Where were you when Britain voted to drop out of the European Union?
It isn’t like 9/11. Not exactly a searing shock. Rather one of those queasy moments when you feel the bedrock wobble.
Do you remember? Here’s a hint: June 2016. I was in Washington, D.C., visiting my older son. Getting the news amidst the Roman splendor of our nation’s capital helped seal it in memory.
As did the news itself: Britain was bailing out of the European Union, tired of living in an interconnected modern world where standards might be set somewhere else. Rejecting the EU’s open borders, which meant some foreign person could come to your country, where they don’t belong.
Not that I cared much about British politics. Rather, I saw the vote as tea leaves indicating where our own country was heading come that November.
Or as I wrote on my blog three days later:
“The news filled with the spectacle of a nation submitting to xenophobia and fear, leaping off a cliff at the behest of mavericks who had no plan other than to trash the system and see what happens next. It’s like burning down your home to marvel at the pretty fire. And I couldn’t help but feel: we’re next... It was scary to walk through these wide federal plazas, with their gleaming beige stone buildings. To think, ‘This is the Department of Commerce that Donald Trump will be responsible for. This is the White House where he will live.’
“With the bad news from Britain, as the country, in an act of collective derangement it instantly regretted, voted to be a smaller, more cut off and less prosperous nation, it was easy to suspect we had now entered a world gone mad, that the populist rage that has for so long simmered under our politics had truly exploded. . . Brexit is strike two... Will Trump be strike three?”
He was. Though Trump has not been as bad as feared. When I asked my boy interning in Washington why he wasn’t that alarmed about Trump, he replied, “The institutions are strong.” And they have been, generally. While individual Republican leaders line up to stain themselves with the deathless shame of cowardice, treason and betrayal of every moral value they once flaunted, there has been institutional resistance. By the courts. By the federal bureaucracy. By Congress — the impeachment process distracts Trump from doing greater damage. The media has never been so important.
So if the 2016 Brexit vote was a glimpse into the future, can Thursday’s British election also be considered augury? It’s murkier. Britain has a parliamentary system, remember, so it wasn’t Prime Minister Boris Johnson running against challenger Jeremy Corbyn but Johnson’s Conservatives versus Corbyn’s Labor. Johnson promised to leave the EU by any means necessary. “Get Brexit done!” is his slogan. Corbyn could have led to a reversal of the Brexit vote. Of course it wasn’t as simple as that. Both men are wildly unpopular. Johnson is an erratic, pathological liar on a Trumpian scale.
”He lied about hospitals, nurses, Brexit being done, fact-checking, the economy...,” one British wit tweeted. Johnson “lied to the queen, even lied about lying. And still might win. “
He did win, apparently. Exit polls Thursday evening predicted a landslide for Johnson’s Tories — which has to be encouraging to Trump and his allies. Constant lying and a policy of general national ruin needn’t be political liabilities.
If you are desperate for comfort at this point, I can’t blame you, and do have something to offer: even if Trump wins four more years, and he very well might, with the Johnson victory being one more Bad Sign, the United States still won’t be in the kind of deep trouble that Britain is, with their entire economic system about to plunge into unprecedented disaster. Our country has a raft of problems, but not that one, not yet.
This is only another somber milestone in the slide toward wherever it is we’re going. We are seeing a systemic international failure of political intellect, a rise in nationalism and what can only be called irrationalism.
Johnson’s apparent victory reminds anyone hoping this nightmare might end neatly in November that they are living in a dream world of their own. This will neither be quick nor easy.