Fintan O’Toole is a columnist for The Irish Times and the Parnell Fellow at Magdalene College, Cambridge. His most recent book is The Politics of Pain: Postwar England and the Rise of Nationalism. (May 2020)
Trump returns to what has worked for him before. As the cost of his terrible failures of public duty and common decency becomes ever more starkly evident, he will revert in his reelection campaign to an explanation of the disaster, not as a consequence of his own incompetence and contempt but as a punishment inflicted on the United States for its failure to build his wall, keep out foreigners, and crush the enemy within.
Bernie Sanders has never, as Ronald Reagan did in his famous ads in 1984, said a cheery good morning to America. He has been saying, over and over, We’re. Not. Crazy. Or, as he puts it more flatly in Outsider in the White House, “The ideas I was espousing were not ‘far out’ or ‘fringe.’ Frankly, they were ‘mainstream.’” In an era when “mainstream” is a favored term of political abuse, Sanders may be the last major politician to want—indeed to need—to embrace it.
Even in a cynical pursuit of political advantage, the Republicans might have maintained the form of a real trial (scrutiny of verbal and written evidence) without its substance (a genuine weighing of guilt and innocence). They decided instead to have neither the form nor the substance. Because the Senate’s proceedings do not look much like a trial, its declaration of Trump’s innocence on both charges will not look much like a vindication. Whatever Chief Justice John Roberts would like to imagine, the Republicans are not even bothering to keep up appearances.
The “mournful, plaintive wail of Irishness” is the soundtrack for both the Kennedy and the Biden stories, in which triumph is always shadowed by calamity. There is in this structure of feeling no easy opposition of hubris and nemesis. There is just, as Obama said to Biden when his son Beau was dying, the awareness that “life is so difficult to discern”—difficult because it does not offer itself in the easy forms of the wonderful and the terrible but confuses the two by conjoining them as twins. The political manifestation of this awareness is not the upbeat rhetoric of the American Dream; it is a politics of empathy in which the leader shares the pain of the citizen.
There is overwhelming evidence that the English people who voted for Brexit do not, on the whole, care about the United Kingdom and in particular that part of it called Northern Ireland. Asked whether “the unravelling of the peace process in Northern Ireland” is a “price worth paying” for Brexit, fully 83 percent of Leave voters and 73 percent of Conservative voters in England agree that it is. So, while the people who voted for Brexit are waving goodbye to the United Kingdom, Theresa May—with, in this, the support of Corbyn’s Labour—has vowed to “always fight to strengthen and sustain this precious, precious Union.” Brexit cannot be properly articulated because it has made a sacred cause of fighting for the very thing Brexit voters don’t care about.
As the recent debate on abortion showed, the Democratic Unionist Party’s values and idea of Britishness are increasingly out of kilter with Britain itself. And Brexit, which the DUP supported, now looms as a disaster for the Northern Irish party. If, as the DUP insists, Northern Ireland can be treated no differently from the rest of the UK, because the Union with England, Wales, and Scotland is sacrosanct, then all of the UK must stay within the EU’s rules to meet European conditions on border arrangements with Ireland. In which case, Brexit itself becomes pointless. The DUP’s backward-looking Britishness thus stands solidly in the way of Brexit’s English revolution.
Britain’s agreement to accept Ireland’s demands over Brexit and the border is an expression of its weakness: it can’t even bully little Ireland anymore. And this would have been bad enough for one day. But there was another humiliation in store. Having backed down, May was then peremptorily informed by her DUP coalition partner that she was not even allowed to back down. It is a scarcely credible position for a once great state to find itself in: its leader does not even have the power to conduct a dignified retreat.
Brexit is an elite project dressed up in rough attire. Because Theresa May doesn’t actually believe in Brexit, she’s improvising a way forward very roughly sketched out by other people. In Britain’s recent election, May’s phony populism came up against the Labour party’s more genuine brand of anti-establishment radicalism that convinced the young and the marginalized that they had something to come out and vote for.