Editor’s Note: Laura Beers is an associate professor of history at American University. She is the author of “Your Britain: Media and the Making of the Labour Party” and “Red Ellen: The Life of Ellen Wilkinson, Socialist, Feminist, Internationalist.” The views expressed here are solely hers. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Last week, I took my 7-year-old to see “Hamilton: An American Musical” in London. We both know the soundtrack nearly by heart, but watching the play live less than a mile from the Palace of Westminster threw the revolutionary success story into new relief. Several members of the audience laughingly groaned when King George III lamented that fighting with France and Spain was making him blue. But the comparison that stood out most pointedly to me was not between the politically isolated King George and the current Prime Minister, but between Theresa May and Alexander Hamilton.
Hamilton’s signal political achievement was his success in piloting his scheme for a national bank through a hostile Congress and then winning over opposition within George Washington’s Cabinet. As Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton laments to Washington, his opponents “don’t have a plan, they just hate mine!” Faced with such intransigence, Miranda depicts Hamilton’s transformation from a righteous defender of his own position into a master of the art of the compromise. Determined to stay in the game and come out with a win, he holds his nose, closes his eyes, and trades his support for moving the nation’s capital south to the Potomac in exchange for James Madison and Thomas Jefferson’s support for the new bank.
Unlike Prince Harry, who notoriously joined the cast on stage with his wife Meghan Markle after a charity production of Hamilton last summer and briefly broke into song, May apparently has not yet been to see the phenomenal production whose sell-out run helped give the West End its highest grossing year ever. In steering clear of Hamilton mania, May shares company with American President Donald Trump, who has declined to see the play since the New York cast was (to quote Trump’s tweets) “very rude” to Vice President Mike Pence when he went to see the performance in 2016. At the time, the cast asked Pence to “uphold our American values.”
Yet both May and Trump could learn a lot from Hamilton’s willingness to reach across the aisle and negotiate a grand settlement that transcended party divides. Since her Brexit deal was voted down by 432-202, May has made no real effort to listen to the concerns of the 304 members of the opposition who voted against the deal. Instead, she has focused her energies on trying to finesse the backstop and persuade the 128 Tory and Democratic Unionist Party defectors to get behind her plan.
Over the past week, the EU has shown no willingness to give ground on the issue of the backstop – the provision in the Brexit deal agreed between May’s government and Brussels which stipulates that, if a settlement cannot be reached that maintains the free movement of goods and people across the Irish border, the United Kingdom will remain in an indefinite customs union with the EU. Miraculously, as we go to press, May has just succeeded in bringing enough of the hard Brexiteers together behind her Plan B – which is essentially Plan A, minus a decision to charge Europeans currently living in Britain to remain in the country and plus a promise to try her best to renegotiate on the backstop – to eke out a narrow victory. However, it is a triumph of Tory party unity, not a successful product of cross-party negotiation.
Faced with the prospect of his finance bill not passing, Miranda’s Hamilton asked Washington, “What happens if I don’t get congressional approval?” to which the President ruefully replies, “I imagine they’ll call for your removal.” May’s success in both a party leadership vote and a parliamentary vote of no confidence means that she is not at imminent risk of removal, but she is facing a real risk of losing control of the Brexit negotiating process. If May wants to be the one who delivers a Brexit deal that the country can get behind, she needs to abandon her “red lines” and reach across the aisle and engage seriously with Labour politicians’ demands for a softer Brexit that includes some form of customs union.
Trump could learn a similar lesson from Hamilton. In the United States, the government has finally reopened, after a shutdown lasting an unprecedented 35 days. Both Democratic and hard-right Republican pundits are suggesting that the President caved to pressure from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. But Friday’s decision to temporarily reopen the government is not a permanent solution to the funding crisis, and Trump has made it clear that he has not ruled out shutting the government down again if the Democrats have not agreed to fund his wall by February 15.
Trump, unlike May, presents himself as a master of the art of the compromise. In his own view, he was genuinely seeking to make a deal when he offered a three-year extension of protections for so-called Dreamers who entered the United States illegally as children, in exchange for reopening the government with a bill that includes funding for his wall. But a temporary extension of Dreamer status is not an offer to move the nation’s capital 140 miles south from Philadelphia into plantation territory. It wasn’t a sufficiently grand gesture to bring Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to the negotiating table. Trump’s problem is that, what the Democrats view as too little compromise, his own right-wing sees as giving away too much.
May’s and Trump’s situations are different, as are their personalities as politicians, but what unites them both is their inability to put nation before party. While Hamilton could remain confident that the Federalists would ultimately stand behind his compromise, May’s Tory Party is so plagued by division that a grand compromise that sidelined the hard Brexiteers would risk an irrevocable breach.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, the polarization of American politics has made it politically dangerous for Trump to offer even minor quarter to the Democrats. As Republicans have pointed out, Democrats did vote to fund a border wall in 2013, but they did so as part of a broad package that would have also offered a path to citizenship to millions of undocumented immigrants. Trump’s base, which opposed even his offer of a three-year amnesty for Dreamers, would never support his offering a similar compromise today.
The company in Hamilton sing that they “want our leaders to save the day,” but saving the day would require a statesman, and May and Trump have proved that they are better at leading their party than leading the nation. “Winning was easy … governing is harder.”