Brexit, Donald Trump and the Cost of Dysfunctional Politics


Once upon a time I knew a lot about Britain’s relationship with the European Community.  More than 40 years ago, I studied that country’s efforts to join what was then referred to as the European Common Market. The history was a tortured one as Britain held on for too long to the belief that it was still a major world power, closer to the United States than to the continent just across the English Channel. Eventually, though, a deal was struck and Britain joined the European Community.

With that historical context in mind, the vote in last year’s referendum can be seen as not just a reaction to concerns about immigrants from the Middle East or bureaucrats in Brussels. The British have always been ambivalent about efforts to tie the countries of Europe more closely together and to reduce the autonomy of the individual nations.

With the resurgence of ultra-nationalism, the great experiment that has helped keep peace for over 70 years in a continent that almost destroyed itself in the 20th Century, is at jeopardy.  If the French elections at the end of April bring to power the extreme nationalist, Marine Le Pen, European collaboration could start coming apart.  And if that happens, the British referendum will be seen as the snowball that started the avalanche.

Whatever the outcome of the French vote, however, Britain will be less well off because of its decision to go it alone.  Prime Minister Theresa May has started the formal process of disengagement and the decision is irrevocable.  London will remain a delightful place to visit, but Britain’s influence in world finances will inevitably decline.  Its position in world trade will become much less significant and, ultimately, the economy of the nation will be weaker and more, rather than less, vulnerable to global influences.

May seems like she’s doing the best she can with a bad situation.  Her predecessor, David Cameron, is the real villain in the piece, a spineless “leader” who thought that the expedient of a referendum would spare him the need to stand up to political critics.

While most analyses have focused on the rise of populism in Britain to explain the vote to leave Europe, there are two other important lessons as well.  The first is that weak and inept political leadership can lead to disastrous results in a democratic system of government.   Democracy is largely defined by processes with no guarantee of particular outcomes.

Second, some decisions have more consequences than others.  Leaving the European Community will impact every aspect of British life and the impact will be both short and long-term.

Those lessons are being played out at this very moment in the United States.

Whatever the explanations for Trump’s victory in the 2016 election, he is now the president.  So far, his administration has demonstrated a stunning mix of ignorance, incompetence and hard-line conservative greed.  Trump’s executive orders, tweets, public pronouncements and legislative initiatives have played well with his base supporters but are dismaying a growing portion of America and the world.

So far, the impact has merely been damaging.  Trump has ordered a rapid retreat from environmental protection and policies to reduce the impact of climate change.  His Attorney General is shifting the Justice Department’s position from protector of minorities and disadvantaged to ally of the rich and powerful.  His Secretary of Education is leading an attack on public education.  And the list goes on.

If any significant portion of his proposed budget is enacted, the consequences for the poor and struggling of this country will be even worse.  Trump is trying to shred what used euphemistically to be called the “safety net.”  By all appearance, his only serious priorities are increasing the defense budget and reducing taxes for the very wealthy.  In a nation that has seen the inequality gap grow dramatically in the past three decades, his efforts seem designed to accelerate that process.

Trump’s willful ignorance of history, science and the lives of most Americans is contributing to decisions that do great harm to the very fabric of the nation as well as to many who voted for him.  His lies, deceptions and blatant disregard for the most basic notions of ethical behavior have undermined the credibility of the office.

For some observers, however, all that bad news is not the greatest danger from the Trump Presidency.  Instead, the gravest danger may lie in his total incompetence.  So far, there have been no real emergencies, no national security threat, no moments that required quick and decisive action.  Trump blusters about ISIS, bellows about Mexicans and Muslims, talks irresponsibly about handling North Korea, but his performance so far provides no basis for any confidence in how he would actually respond.

David Cameron had a parliamentary majority and, under the British system, should have been able to govern.  He failed miserably.  Trump has Republican majorities in both houses of Congress and control of the Executive Branch of Government.  Yet, he totally bungled his attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act, cannot produce a travel ban that comes close to conforming to the Constitution and demonstrates on a daily basis that he has something to hide with respect to his dealings with Russia.

I have many smart friends who are confident that we will survive the horrors of the Trump Presidency.  They believe in the basic institutions of this country and look to our history to reassure themselves that we have always come through dark periods before.  I hope they are correct, but I am also quite sure that it won’t automatically turn out well merely because it has in the past.

Trump is harming not only the people of this country and our relationships with the rest of the world, but his administration is also seeking to undermine the basic safeguards of our democratic system.  That system has served us quite well for well over 200 years and shouldn’t be given up without a fight.  We may take some comfort in how incompetent he is, but that won’t stop him from doing great harm while he is still in office.