Donald Trump began fumbling the ball almost as soon as he ran away with it. The political revolution that was Trumpism is on hold for now, while the White House undergoes a series of scandals. All for reasons that are specific to Donald Trump: his lazy personnel decisions, his egotism, his inability to focus or master the forces that govern the Republican Congress. What if you could have Trumpism without Donald Trump? That is, what if you could take the same basic issues — sovereignty, immigration ruled by law, and economic policies meant to promote social stability — and get rid of Trump’s moral turpitude, personal indiscipline, and the most noxious and divisive parts of his rhetoric?
Well, it would look a lot like the campaign being run by the Tory party under Theresa May. That is, it would look like an electoral juggernaut with revolutionary potential.
By now, most people have realized that the populist rebellion against globalism runs across much of the Western world. And in hindsight it is easy to see that it has been bubbling up for decades. Across different countries it basically had the same animating political logic: Its enthusiasts wanted to combine traditional conservative voters with the remains of the post–World War II proletariat, especially the part of that class that believed they were losing ground.
That political dream appeared in a recent interview with Marine Le Pen’s niece, Marion Maréchel–Le Pen, who is retiring from politics. The youngest Le Pen said that to overcome the political status quo, in which progressive-flavored globalism sweeps all before it, a political movement would need to unite the conservative bourgeoisie with the working classes. It was the same political vision that animated Pat Buchanan when he told a Republican convention in 1992 that in the faces of unemployed steel and mill workers he saw “our people,” people he described as “conservatives of the heart.”
The political rationale is obvious. Such a combination would force the political center-left to become the party of Goldman Sachs and campus speech codes. It would turn the center-left into the party of the H.R. department that trains you in what to say and think because you are a Neanderthal, and then your company downsizes you, because it can get an environmental subsidy for outsourcing to the Third World the pollution associated with your job. In other words, the populist conservative promise was to reduce the opposition to a party of Hillary Clinton enthusiasts. And it is exactly what Trump did to win. He combined the heartland and southern states that were conservative stalwarts with what Michael Moore called the “Brexit states” of Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ohio.
But Teresa May is doing him one better. She is not just poised to squeak by in the upcoming snap election; she is set to inflict a rout on all the other parties in British politics. Nigel Farage’s UKIP has basically collapsed in a heap now that May’s Tories have embraced Brexit with zest. Some feared that Tory enthusiasm for Brexit would breathe new life into demands for a Scottish independence referendum. Instead, the misgovernment of the Scottish Nationalists in Holyrood and May’s “One Nation” rhetoric have brought about the improbable resurrection of the conservative Unionist tradition in Scotland.
And now May is pushing the Tory campaign deep into the Labour heartlands. And she’s taking more and more issues away from Labour. The Tory party’s manifesto calls for raising the minimum wage and for price caps on energy bills. It also calls for a new statutory right to take time off work to look after loved ones on a full-time basis, a move meant to strengthen social care and possibly reduce costs that are passed on to NHS. It’s enough to give orthodox Thatcherites fits.
But May is not just getting to the left of David Cameron and other Tory predecessors, she’s also getting to their right. She’s talked about reversing the restrictions on fox hunting, an issue that has deep cultural resonance for the English upper class and economic impact for low-paid country workers, too. She’s talked about reviving the role of grammar schools in English life, selective schools whose ethos was decidedly not egalitarian but instead focused on social mobility. Grammar schools fell out of favor because they weren’t focused on destroying class distinctions in British life; they aimed to recruit the best talent from below to the highest levels of British life.
The contrasting fortunes of May and Trump are a powerful lesson that politics is not just an arena where impersonal forces arrange every piece on the board; it is played by men and women.
May has hit the ground running with this political revolution in part because the intellectual groundwork was already done. In the U.K., political entrepreneurs dreamed of what an anti-globalization politics could do for each of the major parties. A decade ago, Philip Blond wrote a book promoting “Red Toryism,” arguing that Britain’s political elite needed to get over individualism and focus on a conservative communitarianism. That way, the Right could steal working-class voters and leave New Labour as the party of financiers and the thought police of political correctness. On the other side, Maurice Glasman, a member of Ed Miliband’s Labour-party brain trust, preached “Blue Labour,” which was meant to head off any dream of the Red Tories, by reversing Labour’s stance on immigration, which had alienated rank-and-file Labour voters. Labour rejected Glasman’s advice and continued to trade the politics of the working class for the politics of diversity. And now the Tories are set to benefit. It’s not surprising that Teresa May’s chief idea man, Nick Timothy, met with Maurice Glasman to exchange ideas ahead of the release of the Tory’s election manifesto.
It’s also working for May because she, unlike Trump, has a very keen sense of the forces at work in her party, of where she can push it to unorthodox positions and where she cannot. She’s able to round off her get-tough approach to the E.U. and the issue of migration with gestures of genuine respect to all members of Britain’s life. And Brexit itself is pushing into May’s party the former Labour voters in the Northeast who supported it. And the Tories might be on a trajectory for a historic majority, leaving May just as popular a figure in her own country as Angela Merkel is in Germany.
The contrasting fortunes of May and Trump are a powerful lesson that politics is not just an arena where impersonal forces arrange every piece on the board; it is played by men and women. Conservative nationalism is a winning formula. But savvy and virtue still count for a lot.
Editor’s Note: This piece originally incorrectly spelled Maurice Glasman’s last name. It has been corrected.