Global politics in recent years has had more twists and turns than a Hollywood thriller. Three years ago, British and American populists were staging an insurgency against their out-of-touch political establishments. Two years ago, they were taking victory laps. But, as any war movie will teach you, the fortunes of battle are fickle, and right now the populists seem to be getting the worst of it. At best, the establishment has battled them to a draw; at worst, they are on the verge of a rout.
Even on immigration, where Trump supporters could credibly argue that the president had a mandate for sweeping change, Trump has been comprehensively stymied. Courts have quashed his attempts to radically transform immigration policy with a stroke of the executive pen. Meanwhile, a pre-existing body of law and court orders has left him unable to do more than rail impotently on Twitter as the asylum process has turned into a sort of open-borders “lite” for migrants willing to drag their children north to the U.S. border. Well-crafted legislation could conceivably cut down on the revolving door for migrants with children, but Trump has shown little interest in the legislative process, and no aptitude at all for bending it to his will.
But now the plot seems to be lagging a bit. Having fought Trump to a draw, the establishment now seems content to wait out the next two years. Trump’s approval ratings are lackluster, and any Democrat with a halfway-decent filter between their lizard brain and their mouth ought to be able to mop the floor with him. So the panicked talk of flight to Canada that one heard in November 2016 has given way to the grim watchfulness in an ER waiting room; after the doctor has told you Mom’s going to survive her fall.
Across the Atlantic, where the United Kingdom is in the third year of the two-year Brexit process, one sees a similar phenomenon. The European Union has refused its assent to any deal that could possibly command a majority in the British Parliament, and Remainers in Parliament have refused their assent to any deal that might pass muster with the EU. Together, they have thus forced Prime Minister Theresa May to punt on Brexit until Halloween, and they are not shy about expressing their hopes that Halloween will turn into never.
The story’s ending could be written in any number of ways. It could be framed as right-thinking people doing the right thing for their country and thereby earning their just victory over a crudely reactionary insurgency. If Trump loses on schedule, and if Brexit slips into a twilight existence of perpetual delay, then this is undoubtedly the story that the establishment will tell, because in that version, they’re the heroes.
Then again, the story’s moral could be factual rather than spiritual: Politics is hard, which is why populist insurgencies tend to burn out before realizing their goals. It’s easy to tell voters that everything ought to be different but fiendishly difficult to make it so, because any new policies must be pushed through the institutions of government, which run on precedent and procedure, not passion.
But what if the story isn’t over? What if Trump and the Brexiteers are not about to exit stage right after their humiliation? It’s possible that we’re still in the middle of Act Two, approaching what screenwriters call the false victory: that halcyon moment when everything seems to be going fantastically well, right before it all goes to hell.
To see what the ending of that story might look like, we could peek at France. A couple of years ago, France had its populist moment along with everyone else in the Western world, when the far-right National Front reached the runoff of the 2017 French presidential election. The populists were decisively put down by Emmanuel Macron, who is almost the distilled essence of everything populists hate: a banker, a technocrat, a centrist cosmopolitan.
Members of the French establishment enjoyed a year or so of congratulating themselves for not having gone the way of Britain and the United States. Then last fall came the “yellow vest” riots and the weekly protests that still roil France. Macron’s election turned out not to have tamed populist passions. They were only temporarily dammed up, gathering destructive force before the inevitable flood.
The gilets jaunes may end up merely a footnote when the victors write the history of this populist era. But having appeared, like a good plot turn, out of nowhere, the protesters force the establishment to at least consider a troubling possibility: that its members may not be cast as the story’s heroes but as the well-meaning fools who ultimately lost by mistaking the battle for the war.
Megan McArdle is a Washington Post columnist. Follow her on Twitter @asymmetricinfo.