The British prime minister’s official Twitter account (15,400 tweets so far) hasn’t used the word “Brexit” since the UK left the EU on January 31. Boris Johnson’s personal account has given Brexit just one passing mention since February 1.
He would have loved his planned rewriting of the Withdrawal Agreement, in breach of international law, to have passed off quietly, as a boring wonkish non-event, instead of causing the fuss it has. As talks with the EU approach their climax, Johnson seems keen to gloss over the biggest British policy change of our generation.
Similarly, Donald Trump has gone strangely quiet on his old promises to bring back factory jobs, eliminate the federal debt, replace Obamacare with something much better and stop China “raping” the US on trade.
For instance, his overactive Twitter account hasn’t mentioned debt since a single sentence this January. It so happens that the US federal debt (rising even before the pandemic) is forecast to exceed annual GDP next fiscal year for the first time since the second world war.
Trump, Johnson and their fellow populists are giving up on mould-breaking policy promises. Now they face a fork in the road: either become full-time culture warriors who don’t do policy, or turn back into boring traditional parties.
Policy-based populism had a brief heyday in the 13 months through November 2016. The backdrop of the refugee crisis and jihadist terrorist attacks in Europe was ideal for nativist movements but, at the time, these parties were more than that: they were also utopians promising betterment.
They were going to “drain the swamp”, cut lucrative trade deals, return power to the people, revive manufacturing and generally run things better than their incompetent predecessors.
PiS in Poland was elected in October 2015 with a spectacular keynote promise, “500+”: every family would receive 500 zloty (£100) a month for each child from the second onwards. That would get Poles making babies again.
On June 19 2016, Italy’s Five-Star movement won the town halls of Rome and Turin, promising a radical new politics: stringent term limits for elected officials and no formal alliances with traditional parties. Four days later, Britons voted for Brexit.
Trump presented himself that year not just as a nativist but also as a brilliant businessman who would make the US solvent and rich again. The night he was elected, he promised a massive infrastructure plan. By spring 2018, when Five Star and the far-right Lega formed a government in Italy, nearly 500 million people in Europe and North America — were under populist rule.
PiS delivered 500+ but failed to spark baby-making: Poland’s excess of deaths over births last year was the highest since 1945. The expensive policy has also prompted about 100,000 women to leave the job market.
Otherwise, hardly any populist promises have been fulfilled. Claims to business-like competence dissolved with Trump’s and Johnson’s mishandling of Covid-19. Trump’s infrastructure plan has gone missing, along with the Brexiters’ much-touted trade deal with the US.
Even Britain’s trade deal with the EU — supposed to be the “easiest in history” — may now not happen and would reduce trade if it did. In Italy, Five Star has softened its stance against term limits and accepted local formal alliances. Nationally, it’s already in a governing coalition with the ultimate traditional party, the centre-left PD.
Shorn of innovative policies or competence, populists can still sell culture war. PiS’s target in last month’s re-election campaign was the foreign acronym “LGBT” — “not people” but “an ideology” worse than communism, said Polish president Andrzej Duda.
Now Trump is campaigning against urban criminals and Black Lives Matter protesters (always conflating the two) and, more broadly, against cities themselves. His strategy is to pretend that second-tier issues with racial resonance are the country’s biggest problems. Homicides in 25 major US cities rose by about 600 year-on-year through July. By then, the coronavirus had killed more than 153,000 Americans.
Johnson, never very interested in policy, loves a good culture war, as long as it’s not about Brexit any more. He was eager to do battle for a statue of Churchill, and the song “Rule, Britannia!” but, to his disappointment, the left refused both fights. You can’t have a culture war without an opponent.
Mostly, the Conservatives and Five Star have found a different route out of policy populism: by dropping the novelties and returning to some semblance of a traditional party. The Tories are veteran shape-shifters. In just five years, they have been David Cameron’s austerity Remainer party, a get-Brexit-done movement, a Boris Johnson cult and now an economically almost Corbynista anti-austerity pro-state-aid party, usually while providing the main opposition to themselves.
Shedding each incarnation too fast for voters to tire of it, held Downing Street through four straight elections. Bizarrely, given early populist rhetoric, Brexit has become a technocratic economic policy that’s considered too complex to bother ordinary people with.
Almost all populist policies disintegrate on contact with reality. Perhaps most populist voters don’t care. Anyone still backing Trump in 2020 isn’t very interested in policy and competence. As Anne Applebaum, author of Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism, says: “This is the moment when we’ll learn whether what was at stake all along was identity and culture.”
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