Michael Dobbs, author of the original, British “House of Cards” television program and the novels that preceded the show, not surprisingly writes a fine column. In his “end of decade” review for the Telegraph, Dobbs reflected on a decade of upheaval in Britain, one matched by our own convulsions here at home.
Britain not only has been a parade of different governments in the past decade but also has seen a triple play of critical referendums — a vote on independence for Scotland, a vote on a new system of electing members of Parliament and, of course, the “Leave/Remain” choice of Brexit. The decade of roller-coaster politics ended with Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the driver’s seat, the redoubtable Elizabeth II delivering her 68th “Queen’s Speech” and a 14th prime minister trooping to Buckingham Palace to seek her blessing since she assumed the throne in 1952.
(Elizabeth is Britain’s longest reigning monarch and the subject of popular curiosity of a new sort because of the smash success of Netflix’s “The Crown.” She must find these “decade in review” exercises amusing. Many find her presence reassuring. Much changes in our world every year, indeed every month; and yet she has not.)
Dobbs summed up the British decade succinctly: “The story of this past decade wasn’t the death throes of Conservatism at all, but instead the demise of the liberal elite, dragged down by the weight of their own moral certainties.”
“Brexit was the single most important issue of the decade,” he continued, “the referendum its most significant moment, yet the elites — simply couldn’t believe they didn’t own it. They knew they were right, even when they lost. So what was their response to the outcome of the largest vote in this country’s history? To call 17.4 million voters stupid and ill-informed.”
Sound familiar? This was the response of American elites of all sorts to Donald Trump’s remarkable triumph in the United States in 2016. All-out opposition from millions whose self-regard was greater than their esteem for the people’s vote began on the day after his inauguration with the pink-hat march. (Yes, we know: Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, which didn’t matter when George Washington won our first election in 1789 and won’t matter in 2020 or for as long as this constitutional republic endures.) That opposition to Trump has never relented and has indeed grown frequently frenzied and often incoherent. And it has never deterred Trump in the least. Arguably, he fed off it, drew energy from it, shaped his unique brand of politics from it.
It seems obvious to me that, to Trump, his rallies are a feedback loop, and the messages he tests there are absorbed into his agenda depending on their reception from his crowds. That base is the opposite of the elites, and it endorses or disparages as it will, and Trump notices and adjusts. Like Boris Johnson did. Neither man is remotely autocratic, no matter what their fevered critics allege. Both are gifted politicians.
The year ahead will be about debating Trump’s many achievements and following Johnson’s many initiatives. Britain is very much a test run for American politics. The Democrats will eventually make a choice of nominee and then state-by-state polling will begin to bring the great vote of 2020 into view.
It will be the last act of a tumultuous decade, and the opening curtain on the decade of Big China and Big Tech and the free world’s reckoning with both. The people in Britain, Australia and Japan have put into place leaders serious about both central challenges. My bet is that U.S. voters will brush aside the insanity of Democratic stunt politics such as impeachment, and keep Trump and his focus on China in the White House, and his two key Cabinet members, the brilliant Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Attorney General William P. Barr, at work. Their jobs are respectively dedicated in large part to the two big challenges of China and Big Tech.
It has taken a decade of shocks, but the West is finally positioned to see the world and its central challenges clearly. Just in time.