On Friday, the United Kingdom officially withdrew from the European Union, three and a half years after it voted to leave in a national referendum. Details about Britain’s future relationship with the EU on issues like trade and immigration have been the subject of contentious and ongoing negotiations—Friday marked the start of a transition period that is expected to last through the year. If we’ve learned anything during “Brexit,” it’s that it’s easier to leave the decisions about complex political issues to a later date. For now, the emotional dilemma has been resolved, even if the question of what comes next remains unanswered.
Britain’s departure comes seven weeks after the ruling Conservatives, led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, dominated a general election, winning the party’s largest parliamentary majority since Margaret Thatcher led the Conservatives in 1987. The pundits blamed Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn for campaigning on a socialist program that alienated working-class voters in Labour strongholds in northern England, where support for Brexit was strongest. Johnson’s resolve to “get Brexit done,” as his campaign motto attested, regardless of whether a deal was reached with the EU, became his party’s defining mantra. Labour, meanwhile, remained ambivalent about Brexit, while the Liberal Democrats, led by Jo Swinson, campaigned to reverse the referendum. Johnson succeeded by harping on the mandate delivered by voters in the June 2016 referendum and worked to ensure the decisive, if imperfect, future Britain now faces. Voters decided—however narrowly, however regrettably—to exit the EU in June 2016 and almost four years of agonizing debate could not change that fact. Relitigating the referendum ad nauseam went nowhere. Unreservedly, Johnson forged ahead.
Britain and the United States share similar concerns about nationalism, socialism, and social justice movements, especially since 2016 when Donald Trump was elected president. The two countries share superficially similar figures in Corbyn and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, the opposition leaders who espouse stridently socialist policies, as well as Johnson and Trump, who tapped into voters’ resentment over a perceived loss of national identity. The politics in both countries have grown coarse, stunted, and unrewarding. American politics is currently being dominated by the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries as well as Trump’s impeachment trial. On the same day Britain finalized its withdrawal from the EU, the Republican-led Senate blocked efforts to allow additional witness testimony in the trial, clearing the way for Trump’s acquittal. Democrats have a majority in the House, and the relevant committees will continue to investigate Trump, but the impetus to remove him from office now falls squarely onto the Democratic presidential candidates. Six months from now, Democrats will nominate a candidate to challenge the embattled, unpopular president in a general election, which has always been the party’s clearest avenue to remove Trump from office. The 2016 U.S. election, just like Britain’s referendum, has been settled, upsetting scores that progressives have disputed at great length. Labour and the Lib Dems in Britain can look forward to very little these days. American Democrats can look forward to a rematch.
Trump has branded the many investigations against him as a “witch hunt” conducted by Democrats to discredit his election. The special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation—the original “witch hunt”—indulged so many anxieties about the 2016 presidential election. There are similarities between Mueller’s probe (regarding Russia) and Trump’s impeachment (regarding Ukraine): Both involved alleged improper dealings with foreign entities by Trump and members of his inner circle to interfere with a presidential election. During Trump’s impeachment trial, Democrats alleged that Trump withheld $400 million in security aid to Ukraine in an effort to pressure the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to investigate Joe Biden’s son Hunter in hopes to undermine Biden’s presidential campaign. Trump also urged Zelensky to investigate his unsubstantiated theories about Ukrainian hackers targeting the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 presidential election. Four years later, Trump insists, Democrats still refuse to accept the election results, though judging by his own request for Zelensky to investigate the DNC, Trump, too, struggles to move on from 2016.
Trump’s impeachment has so far proved to be a marginal concern in the Democratic presidential contest, though the trial has required Sanders, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar to spend time on Capitol Hill rather than campaigning in Iowa. The most enthusiastic impeachment-watcher is Trump himself, who obsesses over the process loudly and at length at his campaign rallies. Last week, Trump led a rally in Wildwood, New Jersey, celebrating the first-term New Jersey congressman Jeff Van Drew, a Republican who defected from the Democratic Party, citing his opposition to Trump’s impeachment and pledging his “undying support” for the president. “They’ve spent the last three years, and probably even before I came down on that beautiful escalator with our beautiful future first lady, trying to overthrow the last election,” Trump told the crowd, “and we will make sure that they face another crushing defeat in the next election.” Defiantly, Trump cites his own impeachment—the Democrats’ long and wasteful persecution of his presidency—as the pretext for his re-election.
For the most part, though, Trump tempered his remarks in New Jersey. For once, he demonstrated some conventional discipline: He outlined his accomplishments in his first term, and he outlined his agenda for his possible second term. Trump indulges so many authoritarian urges and yet insists that it’s the progressives trying to remove him from office who are really undermining democratic institutions. By November, Democrats will have to come to terms with Trump’s presidential advantages: his incumbency, the Republican majority in the Senate, the conservative majority on the Supreme Court, the economy, and his rhetoric on the campaign trail. The party will have to retire its obsession with Clinton’s loss in 2016, election interference from foreign nations, and “the deep state.” It will have to come to grips with Trump’s election in November 2016, if only to defeat him in November 2020, by investing as much confidence in voters as Trump does, despite his unpopularity with a majority of them. In his Super Bowl campaign ad, Trump promises, “the best is yet to come.”