In the days before the mayhem surrounding Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, Jeff Zucker–the impresario of CNN–hired the noted Trump campaign heavy Corey Lewandowski as a “political analyst” for a rumored $500,000. He would have been expensive at half the price. I feel bad for all the fine journalists at CNN, but Zucker is a man of our times, lured by the sirens of simplicity and ratings. The passage of Brexit and the presence of Donald Trump are the results of a massive lowering of standards that has been promulgated over the past 20 years by the media and the leadership of political parties in both countries, in the pursuit of popularity. This is what happens when democracy grows flabby. The people, when uninterested, must be entertained, and if they can’t be entertained, their fears must be exploited.
So let’s make no bones about what happened in Britain. This was not so much a vote against the bureaucratic depredations, real and imagined, of the E.U. It was a vote–by elderly, non-college-educated Brits–against the wild flow of immigrants, most of them benign and excellent workers, but many of them reluctant to assimilate and more than a few of them embracing a faddish, lethal Islamic extremism. If it was a vote for freedom, it was a vote for freedom from them. We are experiencing a similar swoon here. And as the British nativists were indulged by the Tory leadership, the Tea Partisans were indulged by the Republican establishment they’ve now overthrown.
Progress isn’t always progressive. The need to retrench is sometimes the most logical next step. It is entirely possible that our trade deals could have been a bit more protective, and probable that immigration could have been handled in a more orderly way. Certainly, the latter is true in Europe. Free trade and the free movement of people are staples of the liberal capitalism that, over the past few centuries, has brought the greatest alleviation of poverty in human history. But they need to be regulated and modulated, and the regulators–the “experts,” the “establishments” and the “politicians”–are the people charged with making democracy hum. They are imperfect stewards, of course, and witlessly reviled now.
We have been here before. There was a desire to make the world go away after World War I, which resulted in a sharp stoppage of immigration–no more of those noisy Southern and Eastern European garlic eaters–in 1924, and the punitive Smoot-Hawley tariffs of 1930. These, together with unregulated Wall Street speculation, gave us the Great Depression, which gave us World War II. The gray people, bureaucrats like George Marshall here and Jean Monnet in Europe–the Wise Men–were so alarmed by the barbarity of that war that they created a new international order, in which national sovereignty was curbed a bit in return for stability. A generous welfare system in Europe greased the wheels; lower trade barriers helped the capitalists thrive and create jobs. The great mass of people, who had suffered more than a quarter-century of war and deprivation, were thrilled with the peace.
We can argue about the effects of that solution. We can argue about whether Hillary Clinton has plausible policies to ameliorate the disruptions caused by the economy the Wise Men made. For now, I would guess her campaign has been strengthened by the feckless retreat of the “never mind, didn’t really mean that” Brexiteers, like Tory leader Boris Johnson. Clinton’s problem is that the pro side of arguments to make this messy world a little better are complicated; the con side is happily handled by con artists. And our very best leaders have avoided the big issues. As I’ve traveled the U.S. the past five years, I’ve found that the No. 1 foreign-policy issue on people’s minds is China–and they have no idea what their President, Barack Obama, thinks about it. He has yet to make a major speech about it. It’s apparently too heavy a lift. He is not alone. Republican politicians have spent the past quarter-century patronizing clever blowhards like Rush Limbaugh, instead of taking them on. And now they’ve lost their party.
Jeff Zucker is just another huckster, someone trying to make some money in disheveled times. But here is a question for him: Do you think giving a podium to Lewandowski will improve our discourse, make the views of Trumpists more comprehensible–or just provide another loaf of bread, another circus to a populace stuffed on starch and drivel?
This appears in the July 11, 2016 issue of TIME.