The year between the launch of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and Britain’s decision to withdraw from the European Union was enough time for conservative elites to divide themselves between Trump supporters and apologists, on the one hand, and Trump renouncers on the other.
It was not long enough, however, to occasion a broader rethinking of the conservative style in American politics that Trump epitomizes.
Movement conservatism thrived for decades in America on the strength of appeals to white resentment, until Trump proved the strategy could be hijacked in service of a populist and more explicitly racist agenda. Now, confronted with a foreign campaign of racial agitation thinly disguised as anti-establishment populism, many of Trump’s most ardent conservative critics—including opinion writers like Rich Lowry and activists like Erick Erickson—have nevertheless embraced the Brexit and celebrated its destabilizing victory. As in past domestic political battles, conservative elites have made peace with xenophobes and provided cover to them as allies of convenience in pursuit of a shared cultural or ideological goal.
As a snapshot of the conservative psyche, this is sobering. It’s a reminder that the damage Trump has done to the conservative movement might not ultimately motivate conservatives to embrace a less resentful style of politics. Conservatives may be chastened by Trump himself, but apparently not enough to wean themselves off of Trumpism as a political method.
In the United States, opinions about the British decision to withdraw from the European Union tend to break down along the ideological lines that circumscribe our own presidential race—a race that’s been defined by Trump’s promises to radically alter our national identity.
Most conservative and liberal American elites here are alarmed by both the success of the Leave campaign and by Trump’s victory in the Republican presidential primary. American nativists, along with a subset of leftist radicals, support the Brexit along with domestic political threats to the established order.
The outliers are conservative elites who profess to oppose Trump’s candidacy, but who nevertheless celebrate or romanticize triumphant Trumpian forces in the United Kingdom.
It’s obviously not racist, per se, to support the notion of Britain exiting the E.U. But the elite right’s winking alliance with the bigoted faction of British voters that pushed Leave past 50 percent represents a swift return to form for elite American conservatives.
In the wake of the Brexit vote, many conservatives are repurposing the analyses they promulgated back when Trump first topped Republican primary polls, when they were at least somewhat sympathetic to his cause: Pro-Leave Britons are suffering from economic and cultural dislocation, which they attribute rightly or wrongly to a large and growing immigrant population. They are rebelling against a governing elite that has failed them or rendered them invisible.
It’s not that these anodyne motives and others don’t partially explain the Brexit, but that the people citing them tend to conveniently omit the fact that a decisive factor in the Brexit vote (as in Trump’s rise) was nonspecific bigotry.
To the extent that these conservatives acknowledge the racial aspect of right-wing populism at all, it’s to intimate that progressives ought to dial back their cosmopolitanism–their hospitality to refugees, their more general openness to immigration–as ransom to bigots.
For Brexit foes preoccupied with the fact that forces of reaction and xenophobia carried the day in the U.K., New York Times columnist Ross Douthat suggested their own unwillingness to accommodate the reactionaries and xenophobes may explain their defeat:
Even if you suppose … that mass immigration would be an unalloyed good in a world where Western populations could manage to overcome their (or what you think of as their) bigotry and nativism and racism, in the world that actually exists politicians have to account for those forces and not simply assume that the right Facebook rules and elite-level political conspiracies can perpetually keep a lid on populism. If you make choices that very predictably empower the National Front or Pegida or Trump, you cannot wash your hands of those consequences by saying, “oh, it’s not my fault that my fellow countrymen are such terrible bigots.” The way to disempower demagogues is not to maintain a high-minded moral purity that’s dismissive of public opinion’s actual shape; it’s to balance your purity with prudence, so as to avoid handing demagogues issues that might eventually deprive you of power entirely, and render all your moral ambitions moot.
As an appeal to compromise, this would be better taken if advocates of withdrawal could have been placated by, say, reduced immigrant flows and a slower creep of multiculturalism. But it isn’t at all clear that that kind of “prudence” buys much good will from these populists.
When data show that support among Britons for Brexiting isn’t correlated with material losses associated with immigration—and where anti-immigrant sentiments long predate the migration explosion associated with EU liberalization—this counsel of prudence reads more like extortion. It amounts to setting forth conservative policy as the only way to keep truly dark forces at bay. Or, perhaps less generously, giving quarter to indefensible prejudices out of political expedience. Nice pluralistic society you’ve built there—hate to see anything happen to it.
This is more or less how conservatives have resisted the march of pluralism in general. The appeal of their strategy is that it has at times helped advance core movement goals. The drawback is that it provided a template that Trump has exploited to troubling effect. Many conservatives—even those who claim to be horrified by Trump—have now decided that’s a problem they can live with.