May Day and The United States
Following the United Kingdom's irresolute resolution to leave the EU, commentators from either extremes of the Atlantic were sure to include, at some point or other, the assurance that all this European melodrama was in fact relevant to Americans. One writer from the New Republic called it a “screaming warning from the gods” to not underestimate Trump's chances this November. CNN, weirdly faithful to our native tradition of self-absorption, suggested that Britain was having “a Donald Trump moment,” as though both nationalism and euro-skepticism were contagions of American origin, until-now unknown to the Old Motherland or indeed the Continent itself which in the last century hosted two highly unpleasant world wars, among others. Donald Trump himself, when asked for his take on 'Brexit,' responded with a one-syllable noise: “huh?” Although when it was explained to him he found little to mull over: “Oh yeah, I think they should leave.”
If indeed the UK is the foreshadowing culmination of the ingredients we are also cooking with, I do wonder how strained the parallels will become now that we know who Britain's next Prime Minister will be. Neither the cartoonish former Mayor of London, nor the … well … cartoonish leader of UKIP and Brexit-instigator Nigel Farage had the clout nor heart to ascend to the title. (an aside on Farage, lest we start to suspect he has only recently tried on his best Trump impression: have a look at him mocking the EU president in European Parliament in 2010. He brings to mind what turns out to have been a timeless description by PG Wodehouse of his 1938 character Roderick Spode, leader of the hapless Black-shorts: It was “as if Nature had intended to make a gorilla and had changed its mind at the last moment.” That was a caricature of British ultra-nationalists eighty years ago, and now the farce is closer to the reality, once again bearing out the old maxim of an unmentionable old scribbler.)
Instead the highest political office in Britain will go to Theresa May, and most of us in America will have to do a bit of catching up to know what that means. She has been a member of Parliament since 1997, and Home Secretary since 2010, and , well never mind ... you can read her wikipedia page as easily as I can.
It turns out May is pretty interesting. Despite being leader of the conservative party, she is no kind of conservative in the weird American sense. She talks rather a lot about gender pay gaps, admonishes conservative colleagues for getting 'nasty' reputations, and somewhat refreshingly admitted on live television that she had changed her mind on gay adoption. On other issues she has a reputation as a hardliner. She wants to reduce immigration by various means, including limiting immigrants under a certain income level.
And she can be a tough figure in person. See her here giving a severe scolding to the Police Federation (the closest thing Britain has to a police union) in the midst of their (admittedly ludicrous) presentation against her and her budget cuts.
Crucially, she was one of the only of this batch of candidates for prime minister who was against the Brexit. And this in particular is where any parallels to the United States' upcoming election becomes untenable. The UK will get their Brexit, May has assured us; that cannot be in doubt. But the more absurd and dangerous politicians associated most closely with the Brexit clearly do not have the support in the inner rooms of the Conservative party, and (here comes the difference), they have done something about it. So while the Leave vote has won, and something like Leaving will come of it, it seems at least for now as though the Brits have found a firewall with which to guard against any slippery sloping towards full-blown nationalism, or dare I say it, fascism. In May the UK have at least found a person who is clearly smart, capable, hard working, and decidedly not crazy. Not a high bench mark, but a sign of the times. And that is the irony of America's situation. Go big or go home for us, I suppose. We still have it in our power to avoid a disastrous vote altogether; we still have ahead of us a decision which will symbolically affirm or rebuff an appeal to irrational fear of immigrants and love of vulgarity. But if we affirm it in November, we will not get a more sensible version of the cartoon Donald Trump; we will just get Donald Trump, seller of magic tonics and Commander-in Chief, for a minimum of four years.
Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see how the star of Theresa May rises or wanes. Unfortunately, we do not yet know which powerful woman she will be like. Conversations online and on television have already been mulling whether she will govern like Angela Merkel, or if she's more in the cast of Margaret Thatcher. Given her moderate, pragmatic,charisma-less style, it has also been suggested that she might quite naturally form a bond with our own Hillary Clinton. The headline-rich, meme-ready, story-writes-itself potential for a new trans-Atlantic Ya Ya Sistertood is evidently far too tantalizing a prospect to resist, so for now let's not yet consider that she may well have more in common with one of the world's several male politicians, or that she need not be compared to another woman at all, having a record of her own. Though it would at least be fair to note that, were Clinton to win in November, the three financial giants of the western world would have women as their leaders. One kind of progress, to be sure.