WASHINGTON — I am writing this column from Toronto Pearson International Airport, on a layover en route to London. Behind me is the political storm over the long-awaited report from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who appears to have found no evidence that Donald Trump's presidential campaign entered a secret election-rigging compact with Russia. Ahead of me is another sort of storm: British Prime Minister Theresa May's frantic scramble to get Parliament to approve some kind of Brexit deal.
Yet from the vantage of an in-between place, sheltered from the gale-force political winds, these two storms have a certain similarity: the impression of a cosmopolitan class eager to overturn the results of a populist vote, but unable to find an airtight excuse for doing so.
For going on two years, Trump's opponents have been waiting on, counting on, praying on the Mueller report. In many minds, the possibility that Trump had secretly collaborated with Russia shaded over into the probability that he had done so. And that probability, in turn, metamorphosed into treating collusion as practically an established fact.
Those who acted as though Trump were already under indictment now look foolish and somewhat desperate, which is hardly the image you want to project when you're trying to convince the public that you're the sane and sensible alternative to Trump. In looking for the most expeditious way to rectify what they viewed as a catastrophic voter error, the #resistance has made things worse.
There's a lesson in that for their counterparts across the Atlantic, who currently, momentarily, seem to be ascendant. The prime minister has lost control of the House of Commons, which on Monday passed an amendment giving Parliament — rather than May and her cabinet — the power to explore alternatives to the deal she negotiated with the European Union. The move was not only a challenge to May's leadership, but also a striking departure from the normal course of things, in which the government sets policy and the parliament follows.
There's no telling where all this will end up. But some Parliament-watchers say there's probably a cross-party majority for a less radical Brexit alternative known as Norway Plus, which would allow free movement of goods, services, capital and people across borders, but that would limit the push of "ever closer union" into other areas, such as the justice system.
The benefit of Norway Plus is that it would minimize disruption, a feat it achieves by not actually changing much. Britain would still have to contribute most of what it does now to the E.U. budget; it would still have to allow immigration from other E.U. countries; and it would still be subject to many E.U. rules, while losing its voice in the European Parliament that makes those rules. The only obvious benefit of this plan is that it can be called "Brexit" and voted for by people who don't actually want Brexit to happen.
There's a case for this Brexit-in-Name-Only, of course. The people who voted for Brexit in June 2016 were voting for a set of vague ideas about Britain's regaining control of its borders and budget. They weren't voting for the specific deal May has negotiated.
That deal is probably the best she could wrest from the E.U., which wants to make Britain's departure from the E.U. as unpleasant as possible pour encourager les autres. But it will simultaneously impose heavy costs on Britain's economy, at least in the short term, while leaving open many questions — most notably, what happens to the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic — that Britain must settle before safely charting a separate course.
Legislators with more information than Leave voters had, and more time to study the intricacies of policy, may well be right that this is not what voters really wanted and that the responsible thing to do is either call another referendum or simply pretend to leave without really doing so. Just as the American #resistance makes a decent case that Trump's presidency has been disastrous for the country — and for his own causes.Comment on this story
But that assumes voters were mostly voting for Leave, or for Trump, rather than against a political establishment that has for decades responded to voter discontent by saying, "Nanny knows best." If the latter is the case, repeating the phrase louder and more firmly won't make voters any happier. Especially if driving the message home involves contravening the very civic norms and political order that the establishments in Britain and in the United States claim to be trying to preserve.