World

Why the Hamilton Set Hates Brexit

Anti-Brexit protesters demonstrate outside the Houses of Parliament in London, England, April 3, 2019. (Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters)
American Remainers feel a kinship with their friends across the pond, unwittingly strengthening the case for Leave.

As the 2020 presidential primary preseason kicks in, the Democratic consensus of the early Trump era is naturally breaking down a bit. Still, there are a few things Democrats of all flavors appear to agree on: Trump is terrible, Hamilton is wonderful, and . . . Brexit must be stopped by any means necessary.

There is no reliable polling data on U.S. attitudes toward Britain’s leaving the EU. But there probably doesn’t need to be any, at least for the people who think a ticket to Hamilton is worth the price of a weekend getaway to London. A few months back, the U.K. Independent did a “New Yorker on the street” feature on the question and couldn’t locate a single Brexit fan — except for a German tourist who thought it might help turn Frankfurt into the EU’s financial capital. Everyone else was firmly against, including one woman who barked, “We need to squash it!”

The elite commentariat is, if anything, even more militant. Veteran New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman suggested that the “stupid” and “mad” inability of the House of Commons to endorse a withdrawal deal acceptable to the EU meant that Parliament itself should be squashed, concluding, “I say bring back the monarchy.” (One assumes he was joking, though given his recent gushing over the Chinese political model, it’s hard to be confident.)

It apparently wasn’t always this way. The New York–based Guardian columnist Arwa Mahdawi writes of an “interesting evolution in (liberal) US attitudes toward Brexit,” from “a certain schadenfreude” at seeing a historic cultural rival humbled to “a new sort of special relationship” based on the parallel traumas of Brexit and Trump. And as the Brexit drama messily grinds toward its still-uncertain conclusion, it has become something of an obsession for many Democrats and even centrist Republicans. I now have more than a few American friends with zero familial or business ties to Britain who appear to take Brexit more personally than many Brits I know.

In fact, the passion of the American Remainers seems to outstrip that of many leading British Leavers. Most of the Brexit-types I’ve known, over the course of many years living in Europe and working on EU-related issues, have tended to be pretty laid-back about the issue. The late Sir Alan Walters, a former Margaret Thatcher adviser I used to work with back when Leavers were called “Euroskeptics,” could go on for hours about the looming European superstate without ever getting a head of steam. Even some of the most high-profile Brexit boosters — such as the Vote Leave campaign co-founder and member of the European parliament Daniel Hannan — seem to have a better sense of proportion and humor about it than many American critics.

This, as the Brits say, is bonkers. Did New Yorkers get upset when the French rebelled against NATO or when the Slovaks stomped out of Czechoslovakia? If Italy withdrew from the eurozone — a threat to the EU that many in Europe see as more existential than Brexit — would Corriere della Sera be able to find anyone up in arms on the streets of Little Italy?

One clear cause of the local outbreak of Remain fever is the British prestige media’s increasing penetration of the American market — the Guardian now has over 300,000 paying supporters in the U.S. — as well as the decision by many highbrow domestic news outlets to go all-in. (Vox recently featured a first-person account entitled “Brexit has turned me into a prepper.”) And like a British actor with a talent for American accents, Brexit neatly slots into our running plotlines, especially the one about oafish, nihilistic voters from the provinces pushing indisputably self-destructive policies on everyone else. Above all, American Remainers seem driven to tell everyone how obviously stupid Brexit is, often by pointing out how messy it is.

Which is, if not bonkers, then bollocks, because anyone who actually knows anything about British or EU matters knows that the reason Brexit is so messy is precisely that it represents a very complex problem that defies easy solutions. But members of our domestic “squash Brexit” squad can’t see this because they are usually innocent of the most basic facts about it, not least that the only meaningful opposition party is also lead by Leavers (though ones whose Euroskepticism is driven by a belief that the EU is what’s standing between Britain and socialism). They also seem utterly unaware of not just the level of ambivalence in Europe toward the EU, but the sheer indifference: Over the last decade, three countries have held referendums to join, and none saw a turnout topping 50 percent. If North Macedonia can’t be bothered to show up and vote to join the EU, why should Manhattan care if the East Midlands vote to leave?

VIEW GALLERY: Brexit Demonstrations

At the same time, the uninformed but genuine special relationship the American Remainers feel for their British compatriots ironically provides the strongest validation of the Leavers’ case. They are more interested in Britain’s problems than those of Belgium or Bulgaria not just because the Brexit and Trump traumas seem similar. If that was all, we’d be hearing much more about how Belgium’s government fell because of fights over immigration, or how Bulgaria’s may soon collapse over a scandal involving bribes of Trump-style high-rise luxury apartments.

Instead, transatlantic Remainer solidarity is rooted in the same cultural and linguistic kinship, and perceived loss of place and status, that has from the start animated Brexit. And if they really think that national independence movements that involve a bit of messiness and some painful sacrifices should be squashed, I can recommend a musical that’s drawing crowds to London’s Victoria Palace Theatre that would make them feel right at home.