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.
Here’s the situation. The nation’s leader has behaved in ways that experts have denounced as unconstitutional. His opposition is livid and calling for his removal, while many in the leader’s party slavishly attempt to justify his conduct. The media cannot stop talking about it. The general public hasn’t entirely made up its mind, but seem much less up in arms. Overall, in all likelihood, the leader’s potential breach of the law will yield no immediate consequences for him.
Now here’s the thing that’s truly mind-boggling. This week, that brief, damning summary describes the political reality of two of the world’s leading nations, both the United Kingdom and the United States. As an American born and raised in Washington DC and a historian of modern Britain now rearing a blended US-UK family in both countries, I can only marvel and strive to make sense of what’s happening as both countries seem to sink ever deeper into a political abyss of their own making.
The conclusions are hardly encouraging. While both prime minister Boris Johnson and President Donald Trump were elected under the banner of one of their country’s major political parties, both stake their claim to legitimacy not on their having won out in the traditional game of party politics, but on their ability to cut through “politics as usual” and act on behalf of the popular will.
In the US, this populism manifests itself most clearly in Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp” in Washington, or side-step the party hacks, including those members of his own party, who see their only job as maintaining the status quo.
To review: In Britain, the high court declared on Wednesday that Johnson’s actions advising the queen to prorogue, or suspend, Parliament for five weeks in the run up to the October 31 Brexit deadline was unlawful, as there appeared to be no justification for the suspension. Their ruling compelled Johnson to leave the UN climate change summit in New York and fly back to London where he met MPs with defiance, declaring the court’s decision wrong and reiterating his determination to “get Brexit done.”
The same day that the British court released its opinion, US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a formal impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, based in part on revelations that he attempted to sway Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden.
The rough transcript of Trump’s conversations with Zelensky, released the following day, appeared to many to confirm that Trump had violated his constitutional oath by effectively seeking aid from a foreign power to influence the 2020 presidential election. With characteristic chutzpah, Trump turned to Twitter to denounce the impeachment hearings as THE GREATEST SCAM IN THE HISTORY OF AMERICAN POLITICS!, prompting former first daughter Chelsea Clinton’s inspired reply: “Yes, you are.”
While Chelsea’s tweet-back may have delighted those who have long believed Trump to be unfit for office, there is as yet little evidence that either of the constitutional crises sparked by Johnson’s or Trump’s behavior have hurt their support with their respective bases. Even moderate members of their own parties, who can be presumed to be uneasy about their leaders’ seemingly cavalier approach to the law, are keeping quiet.
Where has our outrage gone? When Richard Nixon was exposed as having ordered and then covered up the Watergate break in, he resigned the presidency rather than face near-certain impeachment. Today, Trump seems confident he can brazen it out even if the House of Representatives impeaches him, secure in the support of Senate Republicans who have his back. In Britain, Johnson is so sure of his support from the public that he sought Wednesday to goad his opponents into bringing down his government so that he could call a general election and take the issue to the voters.
What has changed since the 1970s? Have Americans and Britons just stopped caring about our constitutions?
The answer is a bit more complicated than that. The response so far among everyday Americans and Britons reflects, at least in part, the toxic effects of their populist leaders – the ones most recently lampooned by The Economist as “Twitterdum and Twaddledee” – on the democratic institutions of their respective countries.
In Trump’s view, he is the people’s tribune, and Congress, especially but not exclusively its Democratic leadership, exists only to thwart the people’s will. Trump’s persistent denigration of Congress as corrupt and obstructionist has worked to erode the legitimacy of the legislature’s constitutional oversight role in the eyes of his supporters. If pressed, many might accept that what appears to be an attempt to extort the Ukrainian president was illegal, but they are unwilling to accept that Congress could exercise its constitutional function and act as an impartial arbiter of the president’s guilt in an impeachment proceeding.
In Britain, politics has been complicated for the past three years by the thorny issue of Brexit. While the public voted 52% to 48% in June 2016 to bring Britain out of the European Union, a majority of MPs from all of the major political parties are unwilling to allow Britain to crash out of the EU without a clear agreement in place on post-Brexit relations with Europe. Those MPs have been pressuring the prime minister to delay Brexit until such an agreement can be reached, something that he has vowed not to do. The referendum result created a rival – and populist – source of legitimacy in British politics. Johnson, who does not have a working majority in Parliament, can (and does) claim to draw his mandate directly from the people.
In Johnson’s view, then, the high court on Tuesday barged into a political battle over whether Parliament or the people are sovereign. And he believes that the people agree. Thus his defiant tone in Parliament on Wednesday, where he declared his view that “court was wrong,” and then went on to insist that, “We will not betray the people who sent us here. We will not abandon the priorities that matter to the public. We will continue to challenge those opposition parties to uphold democracy.”
At first, it seemed that both leaders might be able to brazen it out. As BBC political correspondent Laura Kuenssberg reported on Johnson’s performance in Parliament on Wednesday, “The more savage it was the more they roared. The Prime Minister had almost provoked his own side into backing him like this.” A similar belligerence was initially on display within Republican ranks. Trump may well be able to keep his party behind him, but already potential cracks are beginning to appear in their unified façade.
Get our free weekly newsletter
The question now is whether it will be harder for British and American legislators and voters to rationalize a leader’s breaking of the law to influence a future election than it has been for many of them to accept breaking the law – or, a the very least, staggering violations of the rule of law and democratic norms – to deliver on an perceived electoral mandate.