The Brexit Tsunami

Union Jack

The day after Britain voted to leave the European Community, the Washington Post ran an article about large numbers of Brits googling to find out what the European Community is and what the impact on Britain. of terminating its membership might be. Talk about getting to the barn door too late.

All along we’ve known that the opposition was driven by some mix of fear and anger, much like Donald Trump’s supporters in this country. What we didn’t know was how strong that side would be. The vote was expected to be close, with a lot of speculation in the last few days that the “Remain” forces were gaining strength.

A broad spectrum of experts, including just about every economist willing to be quoted, argued that Britain’s exit would be bad for the country, bad for Europe, bad for the world economy and generally bad. The 52% who voted to leave either didn’t believe those predictions, didn’t care about them or weren’t even aware of them.

Even in the first day, it looks like those experts knew what they were talking about. Markets around the world are taking a beating. The British pound’s free fall may be good for tourists visiting Britain, may eventually help British exports, but sure looks bad in every other respect.  And in one of those “you can’t make this stuff up moment”, Donald Trump observed that it might be good for his golf courses in Scotland.

And that’s only the first day. What’s really most ominous about Britain’s decision is the extended period of uncertainty and instability that it will usher in. The legal structure of the European Community is incredibly complex and detailed. Negotiating Britain’s removal will be lengthy, contentious and a source of continued confusion. Some of the “Remove” proponents argued that the country on its own could cut a better deal with the European Community than it could as a member. That’s an example of wishful thinking that’s off the charts ridiculous.

But so much more could happen and just about every scenario you can imagine ends badly. Will other countries decide to hold their own referenda? Almost certainly. Will others exit as the result of that process? Pretty good chance.

For Britain, or perhaps more precisely England, there may well be an extreme irony. There is already talk north of the border that there will be another vote on Scottish independence. The Scots, it turns out, aren’t so keen on leaving the European Community. In fact, the “Remain” vote won decisively in the land of kilts. It’s not hard to imagine Scotland splitting from England and then turning around and applying for its own membership in the European Community. Try to picture Passport Control between those two countries. And how will they sort out where the British Open is played?

And if that weren’t strange enough, the “Remain” side won decisively in Northern Ireland, prompting some supporters to argue that the time had arrived for reunification of Ireland.

Moreover, for anyone still skeptical about the reality of a global economy, that gigantic thud you heard on Friday was the Dow Jones Average falling 611 points.  Are you still sure that Brexit has no relevance to you?  Since the Great Recession of 2007, this country has had a slow and steady, albeit not terribly robust, recovery.  Some economists were already speculating about when the next recession, pretty much inevitable in their view, would begin.  The large waves being stirred about by Brexit could lead relatively soon to the next economic downturn.

Besides the potential for economic turmoil, what are the other major consequences of Brexit?  For one, Prime Minister David Cameron has announced his resignation.  That’s actually too good for him.  Cameron, after all, decided to call for a referendum in the first place and then failed to rally his party to support the “Remain” side in sufficient numbers.  The key point is that Cameron did not have to call for a referendum.  He was feeling pressure from some Conservatives and, rather than show leadership and political courage, opted for the expedient of throwing the decision to the voters.  History will not be kind to David Cameron, which is only fitting.

Pollsters got another vote wrong.  You might want to cut them some slack since it was close but that’s being too generous.  In the last few days, all the polling stories suggested that the tide was moving in the direction of “Remain.”  The pollsters apparently underestimated the “Leave” vote, which was either a methodological problem or a lot of people deciding late.

That the first explanation could be right should make you worry about polling for the American election in the fall.  Trump certainly has a following that looks in many respects like the winning coalition in Britain.     Besides being angry, fearful, less educated and generally older, Trump voters are not very concerned with facts.  That the Brexit forces ignored sophisticated economic warnings about the consequences of leaving Europe makes them seem a lot like voters supporting Trump.

There’s one other point worth making that has been almost totally ignored in the public discourse about Brexit.  It might be tempting to cite yet again George Santayana’s admonition that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, but I think the problem is slightly different.  I’m pretty sure that most of the “Leave” supporters never recognized the original purpose of European unity.

The predecessor organizations in the early post-WW II period to what eventually became the European Community had a single overriding objective.  The goal was to tie the countries of Europe, and particularly Germany, so closely together that another war among them would be not only inconceivable but practically impossible.

The period in Europe since the end of World War II has stood in marked contrast to the half century that preceded it.   If Brexit foreshadows a general unraveling of European harmony, the economic problems that are already  evident will be the least of the consequences.

It’s hard to end this complex foreign relations challenge anywhere but on the 2016 Presidential Election.    That Donald Trump was visiting one of his golf courses in Scotland just as the vote was occurring sums up his understanding of foreign affairs just about perfectly.  At a time when impulsive, emotional responses are really dangerous, that’s all he brings to the table.

Yet, watching the Brexit vote unfold, it would be naive to argue that he has no chance to be elected president.  Brexit reminds us that he actually could win.  It should also remind us that elections have consequences and those consequences can be both dangerous and destabilizing.  Brexit should be a wake-up call for everyone on this side of the pond.

Notes from a Topsy Turvey World


UK remain

As the days start to get shorter and the blue paint starts to wear off, it’s a good time to reflect on some of the recent developments in this particularly strange year.

You may not have paid much attention, but on Thursday citizens in Britain will vote on whether or not to stay in the European Community. You might well shrug and say that Brexit, as it has come to be known, “will have no effect on me and what’s the big deal anyway.” In an increasingly interdependent world, you really don’t have the luxury of that position. Already world economic markets are reacting negatively to the mere possibility of Britain disengaging from Europe and what that might mean for the future stability of the Continent.

If the British voters decide to leave Europe, there will be an extended period of instability as the complex details are negotiated and as other countries reconsider their own future in Europe. Unless the vote is extremely close, you’re likely to know the outcome by late Thursday as the impact starts to wash up on our shores.

There’s another piece to the Brexit story worth considering. Those most in favor of leaving Europe bear a striking resemblance in age, education level and political outlook to Donald Trump’s supporters. Both groups want to return to a past that never was, to a perceived golden age where everyone looked and sounded exactly like they do, when the economy was robust and immigrants were nowhere to be seen. In other words, these groups want to pull the covers over their heads and whistle a happy tune.

In the United States, meanwhile, guns are back in the news.  In the aftermath of the massacre in Orlando, the debate over how to respond to mass murders has been temporarily reignited.  What broke out first was a discussion about the intentions of the shooter.  To the question of whether he was motivated by terrorist goals or by homophobia, the answer is probably yes.  Not long before his inevitable death, Omar Mateen pledged allegiance to ISIS.  However, the target that he picked was a gay nightclub that was well-known to him.  Whether his own sexual orientation was an issue has also been raised.

We’ll probably never sort out motive to everyone’s satisfaction.  There is only one thing we know for certain.  Matinee was able to slaughter 49 innocent victims only because he had a military-style killing machine that was designed exactly for that purpose.

To those who argue that access to guns isn’t the real issue, there is a moral obligation to suggest other ways in which tragedies like Orlando can be avoided.  No one is arguing for perfect solutions, only for lessened risk.  Could the FBI have stopped Mateen?  Agents didn’t think they had enough evidence, a judgment call which will always apply.  Would better mental health treatment in this country help?  Perhaps, although legislators certainly haven’t been very willing to provide the funds needed.  Would keeping all Muslims out of the country, as Donald Trump has suggested, be the magic solution?  Mateen was born in this country.  Beside, there is no evidence that Muslims in this country are any less patriotic than any other group.  To say otherwise is racism, of which there is a good bit around right now.

Meanwhile, despite strong public support for common sense gun regulations, our political system is unwilling to respond.  As usual, the United States Senate did its part by rejecting four rather modest proposals that only received a vote in the first place because of a filibuster by Connecticut Senate Chris Murphy.

When hopes are pinned on a measure so limited as restricting people on the “terrorist watch list” from getting guns, the bar really has been set incredibly low.  Yet, even that measure was much too high for 53 senators who saw the greater threat to this country in the possibility that some people might have been put on that list incorrectly.

Interestingly, in the same week, the United States Supreme Court refused to overturn a lower court ruling that Connecticut’s far reaching gun law is indeed constitutional.  Yet, for the NRA and its rented and purchased members of Congress, an absolutist interpretation of the Second Amendment seems to be the only civil right that matters.  Actually, no other provision in the Bill of Rights has been treated as an absolute, but that doesn’t stop supporters from making ridiculous claims.

At this point, nothing will change with the present composition of Congress.  The best hope is a Donald Trump-led electoral disaster for Republicans in the fall that results in a dramatic shift in membership in the House and the Senate.  Hillary Clinton’s strong support for gun regulations with a Democratically-controlled Congress should be powerful incentive for those who are appalled by the ongoing violence to get out and vote and support candidates with similar views.

Finally, I want to note a dilemma that Donald Trump has created for himself.  The New York Times reports that Hillary Clinton at present has $42 million in her campaign war chest while Trump has $1.3 million.  Both, as anyone with an email account realizes, are actively fundraising, but he has not been doing very well.

When Trump supporters are asked why they back him, a frequent response is that he is not beholden to anyone for money since he is so rich.  It’s an assertion that he made over and over again during the nomination process.   Does he run the risk of becoming just another politician asking for special interest money?  Or does he open up a fortune that he claims is $10 billion and actually finance his own campaign?

If you were looking for a classic example of someone being hoisted on his own petard, this would be it.  Trump is having all sorts of other problems with his campaign right now, but not being able to compete with Clinton in spending on media, staff and organization may prove to be the final straw.  Moreover, after months of relatively uncritical and incredibly extensive coverage by the media, the press is starting to examine and reveal much more about Trump’s claims as well as his qualifications and temperament.  He may be sailing into a perfect storm and it couldn’t happen to a more deserving person.

The Hogan Shuffle

larry hogan


There’s no question that Governor Larry Hogan is extremely uncomfortable with the Republican nominee for president, Donald Trump.  (Unless you are still deluding yourself that there will be a successful revolt at the convention in Cleveland, it’s pointless to keep referring to him as the “presumptive” nominee.”)

He’s been asked by the press on numerous occasions whether he is supporting Trump and has twisted himself into incredible contortions to avoiding responding.  Hogan even pretended the other day that he was unaware of the most recent obnoxious comments made by Trump in response to the mass murder in Orlando.

What’s odd about Hogan’s handling of the Trump problem is that he has consistently demonstrated real political skill, first by winning election in 2014 and then in navigating his first year and a half in office.  While there’s no guarantee that his public opinion approval will stay as high as it is now, it’s none the less very impressive.  His evasions on Trump make him look amateurish, which he certainly is not.

To be fair to Hogan, the dilemma that he is struggling with has been tripping up a lot of other Republican office holders.  The best example may be Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.  The Wisconsin Representative has badly tarnished his image and any claim to the high moral ground by his contradictory and shifting positions on Trump.  Can you really be greatly troubled by Trump’s racism and know-nothing appeal and still hold fast to your endorsement of him?

Paul Ryan, Larry Hogan and anyone not driven by hyper-partisanship knows that Donald Trump is not qualified to be president, that his temperament is eerily reminiscent of 20th Century fascists in Europe, and that he is blatantly appealing to the worst in Americans.  Surely this is a moment in which the best interests of the country and its future should be more important than whether your party’s standard-bearer is elected.

I’m confident that Larry Hogan has no intention of voting for Trump or supporting him in any tangible way.  Yet, he continues to do his version of the Ali shuffle, and he’s not doing it very well.  Maybe he is feeling pressure from his pal, Chris Christie, not to openly attack Trump.  If that’s the case, he might consider the damage that Christie’s image has suffered since he become Trump’s leading cheerleader and errand boy.

Hogan has the opportunity to rise above the slime that Trump is spreading across the political landscape.  Both reporters and Democrats will continue to hound him about his failure to speak out against Trump.  He could put all of that behind him and raise his stature among thoughtful voters by simply calling out Trump for the destructive force that he is.

The ugliness is only going to get worse between now and November.  There’s no new Trump who is going to make Republicans like Hogan feel good about their candidate.  The governor should cut his losses and reconcile himself, as Kathleen Parker suggested, to lose this election with dignity.

Brian Frosh: Principled and Courageous

In a time in which so many elected officials demonstrate neither principle nor courage, Brian Frosh reminds us that we don’t have to lower our standards. I’ve been a long-time fan of the Attorney General, yet he continues to amaze and impress me with his commitment to doing the right thing regardless of political opposition.

The latest example might have been imagined by George Orwell. A group of House Republicans,  members of that body’s “Science” Committee, wrote a letter to certain Attorneys General around the country in an effort to intimidate them. The AGs’ transgression: investigating deceptive practices and statements by the fossil fuel industry.  Specifically, their inquiry is focused on whether energy companies crossed the line into criminal behavior in their attempts to knowingly sabotage scientific evidence of man-made climate change.

In a letter signed by most, but not all, of the Committee’s Republican members and by none of the Democrats, Chairman Lamar Smith requested documents and communications from the investigation and suggested that the actions by the AGs “may even amount to abuse of prosecutorial discretion.”

Have you ever wondered why no Congressional Republican is on record as acknowledging climate change despite overwhelming scientific evidence? It’s not that they are stupid; rather, they are craven cowards.  The few Republicans who voiced support for climate change were promptly challenged and defeated in primaries.  The flip side of that coin is that much of the “dark money” that we have been reading about comes from the energy industry and strongly supports candidates who toe the coal and oil line.

What Smith and his colleagues were trying to demonstrate to their supporters was how enthusiastic they are about energy sources that cause pollution.  Their heavy-handed effort to scare opponents has run into strong resistance, none more colorful or unrelenting than that from Frosh.  If you read his letter back to Smith, rejecting their request and raising serious questions about their motives and their authority, you’ll quickly realize that the response was not composed by a committee or tested out with a focus group.  The letter is pure Brian Frosh, a fearless advocate for the environment and for truth.

The anti-scientists on the Science Committee suggest in their letter that there must be some sinister conspiracy involving Attorneys General communicating with environmentalists.   It does make you wonder whether the committee and its staff had communications with representatives of the fossil fuel industry as they prepared their missive.  Neither is prohibited, but the attempt to use the force of Congress to suppress the work of an independent level of government should send a shiver up the spine of anyone who actually cares about liberty.

Frosh’s stand raises a larger point as well.  Too many people in positions of responsibility are failing to speak out as demagogues, science and truth deniers and just plain liars roam the face of the political landscape.

The most recent example was the total capitulation to partisan politics by House Speaker Paul Ryan.  By endorsing Donald Trump in the face of Trump’s continuing outrageous statements, Ryan squandered his considerable reputation and public standing.  Ironically, he also made more likely what he was trying to avoid, Democrats recapturing the House of Representatives.  He and his fellow House Republicans are now tied firmly and unequivocally to whatever dishonest and coarse things their party’s presidential nominee says and does.

Over the years, I’ve often seen and had the opportunity to write about public officials who squander the potential of their office and are mostly concerned with their own self-image.  Some of them are shameless grandstanders; some of them take positions that buy cheap popularity in the short-term, but result in terrible public policy; some of them bully and berate people who are powerless to resist.  Those of you who fit any of these categories know who you are.

By contrast, Frosh, as Attorney General and before that as Chair of the Maryland Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, has consistently stood up for causes that he believed were right regardless of whether they were politically popular.  He’s still leading the charge for sensible gun laws, is a vigorous advocate for consumer rights, and, as this example demonstrates, is relentless in his support of the environment.

It’s easy to get discouraged by this country’s national politics and by a presidential campaign that veers into the surreal at times.  In the craziest moments, it’s good to remember that there are public servants like Brian Frosh.