After Brexit and Trump, rightwing populists cling to power – but the truth is they can’t govern
The farcical scenes among US Republicans have echoes in our Tory party. Both promise disruption, then deliver exactly that
The US right has this week been staging a clown show that has had liberals in that country and beyond pulling up a chair and breaking out the popcorn. There has been a karmic pleasure in watching the Republicans who won control of the House of Representatives struggle to complete the most basic piece of business – the election of a speaker – but it’s also been instructive, and not only to Americans. For it has confirmed the dirty little secret of that strain of rightwing populist politics that revels in what it calls disruption: it always ends in bitter factional fighting, chaos and paralysis. We in Britain should know, because Brexit has gone the exact same way.
Start with the karma that saw House Republicans gather two years to the day since they sought to prevent the peaceful transfer of power from one party to another: often overlooked in the anniversary recollections of 6 January 2021 is that, mere hours after rioters had stormed the US Capitol, a majority of Republican House members voted to do precisely as the rioters had demanded and overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. Yet here were those same House Republicans on 6 January 2023, having prevented the smooth transfer of power from one party to another – except this time, the party they were thwarting was their own.
It should have been straightforward. Republicans won a narrow majority in the House in November, which gave them the right to put one of their number in the speaker’s chair. The trouble was, while most backed Kevin McCarthy, about 20 rebels did not. By Thursday night, they had gone through 11 rounds of voting – the most since the civil war era – without McCarthy or anyone else winning a majority. The result: deadlock that was only broken after yet more voting rounds on Friday night, and into Saturday.
It was a study in incompetence. A party asks the electorate to give them power; they get it and then freeze, unable to take even the first step towards using it. There was no clear political logic to the stalemate. The rebels are devotees of Donald Trump, but McCarthy himself is a tireless Trump sycophant – patronised by the former president as “my Kevin” – who begged for and won the backing of the orange one. The pro-Trump rebels were divided among themselves: one rebuked Trump for sticking with McCarthy, while another voted to make Trump himself speaker.
It’s telling that the rebels’ demands were not on policy but on procedure, seeking rule changes or committee seats that would give them more power. Otherwise, they couldn’t really say what they wanted. They succeeded in getting metal detectors removed from the entrance to the chamber, so now people can walk on to the floor of the House carrying a gun, but apart from that, and their hunger to start investigating Democrats, including Joe Biden’s son Hunter, nothing.
All this has significance for the year ahead in US politics. For one thing, it’s yet more evidence of the diminishing strength of Trump among Republican leaders, if not yet among the party faithful. For another, if Republicans cannot make a relatively easy decision like this one, how are they going to make the tough but necessary choices that are coming – such as authorising the spending, and debt, required to keep the US government functioning?
But its meaning goes far wider. For what’s been on display this week, in especially florid form, is a strain of politics that has infected many democracies, including our own. Its key feature is its delight in disruption, in promising to upend the system. That was the thrust of the twin movements of 2016, Trump and Brexit. Both promised to sweep away the elites, the experts, the orthodoxy – whether in Washington DC or Brussels. They were new movements, but they were drawing on deep roots. Four decades ago both Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher cast themselves as radicals daring to shake off the dead hand of the government.
So we can hardly be surprised that those who railed against government should be so bad at it. They promised disruption, and that’s what they’ve delivered. In the US it was the chaos of Trump himself, and now a House of mini-Trumps that can’t tie its own shoelaces. In the UK, it looks different: we have a prime minister in Rishi Sunak whose pitch is technocratic competence. But that should not conceal two things.
First, the post-2016 Tory party delivered just as much parliamentary turmoil and intra-party division as McCarthy and co served up this week. Whether it was the Commons gridlock of the two years preceding the 2019 election or the psychodrama of the three years after it, Brexit-era Conservatism has proved every bit as unhinged as Trump-era Republicanism. When it comes to burn-it-all-down politics, the Republicans’ craziest wing are mere novices compared with a master arsonist such as Liz Truss. The US and UK are simply at different points in the cycle.
Second, even with Sunak in charge, and though painted in less vivid colours, Brexit-era Toryism is just as paralysed as its sister movement in the US. The five-point plan unveiled in the PM’s new year address consisted mostly of the basics of state administration – growing the economy, managing inflation – rather than anything amounting to a political programme.
And that’s chiefly because his party, like the Republicans, cannot agree among themselves. Consider how much Sunak has had to drop, under pressure from assorted rebels. Whether it was reform of the planning system, the manifesto commitment to build 300,000 new houses a year or the perennial pledge to grasp the nettle of social care, Sunak has had to back away from tasks that are essential for the wellbeing of the country. True, he has avoided the farcical scenes that played out this week on Capitol Hill, but that’s only because he has preferred to preserve the veneer of unity than to force a whole slew of issues. The result is a prime minister who cannot propose much more than extra maths lessons lest he lose the fractious, restive coalition that keeps him in office.
None of this is coincidence. It’s in the nature of the rightwing populist project, in Britain, the US and across the globe. Brexit is the exemplar, a mission that worked with great potency as a campaign, as a slogan, but which could never translate into governing, because it was never about governing. It was about disrupting life, not organising it – or even acknowledging the trade-offs required to organise it. It offered the poetry of destruction, not the prose of competence.
The Conservatives are several stages further down this road than the Republicans, perhaps because their power has been uninterrupted throughout. But in both cases, and others, the shift is unmistakable. Once parties of the right saw themselves as the obvious custodians of state authority: the natural party of government. Now they are happier shaking their fists at those they insist are really in charge. They are becoming the natural party of opposition.
Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist