Brexit Should Be a Good Sign for American Conservatives (But It Won’t Be)

 

In the wake of the Brexit vote, it is natural to consider what the populist victory — unexpected by elite officials and opinionmakers — might mean for elections elsewhere. Does polling underestimate Donald Trump’s true level of support? Is Trump a US equivalent of Boris Johnson? Will nationalist movements on the European continent be able to make headway too?

Certainly there are similarities, lessons, and areas of overlap. However, I believe those areas of overlap are insufficient in a critical way. The vote for UK sovereignty hinged on two separate questions: 1) Does the European Union make decisions that are good for the UK? and 2) Should the EU make decisions for the UK? Most of us at Ricochet might consider those questions indistinguishable, but the distinction is important. Some UK voters didn’t mind belonging to the EU as long as the UK continued to benefit. Others objected on principle to ceding decisions to Brussels. These are both forms of populism, but are founded on different sets of values. For years, the UK Independence Party argued against tighter integration on the basis of constitutional nationalism, and could garner only limited support. The success of the Leave movement is that its leaders formed an electoral coalition of both the pragmatic nationalists and the constitutional nationalists.

The issue that catalyzed support for Leave was the migrant crisis. As long as the EU regulated local economies consistent with what most people wanted, the loss of sovereignty was largely a theoretical proposition for them. But when EU elites coupled fecklessness with a willingness to supplant local culture with a foreign one, Leave synthesized a compelling dual argument: that UK sovereignty was imperative whether you care most about ends or means, whether you care about procedure or competence.

So does Brexit presage populist success elsewhere? For better or worse, I think it does not. No other populist movement appears to understand the importance of having both flavors of nationalism, the constitutional along with the pragmatic.

Consider Europe. Its nationalist parties continue to make pragmatic arguments. That is, they appear to oppose greater union on the grounds that Brussels is failing their respective countries. They do not, however, advocate for the principles of subsidiarity, less regulation, greater economic liberty, or broad individual freedom. No doubt, nationalist parties in Germany, France, and elsewhere are gaining some support as disillusioned citizens see the EU fail in real time. However, their support is bounded above as long as most voters share Brussels’ goals — including support (at least in theory) for the resettlement of migrants — and believe in the legitimacy of the EU’s authority. In fact, continental nationalists may not even have a play here; I see little evidence that there is much of a European constituency for the principled case that voters should chafe at having important decisions made for them by faraway politicians from other countries.

In the US, fortunately, there is such a constituency of constitutionalists. However, Trump’s candidacy is exclusively an appeal to pragmatic nationalism. His outspoken objections to illegal immigration have not been paired with an argument for limited and constitutional government. He does not express opposition to centralization or extraconstitutional measures, as long as a national government enacts policies he agrees with. So, although Trump has built support with his agenda, he’s been unable to consolidate a winning nationalist coalition. His support hovers at 40 percent in most national polls.

This is a tragic missed opportunity. The GOP could have done as the Leave camp did, and fused pragmatic and constitutional nationalisms into a winning populism. Instead, its voters selected a candidate who supports the former and opposes the latter, with the likely result that — as on the European continent — victory will continue to accrue to the centralizers and internationalists.

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  1. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    France is the exception to your last argument. Look there & nowhere else to see a serious change in direction for the EU.

    • #1
  2. Son of Spengler Contributor
    Son of Spengler
    @SonofSpengler

    Titus Techera:France is the exception to your last argument. Look there & nowhere else to see a serious change in direction for the EU.

    Would you please elaborate?

    • #2
  3. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Son of Spengler:

    Titus Techera:France is the exception to your last argument. Look there & nowhere else to see a serious change in direction for the EU.

    Would you please elaborate?

    It would be my pleasure, but I can’t spare the time for anything but:

    1. The French are the only great nation not cowed.
    2. There are populist movements that assert publicly a French identity over-against the EU, without threatening to leave or what have you. If anyone makes sense of their claims, that’s the natural leadership of the EU.
    3. Germany is to the EU what Coolidge is to conservatism. That’s not a compliment…
    4. The former & wannabe-future president just started his most recent speech with an appeal to Clovis. A Merovingian revival? Not really. He also called France a land of cathedrals. Nobody goes to church on a weekly basis in France. I’m not sure it’s 5% of the population! But there is a deep truth to what the man is saying. The French are willing to hear about what makes them French. A vocation to lead is obvious there…
    5. The socialist turn of 2012 seems exhausted. France has neither a German grand coalition, past or present, nor reprieve from these haunting images–it’s something serious or the foolishness of the Front ideas.
    • #3
  4. skipsul Inactive
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    Son of Spengler: This is a tragic missed opportunity. The GOP could have done as the Leave camp did, and fused pragmatic and constitutional nationalisms into a winning populism. Instead, its voters selected a candidate who supports the former and opposes the latter — with the likely result that, as on the European continent, victory will continue to accrue to the centralizers and internationalists.

    The problem is that no candidate (and by this I especially include Cruz) articulated truly constitutional nationalism in a form that anyone could emotionally grasp.  We had, instead, the baggage of Romney’s 2012 run where he ran a “business friendly” re-regulator, or Cruz’s pseudo-religious Constitutional worship, which was unaccompanied by anything into which people could sink their teeth.  It was a “Save America!” type of plea.

    I’ve long maintained that a candidate who ran on a brutally honest Return to Law and Order campaign, or a “get the bureaucrats off our backs” campaign would have been far more successful, and it would have actually been a form of constitutional populism.

    • #4
  5. livingthehighlife Inactive
    livingthehighlife
    @livingthehighlife

    skipsul: I’ve long maintained that a candidate who ran on a brutally honest Return to Law and Order campaign, or a “get the bureaucrats off our backs” campaign would have been far more successful, and it would have actually been a form of constitutional populism.

    I fully agree.  It works in some states, which is partially the reason why the GOP has come to dominate the state legislatures and governorships.

    But why the [expletive] won’t a presidential candidate try?

    • #5
  6. Old Bathos Moderator
    Old Bathos
    @OldBathos

    The class warfare lines are drawn almost identically.  The one-world toffs in the UK and the US both openly despise those who like their national heritage and who don’t like the changes wrought by globalism, political correctness and microregulation and the normals more openly hate them back.

    The Brexit vote was unique in that it was entirely separate from parties.  The major parties usually tend to blur issues like immigration, government spending and regulatory reform because the overlap of interests of their respective coalitions.  In this instance their was a chance for a clean vote.

    The only significance of Brexit is that the resentment against the authors of the status quo is wide and deep and a skillful political leader with vision could have a great opportunity for a smashing win.  Too bad nobody like that is running.

    • #6
  7. skipsul Inactive
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    livingthehighlife:

    skipsul: I’ve long maintained that a candidate who ran on a brutally honest Return to Law and Order campaign, or a “get the bureaucrats off our backs” campaign would have been far more successful, and it would have actually been a form of constitutional populism.

    I fully agree. It works in some states, which is partially the reason why the GOP has come to dominate the state legislatures and governorships.

    But why the [expletive] won’t a presidential candidate try?

    People here like to cite Reagan all the time as the paragon of X or Y when it comes to campaigning, being presidential, governing, etc.  (I’m starting to think of it like they’re keeping some sort of Reagan totem that they rub for good look.)

    But what they consistently miss is this: he actually campaigned as if he wanted to win the whole country, and that meant that his messaging was geared towards things like law and order.  No other candidate actually used the joke about “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help you!” to get to just why Americans were uneasy.  Aside from beating the USSR, the only other real campaign platform was a mix of just governance and getting the state off of people’s backs.  Sure, tax reform was a major part of that, but it was a means, not an end, and this has been forgotten.

    • #7
  8. Valiuth Inactive
    Valiuth
    @Valiuth

    I think the comparisons to America and the EU are overwrought. Under any sane rubric of conservatism there is a place for the Federal Government especially in the areas of regulating trade, the military, and managing the currency. The debate is about how these things are to be done. Thus the very things that propelled the English to reject the EU are exactly the things that “Washington” is supposed to be in charge of in the US.

    A better analogy between the US and EU would be if the UK vote was one meant to alter the policies and leadership of the EU rather than break away from it.

    • #8
  9. TG Thatcher
    TG
    @TG

    Well stated, SoS.

    • #9
  10. Locke On Member
    Locke On
    @LockeOn

    Useful analysis.  This should be on the main feed.

    • #10
  11. Tom Meyer, Ed. Contributor
    Tom Meyer, Ed.
    @tommeyer

    Son of Spengler:

    This is a tragic missed opportunity. The GOP could have done as the Leave camp did, and fused pragmatic and constitutional nationalisms into a winning populism. Instead, its voters selected a candidate who supports the former and opposes the latter, with the likely result that — as on the European continent — victory will continue to accrue to the centralizers and internationalists.

    I wish I had something to add, but I do not. Superb.

    • #11
  12. Umbra Fractus Inactive
    Umbra Fractus
    @UmbraFractus

    skipsul: But what they consistently miss is this: he actually campaigned as if he wanted to win the whole country, and that meant that his messaging was geared towards things like law and order. No other candidate actually used the joke about “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help you!” to get to just why Americans were uneasy. Aside from beating the USSR, the only other real campaign platform was a mix of just governance and getting the state off of people’s backs. Sure, tax reform was a major part of that, but it was a means, not an end, and this has been forgotten.

    The problem is there’s a not insignificant part of the conservative base who reacts to, “campaign[ing] as if he want[s] to win the whole country,” by declaring the candidate a useless squish who doesn’t want to fight.

    • #12
  13. Umbra Fractus Inactive
    Umbra Fractus
    @UmbraFractus

    skipsul: The problem is that no candidate (and by this I especially include Cruz) articulated truly constitutional nationalism in a form that anyone could emotionally grasp. We had, instead, the baggage of Romney’s 2012 run where he ran a “business friendly” re-regulator, or Cruz’s pseudo-religious Constitutional worship, which was unaccompanied by anything into which people could sink their teeth. It was a “Save America!” type of plea.

    I think the OP nailed what’s wrong with Trump – he is not (small c) constitutionally conservative. If things were going well he’d be running as a Democrat or not at all. He’s standing on stage yelling, “We need to change this,” but he doesn’t have the intellectual or philosophical grounding to understand what needs to be changed and how.

    Cruz, in this light, seems to be a mirror image of Trump. He’s a (again, small c) constitutional conservative who lacks the pragmatic sense of how to sell his ideas.

    • #13
  14. skipsul Inactive
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    Umbra Fractus:

    skipsul: The problem is that no candidate (and by this I especially include Cruz) articulated truly constitutional nationalism in a form that anyone could emotionally grasp. We had, instead, the baggage of Romney’s 2012 run where he ran a “business friendly” re-regulator, or Cruz’s pseudo-religious Constitutional worship, which was unaccompanied by anything into which people could sink their teeth. It was a “Save America!” type of plea.

    I think the OP nailed what’s wrong with Trump – he is not (small c) constitutionally conservative. If things were going well he’d be running as a Democrat or not at all. He’s standing on stage yelling, “We need to change this,” but he doesn’t have the intellectual or philosophical grounding to understand what needs to be changed and how.

    Cruz, in this light, seems to be a mirror image of Trump. He’s a (again, small c) constitutional conservative who lacks the pragmatic sense of how to sell his ideas.

    While also giving the impression of insincerity.

    • #14
  15. I Walton Member
    I Walton
    @IWalton

    Our candidates had plenty to say about overregulation, but it simply doesn’t resonate as an economic abstraction for the reasons said above.  The burden of regulation falls on the general population as slow growth, poor adjustment, weak entrepreneurial activity, higher prices and they do not and cannot make the connection.   The populist connection –crony capitalism, big government rip off how politicians  bureacurats and special interests use regulations, tax favors, subsidies to enrich the few.  We’ve given this issue over to the Democrats, who invented crony capitalism.  We didn’t even  defend  the Citizens United decision.    Guilt perhaps?  Our folks grabbing with both hands as well?

    • #15
  16. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Who wants to hear ugly truths?

    • #16
  17. Matt Upton Lincoln
    Matt Upton
    @MattUpton

    Titus Techera: Who wants to hear ugly truths?

    *Raises hand, looks around, and sheepishly brings it back down*

    • #17
  18. Rick Poach Inactive
    Rick Poach
    @RickPoach

    SoS, this is an excellent analysis. Allow me a trite analogy.

    We’ve been dealt Trump. Some of us are screaming, “Fold!” because the Trump hand doesn’t contain the Constitutional cards needed to win. Others of us are screaming, “All-in!” because they believe that the Trump hand either does not need to contain the Constitutional cards or has enough to get by. Still others of us, myself included, are saying, “it’s a weak hand, but it’s still playable.”

    All of us, the card players at least, have played weak hands and have skunked the table. It happens, but it takes strategy. The strategy at this point being that the cards of heavy Constitutional hitters have to fill out the Trump hand. That is up to both them and Trump.

    As an example – I have a friend who is a policy expert and who has advised a president or two. He is a #NeverHillary reluctant Trumper. He thinks that Trump needs a lot of help in his foreign policy. To which I always respond to him, “well, what about you?”

    Ultimately, what the Brexit vote should have showed to all by now is that the Tea Party, Country Class – the “hobbits,” the “hostage takers,” the “wacko birds” – were correct all along about the character and goals of the opposition that we face. So the questions now are – We have one hand, do we play it to win or not? Do we just let the ideological globalists win?

    • #18
  19. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    I would call Mr. Trumps particular philosophy Opportunist Nationalism rather than Pragmatic Nationalism.

    • #19
  20. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Jamie Lockett:I would call Mr. Trumps particular philosophy Opportunist Nationalism rather than Pragmatic Nationalism.

    ‘When the pros are con, the cons turn pro?’

    • #20
  21. skipsul Inactive
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    Rick Poach:

    Ultimately, what the Brexit vote should have showed to all by now is that the Tea Party, Country Class – the “hobbits,” the “hostage takers,” the “wacko birds” – were correct all along about the character and goals of the opposition that we face. So the questions now are – We have one hand, do we play it to win or not? Do we just let the ideological globalists win?

    The counter-argument to that (as the nevertrump folks will point out) is that losing this hand may not really mean game over, and even winning this had would cost too dearly to be worth it.  Fold ’em and wait for the next deal.  I don’t personally agree with that proposition, but that’s an opinion or guess on my part.

    • #21
  22. skipsul Inactive
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    Jamie Lockett:I would call Mr. Trumps particular philosophy Opportunist Nationalism rather than Pragmatic Nationalism.

    Yup.  Hard to argue with that.

    • #22

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