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By Jonathan Coe,
The New York Times,
30 January 2017

Is Donald Trump "Mr. Brexit"?

London. "They call me Mr. Brexit over there," President Trump claimed of Britain, four long months ago - and of all the new president`s bizarre remarks, this one strikes me as being among the very strangest. I can honestly say that in the whole of 2016, after taking part in many, many conversations on political subjects, I have not heard a single person on my side of the Atlantic using that phrase to describe Mr. Trump. I can categorically assure American readers, in other words, that we do not, never have and never will refer to Donald J. Trump as Mr. Brexit.

No doubt he was, in his usual incoherent, self-aggrandizing way, merely drawing attention to parallels between his surprise campaign and Britain`s populist-fueled decision to leave the European Union: In both cases, so the received wisdom goes, simmering resentment among a forgotten, disparaged section of the public was stirred up by canny populists and visited defeat and humiliation on the complacent, smug political establishment.

Mr. Trump has continued to press that received wisdom in office - among other things, by hosting Prime Minister Theresa May in Washington on Friday, one of his first face-to-face meetings with a foreign leader.

And yet, to quote the English novelist Henry Fielding, this is "a very wholesome and comfortable doctrine, to which we have but one objection, namely, that it is not true." In the case of Brexit, nonetheless, that "doctrine" has been driven home relentlessly for the last seven months by newspaper barons like Rupert Murdoch, the Barclay brothers (proprietors of The Daily Telegraph) and Paul Dacre (editor of The Daily Mail), whose outlets insist that the Brexit vote represents the "will of the people." This narrative frames the slender (51.9 percent to 48.1 percent) majority as an "overwhelming" victory, and brands dissenters as sore-loser "Remoaners."

At times the rhetoric has consequences. When a principled private citizen, Gina Miller, mounted a legal challenge against the government`s intention to implement Brexit without further consulting Parliament, she was forced to hire round-the-clock protection, while the judges who ruled in her favor were named and shamed as "enemies of the people" by The Daily Mail.

In the public sphere, then, one of Brexit`s immediate effects has been a discourse that insists on pitting the "elites" against "the people," even though nobody is able to define what either term means. For those on the right, elitism has nothing to do with wealth, because President Trump, his billionaire cabinet and his multibillionaire backers are on the side of the "people" and have won their victory precisely because they are against the elites, while in the British media world, Mr. Murdoch, the Barclays and Mr. Dacre, despite being insanely powerful, can also not be counted among the elites because they are constantly attacking them on the people`s behalf.

On the other hand, politicians from the center left to the center right, writers, media personalities, academics and experts of every hue are all considered emphatically part of the elite because they imagine, by dint of their presumed expertise or their public profiles, that they know better than the people over whom they sit in permanent judgment.

In other words, the war between the Brexiters and the Remainers, just like the war between President Trump and his opponents, is not a question of the people versus the elites, but the good old-fashioned fight between financial and cultural elites, with "the people" as a football being kicked between them, with about as much regard for the people`s feelings and interests.

And while the right in Britain has continued - and no doubt Republicans in America will continue - to push the false narrative of a landslide victory and a huge people`s movement, there is an alternative narrative that liberals will find equally alluring. This is the one that whispers the attractive lie that, while the Brexit vote and the Trump victory represent shocking temporary upheavals, everything will soon rebalance itself. That President Trump will mend his ways and behave decently in office (that one is beginning to unravel pretty quickly); that Brexit, being a clear recipe for economic damage at home and diminished status abroad, will soon be abandoned, or watered down beyond recognition, by a Parliament and a public that slowly come back to their senses.

This is a particularly seductive fantasy and one that we in Britain have been flirting with for several months, facilitated by the government`s chaotic approach to Brexit. Mrs. May, who, let`s not forget, was a low-key supporter of the Remain campaign until she got herself appointed prime minister, spent most of her first few months showing little sign of being able to reconcile the competing demands of the Brexiters.

On Jan. 19, however, she got her act together and gave a keynote speech that set out her vision for leaving the European Union. She delivered the speech, tellingly, not in the House of Commons, but to an audience of reporters and European ambassadors, at the very lectern where Margaret Thatcher, back in 1988, trumpeted Britain`s new membership of the same single market from which Mrs. May is now determined to divorce us.

Mrs. May seems to have done it out of terror, above all, of those media barons and their "will of the people" narrative, and was duly rewarded with a Daily Mail front-page cartoon that showed her gazing out belligerently from beneath a Union Jack, handbag at the ready. Mrs. May is hoping, we must presume, that she has appeased those who will go to any lengths to prevent some tens of thousands of European migrants from entering Britain, and in order to reinstate British "sovereignty" - something that, to most of us, is an entirely abstract idea, but apparently now the one that drives all our policy.

Meanwhile, in a magnificent feat of doublespeak, Mrs. May announced that this bizarre, insular, almost pathological act of self-harm marked the birth of "Global Britain," a glimmering new era of dynamic trade deals, the first of which she has just traveled to Washington to dangle in front of President Trump, the arch-protectionist. Many fine words about the "special relationship" were exchanged, but on the whole her Washington adventure has left the impression of a country that, rather than having "taken back control" (to quote the Leave campaign`s tedious but effective mantra), is now in a distinctly weak negotiating position thanks to her newly minted commitment to the hardest of Brexits.

And so the Remainers` own last, consoling narrative has pretty much withered and curled in on itself, and we realize that Mrs. May, so recently considered a moderate pro-European, will no longer take any account of the views of the 48 percent who voted not to have their rights as European citizens snatched from under them. This is the dream of the far-right U.K. Independence Party - a tiny, shambolic party that has somehow succeeded in hijacking and redirecting government policy on the most important issue facing Britain in the last half-century (and one that, it seems more and more likely, will lead to the breakup of Britain itself).

The country has sleepwalked, in other words, into a nightmare situation in which a crude and binary democratic exercise, far from reflecting the unified will of the people, has ended up allowing a minority of extremists and obsessives to steer the ship of state. Even if we don`t call Mr. Trump "Mr. Brexit," perhaps there are some parallels with America`s predicament after all.


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