Boris Johnson Is Showing Western Politicians How to Win
Photo: Chris Ratcliffe/Getty Images
The sea of Tory blue seats that now envelop Labour’s heartlands on the electoral map of Britain is one kind of future for Western democracies. Unleashed by a revolt by ordinary people to take back control of their own laws and rebuild national sovereignty, and by their insistence that their decision to leave the E.U. be respected and implemented, it may have changed Britain’s politics in a structural way. Three political parties were decimated yesterday: the Labour Party, the Liberal Democratic Party, and the Brexit Party. Each party’s defeat tells you something more about a potential realignment of new politics.
The revulsion at Jeremy Corbyn was a big factor — especially, it seems, in the safest Labour seats in the north. The British people, after giving him the benefit of the doubt in 2017, turned on him. On his expansive, super-ambitious plan for massive investment in infrastructure and public services, they just didn’t believe the math. On his rancid long history of sympathizing with terrorists, they feared what he might do to the security services. On his anti-Semitism, they righteously humiliated the old codger. It tells you a lot about him that he still hasn’t resigned after the Labour Party’s worst showing since 1935. He has only promised not to lead the party into the election. He will stay on to control the succession battle and try to keep his faction in power. His goal was always controlling the Labour Party, not winning elections. He has lost two elections, but his grip on the party is going to be very hard to break. It took Labour 18 years to return to power after its drubbing at the 1983 election. It may take as long to recover from an even worse shellacking.
The Liberal Democrats collapsed for two core reasons. They epitomized the London liberal elites. A key promise was simply: We will revoke Brexit altogether, you dumbass voters. No second referendum, just a parliamentary program to nullify the referendum of 2016. Hard to think of a more elitist project than that. Then they embraced wokeness. In the last week of the campaign, their leader, Jo Swinson, got caught in long discussions about what she believes a woman is. She didn’t just lose the election, she lost her own seat. It is clearer and clearer to me that the wholesale adoption of critical race, gender, and queer theory on the left makes normal people wonder what on earth they’re talking about and which dictionary they are using. The white working classes are privileged? A woman can have a penis? In the end, the dogma is so crazy, and the language so bizarre, these natural left voters decided to listen to someone who does actually speak their language, even if in an absurdly plummy accent.
But the Brexit Party’s extinction may be the biggest deal. In last summer’s European elections, the Brexit party won 32 percent of the vote, and the Tories won a mere 9 percent. Six months later, the Brexit party is at 2 percent, and the Tories won 45 percent of the entire vote. It took a special kind of political genius to pull that off — and Dominic Cummings, the brilliant strategist behind the Leave campaign, should take a few minutes and take a bow. There is a chance now to harness the populist tide, rather than be drowned by it.
Here are the big gambles Johnson took to turn what was a nadir in Tory fortunes — plummeting to 22 percent this summer — into a landslide. He realized, unlike his peers, that ordinary people were close to revolt, and backed the cause of those left behind by the global economy, by grasping the Brexit issue. Without Johnson, the referendum would have been won by Remain. If he’d lost that referendum, his political career would have been over. The second big risk was quitting his own government when its Brexit plan seemed too soft, which he did by resigning as foreign secretary in the summer of 2018. And then, as the May deal failed to pass Parliament, he struck again — winning the leadership contest. In office, he rewrote the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement which the E.U. had said was nonnegotiable, and got his deal passed by a 30-vote majority.
Then the real gamble: Instead of sticking to getting Brexit done in Parliament, he called an early election to give himself a clear mandate for it. By fighting on the genius and simple slogan “Get Brexit Done,” he exposed the deep divides on the left, unified the right, and knocked his opponents for six (if you will forgive a cricket metaphor). But just as important, he moved the party sharply left on austerity, spending on public services, tax cuts for the working poor, and a higher minimum wage. He outflanked the far right on Brexit and shamelessly echoed the left on economic policy.
This is Trumpism without Trump. A conservative future without an ineffective and polarizing nutjob at the heart of it. Johnson now has a mandate to enact this new Tory alignment, and he will be far more competent than Trump at it. Unlike Trump, he will stop E.U. mass migration, and pass a new immigration system, based on the Australian model. Unlike Trump, he will focus tax cuts on the working poor, not the decadent rich.
Johnson will have to work superhard on this if he is to re-create not the Thatcher coalition but the Disraeli nation. That’s what he means when he talks about “One Nation Conservatism.” That was Disraeli’s reformist conservatism of the 19th century, a somewhat protectionist, supremely patriotic alliance between the conservative elites and the ordinary man and woman. It will take a huge amount of charm and policy persistence to cement that coalition if it is to last more than one election. But if Boris pulls that off, he will have found a new formula designed to kill off far-right populism, while forcing the left to regroup.
Not so much of a clown now, is he?
The Implications for American Politics
What does this remarkable result mean for the U.S.? Here are some thoughts: Many will dismiss any lessons are applicable. They’ll say Britain is a very different place, Brexit is a unique issue, and Corbyn was exceptionally unpopular. There’s truth in all that. But take each point. Britain actually is very much like the U.S. right now. It too has become divided between liberal urban elites and everyone else, between nationalists and internationalists, between big cities and everywhere else, between those favoring a crackdown on new immigration and those who revel in open borders with 28 other countries. The polarization, tribalism, legislative gridlock: It’s uncanny how similar the places feel these days. And there’s a historical pattern in which Britain echoes the U.S. in political shifts: Thatcher and Reagan, George H.W. Bush and John Major, Blair and Clinton, Obama and Cameron, Brexit and Trump. I guess you can say this time it’s different. I suspect not.
And is Brexit that unique? Brexit was fueled by fears of mass immigration, globalized trade, cultural fragmentation, demographic shifts, and liberal overreach. So no, it’s by no means unique. It’s very much the same movement of left-behind people expressing their views on the same issues, who, tragically, put their trust in Trump. What we’ve seen is how tenacious a voting bloc that now is, which is why Trumpism is here to stay. If we could only get rid of the human cancer at the heart of it.
How much can be blamed on Corbyn? A lot, but what kind of politics does Corbyn represent? He was endorsed by AOC, love-bombed by Left Twitter, and favors proposals like borrowing massively to finance a Green New Deal that is as much about socialism as environmentalism. He’s deeply hostile to the Jewish state, wants to abolish NATO, declared he would never use a nuclear weapon, larked around the Soviet bloc for decades, and admired the regime in Venezuela. Hmm. Remind you of anyone?
Even on health care, which should have been Corbyn’s strongest issue, his spending plans were so fantastically huge that he lost credibility. Johnson wisely heaped praise on socialized medicine and proposed a big increase in investment but came nowhere near Labour’s proposals. And yet he won. It seems to me that the difference between Johnson and Corbyn is somewhat like that between Buttigieg and Bernie. A push left is essential. But a huge and unaffordable shift left? The British working classes said no. The same, I suspect, will happen here. If the Democrats go with Sanders or Warren’s Medicare for All, the Democrats could be obliterated. If the Democratic candidate cannot persuade people he or she wants to halt mass illegal immigration, ditto.
The political sweet spot in the next few years will be a combination of left economics and a celebration of the nation-state. Trump has bollixed it up, of course. He ran on Johnson’s platform but gave almost all his tax cuts to the extremely wealthy, while Johnson will cut taxes on the poor. Trump talks a big game on immigration but has been unable to get any real change in the system out of Congress. Johnson now has a big majority to pass a new immigration bill, with Parliament in his control, which makes the task much easier. Trump is flamingly incompetent and unable to understand his constitutional role. Boris will assemble a competent team, with Michael Gove as his CEO, and Dom Cummings as strategist.
If Johnson succeeds, he’ll have unveiled a new formula for the Western right: Make no apologies for your own country and culture; toughen immigration laws; increase public spending on the poor and on those who are “just about managing”; increase taxes on the very rich and redistribute to the poor; focus on manufacturing and new housing; ignore the woke; and fight climate change as the Tories are (or risk losing a generation of support). That’s where the GOP will have to go if they want to recover from becoming an authoritarian cult.
Come to think of it, this would be a great formula for the Democrats as well if they really want to win in 2020. And that’s where the other parallel comes in. Labour’s policy-makers and intellectuals had no idea they were going to be electorally slaughtered, because London is the same bubble as New York, D.C., San Francisco, and Austin. I had very intelligent Labour friends of mine telling me this week that Corbyn could well pull off a miracle. And the knee-jerk reaction of Left Twitter to the results does not suggest that bubble is even close to being pricked. But London is not England. And Brooklyn, thank God, is not America. In the immortal words of the anti-Corbyn lefty Nick Cohen: “Never mistake your Twitter feed for your country.”
The New Anti-Semitism
Here’s a confession. For much of my adult life, I thought real anti-Semitism was dead in the West. Yes, I imagined it existed on the far fringes of both right and left. By real anti-Semitism, I should hasten to add, I don’t mean criticism of Israel’s policies of West Bank settlements or of the Israeli government’s attempts to sabotage Barack Obama’s foreign policy. I mean the kind of conspiracy theories, slurs about money, and charges of dual loyalty that were once commonplace in mainstream Western discourse. Maybe it was because I grew up in an era that focused on the horrors of the Holocaust that it seemed unconscionable to me that people would ever bring up these old smears. Or because in Washington, I had become used to seeing how often any and all criticism of Israel was reflexively dismissed as anti-Semitic (I did work at The New Republic in the 1990s after all).
But I was wrong. This virus has returned like a deadly flu. The domestic terror attack on a kosher deli in Jersey City is yet another case in which terrifying Jewish Americans where they should feel perfectly at home — a deli, a synagogue, a school — has become a regular reality. This is Brooklyn in the fall of 2019:
On Friday night, surveillance video captured a man throwing a brick through the window of a Hasidic girls’ school in Crown Heights. On the same night in the Borough Park neighborhood, at least three identifiably Orthodox men were punched by assailants. Also in Borough Park, multiple Orthodox Jews had eggs thrown at them over the weekend.
Over the last 12 months, there were 246 anti-Semitic crimes in the Big Apple, up from 144 over the previous 12 months. The number of anti-Semitic assaults jumped to 33 in 2018, up from 17 in 2017, and is on pace to rise again this year, with 19 in just the first half of the year.
A friend of mine who was visiting London was spat on in broad daylight for wearing a kippa. In 2017, a 27-year-old Parisian deliberately tortured and murdered a 65-year-old teacher by throwing her out of her own window, because she said, “I felt persecuted. When I saw the Torah and a chandelier in her home I felt oppressed. I saw her face transforming.” He was treated leniently by the judges because he had been smoking weed, and was alleged to have had a psychotic episode. No, I’m not making that up.
Bari Weiss has a comprehensive account of this surge of Jew-hatred. Among those Jew-haters is Bernie Sanders surrogate Linda Sarsour:
The part of her talk that circulated online focused on the apparent hypocrisy of progressive Zionists: How, Ms. Sarsour asked about people who are the No. 1 target of white supremacists, can they claim to oppose white supremacy when they support “a state like Israel that is built on supremacy, that is built on the idea that Jews are supreme to everybody else?”
In Britain, a formal complaint about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party from the Jewish Labour Movement was leaked last week. It makes for some sobering reading. Here are a few of the incidents these Jewish socialists have compiled: In March 2019, a Labour councilor made a joke about “Jew process”; she also rewrote the “First they came for the Jews …” trope to include “they came for the anti-Zionists”; one Jewish Labour member claims that at local Labour Party meetings, he was called “a Tory Jew,” “Zio-scum,” a “child killer,” and told “to shut the fuck up, Jew” and “Hitler was right.” One former Labour councilor was told to “go home and count your money”; one Labour member was told that the Jewish Labour Movement was “financed and controlled by the Israeli government.” Two Labour delegates at the annual party conference in 2018 averred that Jews are “subhuman” and that “they should be grateful we don’t force them to eat bacon at breakfast every day.” These are in reports from Labour Party officials.
In the broader Labour movement, it’s just as bad. In 2016, at the Oxford University Labour Club, Auschwitz was described as “a cash cow.” Online, Jews have been described as “bent-nosed manipulative liars”; there have been claims that Zionists ran the Nazi death camps; and former Labour MP Luciana Berger was subjected to horrifying abuse in 2018, such as “we shall rid the Jews who are a cancer on all of us.” Another Jewish Labour MP, Ruth Smeeth, was called a “yid cunt” and a “fucking traitor.” Margaret Hodge MP has been described on pro-Corbyn Facebook pages as “Zionist bitch,” a “zionist remedial cancer,” “under orders from her paymasters in Israel.” She has received abusively anti-Semitic emails, among which include the following: “Isn’t better [sic] that troublemakers like yourself return to where you and your religion comes from. If you think about it in detail, your are the ones who are racist, by telling us what we must do to please you. We are in our homeland.” And: “Your smear campaign in defense of a racist ethno-state would make Goebbels proud.” It’s striking how many Jewish women have experienced some of the worst anti-Semitic abuse.
The Labour Party leadership has been extremely slow in addressing these complaints — countless are pending — so that the Jewish Labour Movement has had to appeal to the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Jeremy Corbyn himself has written the foreword to the reissue of a 1902 book by J.A. Hobson that includes a chapter on Europe’s financial and political life as controlled by “men of a single and peculiar race” who were in a “unique position to control the policy of nations … There is not a war, a revolution, an anarchist assassination, or any other public shock, which is not gainful to these men; they are harpies who suck their gains from every new forced expenditure and every sudden disturbance of public credit.” Corbyn praised the book as “a great tome” and “brilliant.” He attacked the BBC in 2011 for being in thrall to those who believe the Jewish state “has a right to exist.” Yet Corbyn still had the endorsement of the Guardian. Tony Blair told us he would vote for Corbyn’s party — despite 50 percent of British Jews saying they would “seriously consider” emigrating had Labour won the election.
To give a sense of how unseriously the rise in Jew-hating has been taken, look at what Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York said after the Jersey City news: “This confirms a sad truth, there is a crisis of anti-Semitism gripping this nation. And now this threat has reached the doorstep of New York City.” Now? And on the doorstep? After the surge in anti-Semitic violence in the city for the past two years?
Why this relative indifference? Perhaps for the same reason I didn’t see it coming: So many of us thought this kind of thing was done with, we dismissed some of this news from our minds. But perhaps too it is a function of the race of these particular anti-Semites. We easily recognize — as we should — the familiar and ugly anti-Semitism of the far right, which remains much more of a threat than the far left. There was a telling tweet by Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, when she first heard the Jersey City news: “This is heartbreaking. White Supremacy Kills.” But the anti-Semitism of the Black Hebrew Israelite movement doesn’t as well? Remember the last time the Black Israelites were in the news — for taunting and lobbing racist insults at the white schoolboys from Covington. Adam Serwer, who sees white supremacy everywhere, reassured us that there was nothing really to see here: “Its members stand on crowded street corners with bullhorns and yell vile things, including racist, sexist, and homophobic slurs, at anyone who passes by. D.C. residents do not respond to these provocations with confrontation. They ignore them.” If those same insults were delivered by members of the Klan on street corners, would Serwer have said the same thing?
And that helps expose how the social-justice movement has diminished anti-Semitism as a threat. Since racism has been redefined to mean “structural racism” — as opposed to prejudice against others because of the color of their skin — the Black Israelites or groups of young black men in Brooklyn as agents of bigotry doesn’t compute for many of the woke. Under the new orthodoxy, people of color are almost by definition incapable of manifesting racial hatred, because it is merely a form of power. We were told by Tamika Mallory, former co-president of the Women’s March, that “white Jews, as white people, uphold white supremacy.” That is, Jews are victims but also victimizers according to these rules. The social-justice response to targeted murders of Jews qua Jews is thereby qualified.
This is not to deny that white supremacists are a much bigger threat overall. They are. We need many more resources to tackle them. But that does not help the Orthodox in Brooklyn or East London. We should know by now that anti-Semitism is a peculiarly resilient toxin, can infect anyone’s soul, and can easily inhabit the minds of those on the left as well as on the right. Time to wake up, and take this poison seriously.