Bret Stephens: Britain’s ominous portent for the Democrats

When Britain flummoxed and flabbergasted the world by voting in 2016 to leave the European Union, it seemed like a one-off: An unexpected gamble by a normally prudent country, but nothing that signified a profound shift beyond the United Kingdom and Europe.

Donald Trump’s election a few months later proved otherwise. Brexit was a portent, not a fluke. The British electorate may have been incautious, but it was ahead of the trend. The desire, however misplaced or ugly, to “take back” control of a country from supercilious political elites was a global phenomenon, not a local event.

Don’t think it can’t happen again, in much the same way.

That’s a lesson Democrats ought to draw, quickly and clearly, from the thumping victory Boris Johnson won for the Conservative Party on Thursday. As recently as September, some left-wing pundits and politicians were glibly writing off Johnson as a “failed prime minister,” peddling a “fantasy” of a renegotiated Brexit and facing “political disgrace” after losing his majority in Parliament.

Today, Johnson has renegotiated Brexit, the Tories have their largest majority since 1987, and Labour has suffered its worst defeat since 1935.

How did he do this? In four ways, each of which has parallels with Trump.

First, Johnson was fortunate in his political foes. He ran against the most avowedly leftist frontbench the Labour Party has put forward since the early 1980s. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn proudly calls himself a “socialist.” He rails against a “rigged system” that supposedly exists for the benefit of a handful of billionaires. His campaign promised free college, dramatic increases in health spending, a hike in the minimum wage, massive infrastructure spending, new taxes on the rich, and a “new green deal.”

Sound familiar? It’s the Warren-Sanders manifesto, only with British pound signs rather than dollar signs attached.

Second, Johnson was faithful to his base. He ran as the candidate of Brexit — not, as Theresa May had, as its reluctant and dutiful custodian, but as its persevering and happy warrior. Brexit wasn’t just about unyoking the U.K. from the EU. It was also a statement of British self-belief, self-reliance and capacity for self-rule.

That meant that the moment Brexit passed, it was both morally wrong and politically dumb to try to reverse the result. The former, because it was an attempt to nullify people’s votes. The latter, because it could only be accomplished by means of complex parliamentary and legalistic maneuvers to get a second referendum — carried out by the people who always claim to know what’s true and right.

If impeachment — which I support as a matter of constitutional duty but fear on political grounds — winds up helping Trump get reelected, it will be for similar reasons. That is, Democrats got so wrapped up in trying to bring the president down by legal and legislative means that they forgot to bring him down by ordinary political ones. The main job of any competent opposition is to fight the next election, not relitigate the past.

Third, Johnson was attuned to the moment. The prime minister is an ideological opportunist, not a purist. This upsets his critics on the right, who dislike some of his big-spending promises. And it confirms the view of his critics on the left, who see his political plasticity as being of a piece with his moral plasticity.

But we live in a moment when many things are fluid and bending. Voters seem comfortable with leaders whose policies defy most of the usual left-right categories, including on matters like moral character or budgetary discipline. What matters more is relatability, reliability and results. Does the candidate get people like me? Will he keep his political promises? And has he achieved something that directly and tangibly benefits me?

This is Trump’s calling card, as it is Johnson’s. Are there equivalent figures on the left in the U.S. or U.K. willing to shake free from their party’s increasingly tightfitting, ideological straitjackets?

Finally, Johnson has benefited from critics whose mode of analysis is that anything and everything he does is dumb, dishonest, wretched and ruinous. Lately, they warn that he will bring about the end of the country itself. Similarly in the United States, some anti-Trump pundits have been forecasting economic decline and doom for three years straight as the economy continues to grow and unemployment plummets.

Bad things can — and, inevitably, will — happen. In the meantime, what we have is a trans-Atlantic case of boys crying wolf. Does it ever occur to the critics that, by constantly inferring or predicting the worst about either man, they make their less-than-worst moments look good, and their good ones seem positively great?

Regular readers of this column know that I have no wish to see Trump reelected (though I am delighted by Corbyn’s drubbing). If they share my wish, they should heed Thursday’s lesson: Like Johnson, Trump is a formidable incumbent. To oppose him with Corbynite candidates and progressive primal screams is to ensure his reelection.

Bret Stephens

Bret Stephens is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.