The two events that put 2016 in the history books — alongside other pivotal years such as 2001, 1989, and 1945 — were, of course, the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and the election of Donald Trump in the United States. What makes 2016 different, however, is its apparent revocability.
Germany and Japan, after all, didn’t try to restart World War II. Nobody attempted to rebuild the Berlin Wall. And the lives lost on 9/11 can’t be restored.
But last week, both the U.K. and the U.S. took significant steps to hit the rewind button on the momentous events of 2016.
In Washington, former FBI chief James Comey testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee and confirmed what everyone else has known for some time: Donald Trump is a bully, he doesn’t care about constitutional checks and balances, and he lies.
It’s not quite the clear-cut obstruction of justice that impeachment supporters need — and both Trump and his followers have bizarrely interpreted Comey’s testimony as a vindication of the president’s conduct — but pressure is nevertheless growing from groups like MoveOn and politicians like Brad Sherman (D-CA) and Al Green (D-TX) to begin the process.
In the UK, meanwhile, voters went to the polls and delivered a stunning repudiation of the Conservative Party of Theresa May and her hardline stance on withdrawing from the European Union. May had called early elections in the hope of scoring a knockout victory against the Labor Party and strengthening her hand in upcoming negotiations on exiting the EU. Instead, the Conservatives lost their parliamentary majority, and a surging Labor Party under Jeremy Corbyn is leading calls for May to step down.
Those who applaud what happened in the twin votes of 2016 insist that both decisions are effectively irreversible. At most, UK voters can soften their exit from the EU. At best, U.S. voters can force Trump to step down, with his administration continuing under the leadership of Mike Pence.
Repairing the damage done in 2016 has to start somewhere. Don’t, however, fall into the trap of thinking that a technocratic fix — an impeachment process, a kinder and gentler set of negotiations with Brussels — will be enough.
After all, the votes of 2016 weren’t decided by brilliant hacks (by the Russians with “fake news” or by the Trump team with their targeted Facebook campaign). Voters were expressing their very real anger at the status quo represented by Hillary Clinton and Brussels, respectively. Returning to the status quo ante won’t be enough to address the underlying problems.
A Pence Foreign Policy?
Let’s begin with the delicious possibility that Donald Trump resigns or is ousted by Congress. True, it’s hard to imagine Trump throwing in the towel even if his support dwindles to Ivanka and Jared and Melania and Barron. Also, Congress won’t likely take impeachment seriously unless and until the Dems recapture the House in the mid-term elections. Still, a boy can dream.
Yet how quickly dreams can become nightmares. After all, President Mike Pence wouldn’t make the world any safer.
Hady Amr and Steve Feldstein spell it out in The Hill:
Among the Republican establishment, particularly the neoconservative wing, Pence has an impeccable reputation. Many describe him as a “hawk’s hawk.” He was a strong proponent of the Iraq War, has vigorously stood up for a strong military and “American values” and, as vice president, has taken on an informal role as an emissary to NATO and other alliances…
Likewise, Pence’s evangelical Christian faith is central to his identity. He has proudly built up a reputation as one of the most conservative lawmakers in the country and frequently describes himself as “a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order.” There is a high probability that Pence would explicitly embed religious morals in U.S. foreign policy and push an activist social conservative agenda.
The personally repugnant Donald Trump seems somehow all the more vulgar when standing next to the quieter and more unassuming Pence. But in fact, Trump’s views on the world are less ideologically fixed than Pence’s. Moreover, Trump doesn’t have the congressional chops to get legislation passed. Pence, on the other hand, commands a good deal of respect among conservatives on Capitol Hill.
The current vice president, who once described himself as a decaf Rush Limbaugh during his right-wing radio days, has the ability to unite the Republicans going into 2020. The neocons and the religious right would both happily go back to cohabitating under Pence. Moderate Republicans, lulled by Pence’s soothing tone, would be less likely to bolt the party. Even some Democrats and independents who voted for Trump might decide that Pence’s proximity to the putative presidential outsider qualifies him to continue to “drain the swamp.”
Underscoring Pence’s problematic positions is by no means a plea to go easy on Trump. Perhaps enough mud will fly during the investigations that it will besmirch Pence’s snow-white hair as well. Just don’t fall for the ploy that Claire Underwood is any better than the psychotic Frank.
Theresa May is already backpedaling on her bold Brexit promises. She’s promised “to listen to all voices” in her party, though her party has now shrunk after last week’s election. Her promise has less to do with Brexit than with keeping her Conservative party in power.
After all, if Scottish Tories abandon the party over May’s position on Brexit — Scotland overwhelmingly favored staying in the EU — the Conservative Party won’t be able to remain on top. The same holds true for the Democratic Unionist Party from Northern Ireland, the party that May needs to form a ruling coalition. The Irish, too, opposed Brexit, and Northern Ireland may prefer reuniting with the south and retaining EU membership to an arranged marriage with May.
However much May might be reconsidering her approach to the EU, the last election was by no means a referendum on Brexit. The Labor Party, under the EU-ambivalent Corbyn, did not promise to undo the results of the referendum. The only party that pushed hard for the “remain” option, the Liberal Democrats, saw a significant increase in their admittedly small parliamentary faction, while the UK Independence Party, which pushed for Brexit, has lost all representation in parliament.
Corbyn played his poor hand quite well during the campaign. But imagine what he might have achieved with a truly visionary program? Labor may have lost a golden opportunity to position itself as the party to save the UK by pushing not only for another referendum but a reform package for the EU itself.
The negotiations between the UK and EU still boil down to a trade between access to the European market and freedom of movement across the Channel. Theresa May and the hardliners think that they can get the first without the second. But there’s no reason for the EU to play softball.
Brexit the vote was bold. Brexit the agreement may well suffer a death by a thousand cuts. After all, May has to negotiate every potentially controversial step not only with the EU but with both the hardline Euroskeptics within her party and the now emboldened opposition.
As the traffic reporters constantly tells us: expect delays.
Saved by the Bureaucracy
I’ve never been a big fan of red tape. But if an entire system is heading toward a cliff, there’s no better brake than bureaucracy.
In Trumpland, the courts have tied up the noxious Muslim travel ban. The attorneys general of Maryland and DC are now going after the president’s personal sweetheart deals by invoking the emoluments clause. Congress and special counsel Robert Mueller are digging into RussiaGate. The Democrats are showing some backbone — a wee bit of spinal rectitude — on Trump’s legislative forays. Most recently, they nearly blocked Trump’s effort to send $500 million in arms to Saudi Arabia. And nearly 200 congressional Dems have followed the lead of DC and Maryland by filing suit against the president using the same “emoluments” argument.
It’s not just the “resistance” that is staying Trump’s hand. It’s also the sheer incompetence of all the president’s men — and they’re mostly men — in navigating the bureaucracy. Many of Trump’s appointees are actively hostile to administration, any administration. Guess what: That makes it kind of hard to get anything done.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the pond, plenty of Brits wanted out of the EU precisely because of all the bureaucratic rules from Brussels. Then they discovered that adherence to those regulations brought enormous benefits like borderless travel, agricultural subsidies, and the option to retire on the coast of Spain.
Here, too, the EU bureaucracy may well grind down British resistance until, in the end, the Brexit they get is not the Brexit they signed up for.
Two cheers for democracy, novelist E.M. Forster once wrote: “one because it admits variety and two because it permits criticism. Two cheers are quite enough: there is no occasion to give three.” I feel the same way about bureaucracy: it can tie up would-be dictators and regulate the functioning of large, diverse bodies. If bureaucrats can help rewind the mistakes of 2016, they deserve two cheers (but no more).
To get that third cheer, it’s necessary to address the grievances that led to those two votes in the first place. Economic change has to work for the people, not the plutocrats. And politicians have to represent the interests of the population, not just wealthy donors. When that happens, we can finally hit rewind on 2016, and then, finally, move forward into a more equitable and sustainable future.
World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, June 14, 2017