Opinion | Niall Ferguson

From Trollope to Trump

Britain's new Prime Minister Theresa May (L) is greet by Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon (R) as she arrives for talks at Bute House, in Edinburgh, on July 15, 2016. Theresa May visited Scotland for talks with the First Minister less than 48 hours after taking office as British prime minister. / AFP PHOTO / Lesley MartinLESLEY MARTIN/AFP/Getty Images
Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May (L) met with Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon (R) in Edinburgh on July 15.

To understand what has just happened in Britain, mystified Americans are advised to read the novels of Anthony Trollope. I especially recommend “Framley Parsonage.’’ There is a wonderful parody there of a Victorian change of government, which dashes the political ambitions of the unscrupulous Harold Smith, briefly elevated to the Petty Bag Office.

Harold Smith has been brought into the Cabinet by Lord Brock, the prime minister, but swiftly falls foul of his jealous friend Mr. Supplehouse, who savages him in an article in the “Jupiter.’’ Then, with breathtaking suddenness, the Brock government is overthrown.

Nothing that happened last week would have astonished Trollope: the suddenness of the fall of Prime Minister David Cameron and the ascent of Theresa May, the despondency of the ousted ministers, and above all the miraculous resurrection of Boris Johnson as foreign secretary.


The fashionable view is that the fall of Cameron, like the rise of Donald Trump, is a symptom of a worldwide populist revolt against the elites — a novel and alarming challenge to the established political order. On closer inspection, this was a political entertainment (think Gilbert & Sullivan) straight out of the early 1860s.

Get Arguable in your inbox:
Jeff Jacoby on everything from politics to pet peeves to the passions of the day.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Moreover, I begin to doubt that Brexit is going to trigger a Europe-wide wave of imitations: Nexit, Frexit and all the rest. The atrocity in Nice is a reminder that the fundamental problems facing continental Europe — mass migration, Islamist terrorism, not to mention economic stagnation — will not be solved by undoing six decades of European integration.

Yet what just happened in Britain is not all Trollope. And while Brexit may have a kind of reverse domino effect on continental Europeans, the same may not be true of Americans.

As November approaches, US voters are going to find themselves in much the same position as their British counterparts found themselves prior to June 24. The face an unappetizing choice: on one side, the familiar but jaded; on the other, the novel but risky. I feel much the same about Hillary Clinton as I do about the European Union, and much the same way about Donald Trump as I do about Brexit.

I was for keeping the UK in the EU, not because I hum the “Ode to Joy” in the bath, but because I thought the Cameron-Osborne government was the best Britain had had in 26 years and did not deserve to be shipwrecked over Europe. At the same time, I wholly disbelieved the arguments of the Brexit camp that the UK would be economically better off out of the EU.


In the case of the United States, I feel no enthusiasm at the prospect of a Clinton presidency. She has already been pushed alarmingly far to the left of Barack Obama by Bernie Sanders’s challenge. Her reputation for honesty and judgment is in … well, whatever comes below tatters.

Yet the alternative seems even worse. I do not share the view that a Trump presidency would be tyranny, undermining the Constitution and eroding the liberties it enshrines. The Constitution was carefully designed to cope with the tendency of democratic electorates to fall for demagogues. But what it cannot do is protect us from terrible policies. Drastic restrictions on immigration, protectionist tariffs, reckless taxing and borrowing — we have seen all these things before in American history, we have seen their unintended costs, and we could see them again if Trump is elected.

Of course, as a member of the elite, I would say that, wouldn’t I? The status quo has been pretty good to me since I started working in the United States 14 years ago. So I am risk-averse. If I weren’t so comfortable, I’d probably feel more like my good friend Gerry: ex-Marine Corps, ex-New York Police Department, Trump supporter. I’d be willing to take a chance on Trump because, as Gerry says, “he’ll shake things up.” That he assuredly would, just as Brexit has shaken things up in Britain.

So the lessons of Brexit for the United States are as follows. First, in most modern elections, results are close, so do not expect Clinton to trounce Trump. Second, generational politics has taken over from class politics, so a lot depends on the differentials between younger and older voters. Third, turnout is key. My bet is that young voters will turn out much less enthusiastically for Clinton than old voters do for Trump. Fourth, concerns about immigration and security can dominate economic self-interest. Fifth, populist slogans — “Make America Great Again” is the US counterpart to Brexit’s “Take Back Control” — can dominate rational arguments.

But the sixth lesson of Brexit is Trollope’s point: high politics matter. We are not really witnessing a worldwide populist revolt against elites. If we were, elections wouldn’t be at all close, because elites are by definition totally outnumbered. The deciding factor, as Brexit showed, is how many members of the elite opt to back populist policies.


American Republicans, as they gather (or not) in Cleveland for their convention this week, essentially face the Boris question: do I play it safe, or do I back the risky, populist option?

The final lesson of last week may well be that in politics — as in Trollope’s time — who dares wins. And for Boris the prize has turned to be a great deal better than the Petty Bag.

Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford.