breakdown of party discipline in one case and blind partisanship in the other—opposite phenomena in most respects—have inflicted damage in each country, given the differences in the political system in each. A further question concerns the costs and false promises of narrow, primitive nationalism in both countries. Specifically, when will the economic costs of such nationalism have significant political effects, in which country will such effects be seen first, and how bad will the economic story have to get in either place before the political story changes?
In Britain it’s all about Brexit, of course. Theresa May, having defined her premiership (perhaps unavoidably, given the hand she was dealt) in terms of delivering Brexit, and having failed to deliver because of the inherently unachievable nature of what the Brexiteers had promised, is on the way out. Current betting says that a Brexiteer will succeed May. Friends of Britain should be dismayed that the front-runner is prominent Brexiteer Boris Johnson, whose political strength is based primarily on shallow charisma and who performed dismally as foreign secretary. Also dismaying is that a no-deal Brexit, in which the UK would simply crash out of the European Union without a new trade agreement, has become a significant possibility. If a no-deal Brexit were to occur, the economic consequences would be severe in Britain (and less extreme, but still negative, on the European continent).
The exact political consequences would be difficult to game out, given how the Brexit issue has created divisions within, and not just between, the major British parties. But once Britons feel the full economic consequences, the Conservative Party might be discredited and handicapped for a generation. Any political reincarnations of Nigel Farage—currently flying high after his storefront Brexit Party’s success in the recent elections for the European Parliament—might be relegated back to a fringe inhabited by, in the words of former Prime Minister David Cameron, “fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists.”
A dominant political story line in the United States continues to be the 40 percent or so of the citizenry sticking with Donald Trump no matter how outrageous his conduct may be in the eyes of the other 60 percent. The president has going for him party loyalty within what is now the Trumpist Republican Party, as well as the continued appeal to much of the electorate of his xenophobic and other rhetorical themes. There also is his administration’s and his party’s reverse Keynesian economic policy, which, however much it weakens the available fiscal tools once the next recession hits, is keeping the longest ever economic expansion going a bit longer.
In foreign policy, some of the consequences of narrow nationalism are already quite visible, in the form of ill will within traditional alliances, avoidable crises in the Middle East, and more isolation than the United States has felt for decades. But the historical pattern in American politics has been that relations abroad are less politically consequential than economics at home.
Trump’s trade war is a different matter. Here there is some of the same story of political inertia and seemingly immovable political tribes, exemplified by Midwestern soybean farmers who have lost much of their market because of the trade war but so far are sticking with the president they voted for (and are partly bought off with the administration’s welfare payments to farmers). But the costs to Americans of the trade war are piling up. Trump’s apparent view of tariffs as a long-term good rather than a short-term bargaining tactic suggests that the costs may continue to pile up. It is plausible that at some point the costs will be sufficient to overwhelm the political inertia.
In both the United Kingdom and the United States, the political opposition’s mishandling of relevant issues has helped those in power. In Britain, the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, not only is a left-wing specter who has scared even rebel Conservatives away from anything that risks an early general election, but also is a Euroskeptic who has waffled on Brexit. It was only this week, after Labour’s losses in the European Parliament elections, that Corbyn finally surrendered to pressures within his party to express support for a second Brexit referendum. In the United States, anti-free-trade tendencies within the Democratic Party have inhibited straight talk about the trade war. Recall Hillary Clinton’s flip-flopping about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, continued membership in which would have facilitated a more effective multilateral way of addressing China’s predatory trade practices than Trump’s unilateral approach.
Political consequences are likely to flow from the economic damage more quickly and markedly in the United Kingdom than in the United States. One reason is the sudden and severe nature of the damage if a no-deal Brexit comes to pass. Another reason is that, even though Britain is no stranger to political chicanery, in the UK there still is general respect for truth and for accountability when lies are told, including lies about Brexit. In contrast, repeated promotion of already disproven falsehoods has become a standard part of Donald Trump’s world, in which down is up, non-exoneration is exoneration, tariffs paid by importers are tariffs paid by exporters, and trade wars in which everyone loses are trade wars that are easy to win.
Paul R. Pillar is a contributing editor at the National Interest and the author of Why America Misunderstands the World.