It’s been four years since the Brexit referendum. Four years since that incredible victory – the victory that stunned even the most ardent campaigners for a withdrawal. Combined with the unlikely success of Donald Trump in the American presidential election that same year it truly seemed for a time that the right could achieve anything; the old moribund Conservatism of the Tory Party and the GOP had been blown away by a dynamic new force that actually seemed to be winning the culture war. Given that the right had largely resigned itself to at the very best seeking merely to slow and mediate the inevitable march of ‘progress’, it is understandable why so many of us – myself included – truly saw 2016 as the dawn of a new era.
Four years later it is worth considering what became of this apparent rightist zeitgeist. Brexit has, of course, been fulfilled (after a protracted and exceedingly nasty struggle, however), and Trump still sits in the Oval Office (for now, at least). And yet we must ask ourselves, honestly, what has the right really gained from these past victories? I think on some level many of us treated these ephemeral electoral wins as great victories in themselves – and to some extent they were, but such a view fundamentally downplays the fact that both Brexit and Trump were less about the policy or the person themselves, but more a symbol.
This is easily observable in the mania that struck leftists after both their consecutive defeats. Most leftists knew full well that Trump’s powers as a solitary individual would be minimal, and that the European Union was indeed an imperfect organisation in need of either radical reform or dissolution. No, for leftists the fear was not the person nor the policy – it was the beacon for which these victories served; a shining call to action to the silent majority who would no longer be gas-lighted into thinking themselves an extremist minority. Leftists always argued that Brexit was fuelled by a desire to fundamentally restructure Britain and in particular our approach towards immigration, and they were right.
And leftists were not the only ones who realized the threat these symbols posed – no, it was the Conservative who faced the most dire consequences of this new revolution. After all, in a world where people are unapologetically forthright about their beliefs, what use is left for cowardly impotent Conservatives? The revolutions of 2016 increasingly made us all aware of what had long been true; Conservatism is a moribund ideology. So how would Conservatives respond to this threat? The only way they know how – co-opt the symbols as their own and cauterize the movement.
Conservatism is fundamentally an anti-ideology; it does not believe, it only mutates and pretends, driven purely by a class-based survival instinct. Every serious “belief” of a mid-20th century Conservative would be repudiated by Conservative politicians today, and this is not the fault of some corruption within the Conservative movement; it is the nature of the label itself. Do not fool yourself for one moment – the “Never Trumpers” who have jumped behind him, and the “BeLeavers” suddenly converted to Euroscepticism have not changed their “beliefs” (in so much as they even have any) one bit.
Thus we are subjected to the endless insufferable insistence that Brexit was a vote for neo-liberal economics and a “Global Britain”, while the Trump administration – purged of Bannon and co, pretends that the comprehensive immigration reform promised in 2016 actually means more legal migrant workers. Of course most of us who supported both movements in 2016 know that this can only end in disaster – both elections were just as much a protest at impotent Conservatives, and ever since both have sailed on the perception that they are still somewhat outside of the establishment. Conservatism is doomed, either way – the traditional Tory Party and GOP have no future; simple demographics will see to that. It may well turn out that by stabbing the revolutionaries of 2016 in the back, Conservatism ultimately killed the last chance for a serious rightist revival, all in favour of spouting the same pathetic talking points that have got the right nowhere these past few decades.
So what, ultimately, can we learn from Brexit and Trump? I think the answer is both simple yet transformative; we can no longer look to change institutions from the inside. This hope of somehow transforming institutions, and the establishment, from within has to go. It is not only a pathway to nowhere, but it kills, zombifies and institutionalizes any real organic movement that arises. No, the lesson of Trump and Brexit is that a symbolic revolution is no longer enough – what we need is a full and all-encompassing revolution led by and from an extra-institutional, fluid social movement.