Who would ever want to live in this train wreck of a Western democracy? The government is led by an utter buffoon — an oversize clown with yellow hair blowing every which way who can’t utter a complete sentence in public and can’t keep his fly zipped. Through a series of impulsive and irrational policy moves, its economy is on the brink of collapsing — along with its social fabric. A stunned public is starting to realize that centuries of enviable democratic tradition may have been more of a mirage than a solid shelter from the gathering storm.
And yet, in one way — and arguably it’s the most important way of all — Boris Johnson’s nightmare of a United Kingdom (who did you think I was talking about?) is still managing to put Donald Trump’s United States of America to shame.
To quote the great Dan Rather ... courage. Or maybe it should be expressed in terms that Americans better understand — a lack of cowardice, a political concept that almost doesn’t even compute on our quivering side of the great pond that sits between us.
On the whole, I’d rather be in Boris’s battered Britain — despite the chaos of Brexit, with a great nation torn asunder since its disputed and possibly Russian-influenced vote in 2016 (ahem) to leave the European Union. And despite the abomination of Johnson — ruling a nation through the quirks of parliamentary government in which he was voted in by less than 1 percent of the public — essentially suspending Parliament and showing that Britain’s unwritten constitution may not be worth the paper it isn’t written on. And despite the Halloween fright of Johnson’s scheme to leave the EU on October 31 even if there’s no deal and the UK economy — and maybe the world’s — collapses.
That’s because of the one thing our former colonial masters cling to, which seems so, well, foreign to today’s America: politicians with spunk.
I like spunk.
Right now I also like Amber Rudd, who until the middle of last week was the UK’s Secretary of State for Work and Pension. I probably wouldn’t much like Rudd’s center-right Tory politics, but I do greatly admire Rudd’s decision to leave Johnson’s cabinet and Parliament in protest over the new prime minister’s anti-democratic tactics, including expelling 21 other Conservative MPs from the party for voting for the sanity of postponing a no-deal Brexit.
Rudd wrote in her resignation letter that she could no longer remain silent while Johnson led an “assault on decency and democracy.” A high-level politician choosing her principles — and democratic values — over a large steady paycheck and a high-profile platform? Can you imagine? If you’re living in America and largely focused on our own warped domestic politics ... no, you can’t imagine.
As an increasingly autocratic Trump grinds through the guardrails of 243 years of our imperfect but aspirational American Experiment and lines his own pockets in the process, it’s hard to say who at the upper levels of U.S. politics has been the most feckless these last three to four grim years. It’s hard to top Mitch McConnell and his fellow Republicans in Congress with their willingness to feed entire pages of the U.S. Constitution into the shredder as long as extreme-right-wing white male judges and tax cuts for billionaires come out on the other side.
But giving Moscow Mitch a run for his money in the feckless department are the cabinet members and a vice president who drool in their praise of Dear Leader, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and other leading Democrats who fearfully see a Trump impeachment as a game of political chess rather than as enforcing the rule of law, a media cowed that it will lose a few conservative subscribers if it accurately describes our Caligula-like emperor’s “new clothes,” and even a public that “strongly disapproves” of the Trump presidency but not strongly enough to take to the streets.
That would cover ... almost everyone. To paraphrase Beto O’Rourke, what the feck?
By American standards, the political spunk of an Amber Rudd seems truly remarkable, and yet she is hardly alone among her British peers in actually choosing principle over party. In these United States, it’s simply inconceivable that 21 Republican members of Congress would openly defy Trump on a significant vote — even on destructive policies that they clearly disagree with like the president’s destructive trade war. (This is, after all, the same GOP that’s run so far from democracy that it cancels its primaries rather than abide a challenge to Generalissimo Trump.) But 21 Conservative members of Parliament stood up to Johnson on Brexit — a move that led to their Tory expulsion.
In the United Kingdom, they have Nicholas Soames, the 71-year-old grandson of Winston Churchill who essentially ended his political career to defy his party’s leader on Brexit, accusing Johnson of “running the Trump playbook” and essentially telling the embattled PM that I knew Churchill and you, sir, are no Churchill. In the United States, we have James Mattis, a career general who worshiped the war tactics of Sun Tzu and somehow earned the nickname “Mag Dog” even as Trump turned his former defense secretary into a simpering pup, unwilling or too scared to share his thoughts about the president’s unfitness even in his new tell-nothing book.
In the United Kingdom, they have Jo Johnson — yes, the prime minister’s own brother — who wrote that under Boris’s rule “[i]n recent weeks I’ve been torn between family loyalty and the national interest,” and who amazingly (to us, certainly) picked the national interest by resigning. In the United States, we have the Trump family and all that that implies — Ivanka’s high-fashion global preening for daddy’s dictatorship, Don Jr.'s cluelessness about a free press, and Trump’s sister, who resigned as emeritus federal judge rather than answer questions about her family’s tax-avoidance schemes.
Although Brexit and a near-death experience for UK democracy still hang in the balance, there is a feistiness in London and elsewhere in their kingdom that just has not been matched on the empty streets of America. How else to explain the massive #StopTheCoup protests that erupted as Johnson attempted to involve the Queen in stifling his reluctant Parliament? That may have had a positive impact on the growing resistance to Johnson’s scheme. Protests work? Who knew?
In fairness, Johnson’s moves to thwart Parliament and possibly impose no-deal Brexit have had the political impact of a Molotov cocktail, whereas over here Trump’s recipe for authoritarianism has been more a frog-in-boiling-water situation, with each crazy act raising the political temperature just slightly enough that the impeachment-or-mass-protest timer never goes off.
But it’s time to sound that bell, and for somebody, somewhere, to stand up to the madness of Trump. It wasn’t the faceless functionaries in the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) who think making Dear Leader look good is more important than the people’s need for accurate weather forecasts. Nor was it the military brass who didn’t see a problem with filling up the coffers at the commander-in-chief’s private business in Scotland when they filled up their jets with petrol. Where are America’s Amber Rudds, our Nicholas Soames’s or our Jo Johnsons with the courage to just say no to a rapidly deteriorating autocrat who possesses a button that can blow up the world?
Mark this month — September 2019 — on your calendar as the month that we either saved American democracy or broke it for good. Despite the 1,200 words of cynicism that you’ve just read here, there are some green shoots of hope worth noting. This week, the Democrat-led House of Representatives returns to Washington with a new spin on impeachment and a much better plan for investigating Trump. At the same time, the fall weather is bringing some ripples of protest — over Trump and, not unrelatedly, climate change — that could turn into a hurricane with a little coordination. And I’ll be writing about this in the coming weeks. Until then, it’s a sad day when the ancient losers of Bunker Hill and Saratoga have to teach America a lesson about courage and standing up for what’s right.