The day before the U.S. presidential election, Donald Trump declared that the result would be poll-defying “Brexit Plus Plus” election upset.
He was sort of right, in that he pulled off a surprise electoral college victory (although, since Hillary Clinton won the popular vote Mr Trump’s ‘plus plus’ suffix might be said to be inaccurate).
Americans would do well to remember that the surprise ‘Leave’ vote in the UK on 23 June was not the culmination of a chaotic political period, but the beginning of one. The day after the Brexit vote, David Cameron resigned as Prime Minister. Key campaign pledges were immediately and spectacularly disavowed by Leave campaigners, and the opposition Labour Party sank into a period of bitter infighting.
More than anything, it was clear that the people who won the campaign had not actually expected the outcome, and they were obviously unprepared for what might come next. Boris Johnson looked scared and bemused as he gave his victory press conference.
In a bizarre twist, the two leading Leave campaigners in the Conservative party, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, turned on each other, allowing Teresa May to step, with Aesopian ease, into the Premiership.
It was a very weird few weeks, and things are still not really back to normal. Prime Minister May’s coalition is small and shaky and there are obvious divisions within her party, as in the country, over what sort of Brexit the UK should pursue. British politics still has the smell of interregnum in the air, a building humidity before a bigger storm.
The United States, it seems to me, is ripe for this kind of political chaos. Donald Trump surely has scores to settle with those who failed to endorse him, including (perhaps, especially) the most prominent member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI). Vice President-Elect Mike Pence was repeatedly undermined by Trump on the campaign trail. There are also people like Senator John McCain (R-AZ) who was egregiously insulted by Donald Trump during the campaign. Currently aged 80, Senator McCain is unlikely to seek re-election in 2022, and so he is free to pursue his own agenda, rather than one imposed upon him by President Trump.
There will be many other members of the party who, for one reason or another, believe it is in their interests to defy Donald Trump and oppose the direction in which he is taking the party. Furthermore, the Republican electoral coalition is already smaller than the Democrat coalition (witness, again, the fact that Clinton won the popular vote) and demographic trends mean that this problem will only get worse for the GOP. There will be big debates within the party over the direction they take: conflicts between Trump, Congressmen, the ‘base’, and the elites from previous administrations. He may not have the leadership skills, or indeed any interest, in keeping them all unified.
In the UK, there is no agreement, even among those who led and voted for Leave, as to what kind of Brexit should take place. We have already seen examples of a minister saying one thing, only to be contradicted by the Prime Minister. In the USA, Trump’s policy incoherence will quickly cause similar public arguments. Expect congressional leaders to start speaking out of turn on policy issues (immigration reform will be particularly divisive). Watch as an intemperate Trump excoriates his colleagues from the White House presidential podium.
Brexit Plus Plus may sound fun to the President-Elect and his supporters, but for the ruling party it means an extended period of improvisation and contradiction that can quickly alienate the voters.
And what of the opposition party? In the UK, Brexit was the catalyst for an attempt by the members of the parliamentary Labour Party to replace its leader with someone they considered more centrist and electable. A wave of resignations did precede a leadership election, but Jeremy Corbyn prevailed.
In the United States however, Hillary Clinton is no longer the de facto leader of the party, and in any case she was unquestionably a member of the centrist establishment. The Corbyn equivalent in the USA was Bernie Sanders, the Independent and latterly Democratic Senator from Vermont, who was beaten (unfairly, say some) in the primary. It is not unreasonable to assume that there will be some in-fighting between the various factions of the Democratic party too.
Politics is tectonic. Power and influence shift slowly, like the continents. Mountains of power accumulate over many years, and the chasms between the elites and the electorate do not open quick enough for anyone to notice. Brexit and Trump, the ‘political earthquakes’ cause the landscape to shift very quickly. Some are left stranded while others are unexpectedly elevated. The political turmoil we saw in both the Conservative Party and the Labour Party this summer was the result of the elites scrambling to higher ground. The same phenomenon will be visible in the United States. There will be aftershocks. And the cracks that these events have left will be visible for a long time to come.