A friend recently wrote to me, informing me we have fallen out over Brexit. He notes in passing that of all the friends he’s lost because of Britain’s decision to leave the E.U., I am the one he misses most. It is a consoling thought, notwithstanding that the falling-out was entirely unilateral—apparently due to his unwillingness “to break bread with Brexshiteers” [sic].
He added that he now lists himself among the “despised cosmopolites—the new Jews.” It may seem astounding that this man was for many years a writer with one of the premier British national newspapers, one of the most outstanding journalists in that country for decades. He believes people who voted for Brexit—or those seeking to understand them (my own category)—are dangerous reactionaries, on a par with Nazis. There is only one reason why my former friend would write such nonsense: He sincerely believes it. He does not issue these idiotic proclamations for effect.
Such manifest disproportion may strike us as funny, but it represents the perspective of many who report on Brexit and similar matters. Although 52 percent of the U.K.'s population made a clear statement of intent to disengage from the E.U. three years ago, the vast preponderance of media coverage since then has been hostile to that decision. If we content ourselves with mere horror, outrage, or amusement at this uncomprehending hostility, we miss the true gravity of our situation.
There is a reason why the cosmopolites need to remain convinced that Brexit is merely the sting of a dying reactionary wasp. Their whole lives have been devoted to promoting a program of “progress,” and it is therefore impossible for them to look beyond it, or imagine that many may have good, sensible reasons for rejecting it. They sense that the counter-revolution is closing in and that unless they can cling to the levers of control and chronicling, far from being the heroes of the age, they may end up its villains. Hence, it is “obvious” to them that dissenters are Nazis.
As an Irish citizen, I did not vote in the Brexit referendum and, as it happens, I have written unaccountably little on the matter. In my sole article on the subject, read by my former friend, I had not expressed any clear view. In July 2016 I wrote in an obscure Irish magazine, seeking to define the precise nature of Brexit sentiment. My central observation was that Brexit was favored by those who lived outside cities—though not “uneducated, doddery dupes from the countryside,” but people who, unlike many Remainers, were deeply engaged with their society, its nature and history.
A useful distinction, I suggested, would be between the virtual and the concrete: Those who lived within the networks of pseudo-communication and those who held the concrete world together by mending, servicing, plowing, and cleaning:
The older voters, those who work hard but are not rich, those who continue to think and observe, those who read their news on paper, those who are free from the propagandist deluge of the BBC, Guardian, Facebook, Twitter etc.—all finally saying, “Enough! No more!! Please, listen to what we are saying, please respect us and our lives and our thoughts also!”
I described how the generations of the new virtual world, cosseted in cities where they become immune to the needs of the real world, now imagine themselves to represent the fruit of human society, when really they are the peel.
I wrote back to my former friend, suggesting he read National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy by Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin. It identifies four fundamental factors driving the populist wave: Distrust (of politicians), destruction (of nations, communities, and culture by globalism), deprivation (of the economic and societal context wherein native working people might live good, gainful, and satisfying lives), and de-alignment (from traditional political loyalties as a result of the other three).
Eatwell and Goodwin dispose of the myths of Brexit, Trump, and national populism generally, including the belief that the populists’ concerns are rooted merely in the financial meltdown of the past decade. Economics is a factor, but not the most vital one. At stake is a deeper sense of an impending threat to the very fabric of the lives that people have lived hitherto. Populism mobilizes the displaced legions of the former working and lower-middle classes of the farming and industrial heartlands, whose lives are slowly being edged from viability by globalism and the strident claims of the new minorities.
Eatwell and Goodwin describe a syndrome they call “national populism-lite,” which emerges when mainstream conservative parties, increasingly squeezed by what house-trained journalists call the “far right,” adopt elements of the national populist agenda. We see this unfolding in Britain, where Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party has become in effect the Brexit Party because of the threat from Nigel Farage and his actual Brexit Party. In my post-referendum article in 2016, I cast doubts on Boris’s sincerity in campaigning for Brexit, suggesting that he had “played a faux populist tune” in order to block Nigel from cashing in the gains of a Brexit win or close call. Now in the driving seat, Boris’s options are dictated not by his own ideological preferences—insofar as such exist—but by the realpolitik of a radically changed arena.
Boris is nonetheless a natural populist, according to the categories identified by Eatwell and Goodwin. Like Farage, Trump, Salvini, and others, Boris bespeaks a new era of politics, perhaps not so much “populist,” but post-technocratic, a break with the automatism of recent times and a return to classical soapbox politics. Such figures exist in sharp contrast to Macron, Cameron, Trudeau, Merkel, etc.—who suggest themselves less as the representatives of human beings than as bureaucratic machines. They are akin to thinly developed characters played by inferior actors, who might be replaced by robots unnoticed.
Trump, Farage, and Johnson are theatrical, but in the style of great character actors playing momentous men-of-history. They present as genuine public representatives, even when, as in the case of Johnson and Trump, they are separated by class background or extravagant wealth from those they seek to woo. Unmistakably of the everyday world, they have not learned to compress their personalities to avoid the risks of displaying human indiscretion or error. They are unafraid of revealing flaws or sins, but seem to trade off them, as though conscious that an air of sinfulness is a necessary shield against the far worse charge of Pharisaism. This tendency allows them to go by first names—“Boris,” “Nigel,” not just “Donald” but “The Donald”—and this is also what lends them so readily to demonization by the uncomprehending cosmopolites, who neither sin nor forgive.
John Waters is an Irish writer and commentator, the author of nine books, and a playwright.