Quickly on the presidential race, then to Brexit.
Hillary Clinton has been given a great gift by Donald Trump. She hadn’t been able to explain the purpose or meaning of her candidacy. She tried out various themes and slogans, but nothing ever took or seemed real. Everything came down to I’m Hillary and I deserve it. But now she has it, in only three words: “I’m not Trump.” I may have narcissistic personality disorder, but he’s got it worse and in spades. If I’m corrupt, he’s more corrupt. I have poor judgment? Everything he says is poor judgment. He endangers us!
Not long ago Mr. Trump was a phenomenon the Clinton campaign couldn’t quite grok. When she slammed him on women, her campaign was shocked that he came back harder and rougher. But he’s made himself predictable. His first response to the Orlando attack, while blood is still warm on the floor, is to note that people are congratulating him for being right about radical Islam. Mrs. Clinton knows exactly how to play it from there: calm, saddened, temperate.
He has righted her ship, too, by providing her with a new self-understanding. She’s not entitled and endlessly self-aggrandizing; she is on a mission for her country: Keep That Man Out of the White House.
Listless supporters are newly revitalized. They too have a mission. It is no longer “I must pull the lever for a woman even I find untrustworthy and corrupt”; it is “I will work for the one person who can keep an actual mental case out of the White House.”
From the Judge Curiel gaffe, if that’s the word, through Orlando, Mr. Trump has comported himself with the art and deftness of Broderick Crawford in “Born Yesterday.” I wonder if his supporters understand how much he is letting them, and their issues, down.
Washington Republicans have PTSD, Post Trump Stress Disorder. They don’t understand why he doesn’t broaden his reach, move on from what makes his rallies cheer, and start to persuade and reassure others. He needs to show maturity. Instead of reaching out, he’s doubling down. To political professionals this looks like political malpractice. Their new fear is not that Mr. Trump will not change but that he cannot change—doesn’t know how to, doesn’t have any sense of how a mature candidate would act.
Something tells me this story isn’t over—there will be more movement and action at the convention than we expect.
To Brexit. The question of whether Britain will leave the European Union, to be decided next Thursday in a referendum, is a political moment of the first order. It has been sharpened and made tragic by the apparent assassination of a member of Parliament.
My conclusion from four days in London talking to both sides, Leave and Remain, is that in spite of recent polls showing gains for Leave, no one knows what’s going to happen. Everyone has the eye-twitching expectation the voters will deliver a surprise, they just don’t know which one. My anecdote is that a London cabbie told me that for eight days he’s been asking his passengers where they stand: “37 Leave, 18 Remain.” That didn’t make sense—London is assumed to be heavily pro-Remain—but he showed me the yellow notepad on which he kept score.
No one knows what clichés will hold. The old are said to be for Leave because they knew Britain before it joined Europe in 1973, know it can exist without it, and know what was gained—and lost—in joining. The young are said to be pro-Remain because being in the EU is all they’ve ever known, and they like what they’ve known and fear change. So if as a child you screamed for the Beatles you’re the rebel, and if you’re all about Kanye you’re the staid and prudent one.
The Leave forces believe the EU no longer works for Britain, if it ever did, and robs its sovereignty. They argue the EU’s reach and overbearing busybodyness damage both the idea and reality of democracy. There is a famous class element. Leave voters despise a high-handed Brussels elite. Remain forces argue that leaving after 40 years is a costly gamble with unknowable impact. As Matthew Parris argued in the Spectator, Remain is “the unexciting option,” Leave “a mystery door behind which lies a choice between many mystery doors.” If Britain votes Leave, the EU will set the terms of the departure. It is generally assumed the EU will be somewhat punitive, which gives the whole drama the feel of a jailbreak, with a vengeful warden punishing Britain to set an example for the other prisoners. Free advice to the EU: If Britain leaves, grit your teeth and fake graciousness. This would be statesmanlike and project a benign air. Also it would undermine the widespread impression of the EU as bullying, imperious and driven by self-interest.
It is rightly noted that the Remain campaign did a lot wrong, using dodgy claims to frighten voters. When the claims became increasingly hysterical—leaving might lead to war!—and their financial assertions came under scrutiny, they had nothing left. Leave’s numbers have been questioned, too, but they still have something—the argument that Leave is a vote to help and protect the country you love. No one loves a geopolitical landmass called Europe, and no one feels a special loyalty to it. Last week I heard an EU supporter make a sincere reference to the “European heart.” I thought: That’s wrong. There is an Irish heart, a Spanish soul, British guts. People do not emotionally affiliate with a Continentwide bureaucracy, they are loyal to their country. (I’d vote Leave if I were British.) Michael Gove, a member of Parliament who fully emerged as a Conservative leader in the debate, showed he understood this when he offered the testimony of his father, an Aberdeen fisherman who saw his industry almost collapse under EU directives and restrictions.
President Obama’s insertion of himself in the debate was, as they say, worse than a crime, it was a blunder. Visiting London in April, he warned Britain it would suffer in terms of future trade deals with America if it left—it would wind up “in the back of the queue.” Advice is one thing, a threat is another, and Mr. Obama’s was widely resented. That he said “queue” rather than “line” made it look orchestrated, even dictated, by Downing Street. If Remain loses, Prime Minister David Cameron will fall. What struck me this week is wherever Britons stand on Brexit, no one seems to love him.
In America and Europe, with Donald Trump and Brexit, the same issue predominates: immigration. It is mind-boggling that the elites of the West still struggle so haplessly with the idea that their way has failed. The intelligent, sturdy Angela Merkel of Germany—the EU’s staunchest defender, indeed its symbol—last summer made the decision to invite a million refugees to a Europe with no plans or even capacity to handle the influx. This decision gave a special boost to Brexit. If it passes, Britain’s exit may spark the slow—or not so slow—unraveling of the EU.