“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Great Gatsby”
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Donald Trump is a careless politician.
Indeed, he is the epitome of the careless politician: a roguish, amusing vandal who cares only about attention and mischief and nothing for truth and consequences.
The Donald is routinely compared to the Great Gatsby, partly because of his flamboyant and shady wealth, but also for his artificial, perfectly coiffed but bizarre legend and rascally allure.
It isn’t a good comparison. Jay Gatsby was mysterious; the mystery about Trump is how much money he has or doesn’t have. Gatsby was private, solitary and romantic. All they share is a manufactured image. One of his biographers, Mark Singer, helpfully suggests Trump always be referred to as “Donald Trump.”
Trump is actually more like Tom Buchanan, the wealthy playboy married to Jay Gatsby’s unattainable love, Daisy. “Now he was a sturdy straw haired man… with rather a hard mouth and a supercilious manner. Two shining arrogant eyes had established dominance over his face, and he gave the appearance of always leaning aggressively forward… It was a body capable of enormous leverage – a cruel body.”
Tom was a bigot, a philanderer and a boor and he always had his way. He beat up his mistress, whom his wife would eventually kill, and then sent her grief-crazed husband off to murder Gatsby. None of that infringed on their “vast carelessness.” Tom and Daisy just went away for a while “and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
That is precisely what four of the top leaders in British politics are doing after the “Brexit” vote,” leaving others to clean up their mess. Brexit has just provided the most vivid imaginable real life drama about when careless people win in politics. If I believed in a god of politics, I’d believe Britain was martyred to teach us Yanks a lesson.
The Brexit referendum started as a gimmick. Prime Minister David Cameron promised to hold the referendum during a re-election campaign. It was a careless, risky ploy by a usually careful politician. And it will scar Cameron’s legacy, as well as his country. As soon as the “Leave” vote won, Cameron resigned, leaving others to clean up. That will probably be the job of a woman, which many will find typical. Home Secretary Theresa May, who opposed Brexit, is the favorite to replace Cameron. She is more Angela Merkel than Margaret Thatcher, a careful, career public servant.
The chief agent provocateur in the Brexit caper was Nigel Farage, the boozy demagogue who led the formerly fringe UK Independence Party. Farage always had the air of pure mischief, laced with anti-immigrant racism and exploitive, nostalgic nationalism. He resigned a few days after his supposed triumph, leaving others to clean up his mess.
The Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is still holding on to his position but he’s doomed. He already has lost a no-confidence vote and the top names in his shadow cabinet have quit. He is not so much a careless man as part of the mess made by a careless party in a moment of panic. Cameron’s Tories pillaged Labour in the 2015 elections (Cameron needn’t have worried so much) and they responded by electing a backbencher from the ancient Left, Corbyn. Though Labour opposed Brexit, Corbyn was wobbly and ineffectual as a leader. Perhaps he was careless about the real risk, or maybe just oblivious, as Bernie Sanders’ seems to be about the danger of The Donald.
Then there’s Boris Johnson, the ultimate rabble-rousing charmer, a juvenile delinquent in politics for the mischief, sport and ego. Johnson giddily led the Tory pro-Brexit campaign as if it were his own campaign for prime minister. A Tory party leader was caught off-mike this week saying Boris didn’t even really want to leave the EU, which seems a common view.
After Cameron resigned, Boris quickly retreated from the battle to replace him after a few days of skirmishing. The story is that he was out-schemed in a plot worthy of “House of Cards” – British and American versions. But there is also a deep suspicion that Boris simply didn’t want to clean up the mess. There’s no good fun in that sort of business, is there?
There have been several funny parallels between personalities in British and American politics: Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan; Tony Blair and Bill Clinton; and now, Boris Johnson and Donald Trump.
It isn’t a perfect comparison by any stretch. What they obviously share, though, is a “vast carelessness.” Trump has shown this in every imaginable way.
Boris Johnson and Brexit showed that the cavalier, naughty disregard for truth and consequences can be dangerously charming when a core of voters is scared and furious, and when a core of political leaders are scared and complacent.
Let’s hope that’s a lesson not an omen.
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