BERN, Switzerland — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is on a weeklong trip to Europe where he is raising sensitive issues with national leaders — from Iranian missiles to Chinese technology to the economic collapse of Venezuela — but the most colorful conversations could take place this weekend out of public earshot in a secretive conclave at a Swiss lakeside resort.
In Montreux, on the eastern shore of Lake Geneva, political and business leaders from Western nations are gathering for the 67th Bilderberg Meeting, an annual forum in which participants agree not to reveal exactly what was said or who said it. It is a shadow version of Davos, the elite annual winter conference in the Swiss Alps that President Trump has attended once but has also criticized.
The State Department has not even put the Bilderberg Meeting on Mr. Pompeo’s public schedule, though a senior official confirmed he was attending Saturday.
.. No doubt those culinary treats will be on hand at venues in Montreux, to fuel discussion on 11 central topics now hotly debated in countries around the globe:
- the future of capitalism,
- the weaponization of social media,
- artificial intelligence,
- Russia and so on.
Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and Middle East adviser, is another top administration official planning to attend. The 130 or so participants also include King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands; Stacey Abrams, the American politician; Henry Kissinger, the former senior American foreign policy official; Eric Schmidt, the former chief executive of Google; and David H. Petraeus, the retired general. Some top bank executives are on the list, too.
On at least one subject, climate change, many of the participants are expected to have radically different views than Mr. Pompeo. In early May, the American secretary, speaking at a meeting of the Arctic Council in Finland, praised the changes caused by the melting of ice in the Arctic Circle.
“Steady reductions in sea ice are opening new passageways and new opportunities for trade,” Mr. Pompeo said, while noting the abundance of undiscovered oil and gas, uranium, rare-earth minerals, coal, diamonds and fisheries in the Arctic.
What Mr. Pompeo, Mr. Kushner and the other Bilderberg attendees actually say to each other will be a mystery to most of the public, thanks to the meeting’s use of the Chatham House Rule, which states that although attendees can tell the public what was discussed, generally, participants must not reveal who said what.
He’s the most effective demagogue in a generation. Now he sets the agenda.
LONDON — Nigel Farage is the British crisis in human form. His party, the unambiguously named Brexit Party, which is hardly a party and didn’t exist six months ago, won nearly a third of the British vote in the recent European Parliament elections, putting it in first place and driving the shattered Conservative Party into fifth. Long underestimated, Mr. Farage has done more than any politician in a generation to yank British politics to the hard, nationalist right. He is one of the most effective and dangerous demagogues Britain has ever seen.
With his last political vehicle, the U.K. Independence Party, or UKIP, Mr. Farage took an assortment of Tory retirees and a smattering of ex-fascists and other right-wing cranks, and welded them into a devastating political weapon: a significant national party. That weapon tore such chunks out of the Conservatives’ share of the vote that the party leadership felt compelled to call a referendum on Europe — which it then lost. Mr. Farage declared victory and went into semiretirement as a pundit.
Now, almost three years after the Brexit vote, he’s back. His timing could hardly be better. After a “lost decade” of declining living standards and flat wage growth, trust in Parliament and the news media is at rock bottom. The Conservatives are disintegrating; Prime Minister Theresa May is on her way out of office, having failed to secure a parliamentary majority for her Brexit deal. She failed because, rather than seeking cross-party consensus, she tried to placate her own hard right and prevent voters from abandoning the party — again. Unable to do so, she has simply hardened public opinion.
A poll in April found that given a choice between remaining in the European Union, and leaving with no deal, 44 percent of Britons support “no deal.” The vast majority of these voters previously supported the Conservatives. But since they are the party of business, they can’t seriously contemplate leaving without a deal. Nor can Parliament.
The resulting stalemate, combined with an election in which the main parties barely campaign, presented Mr. Farage with an easy target. And thanks to his success, there is enormous pressure on the Conservatives to deliver Brexit in October, deal or no deal. Boris Johnson, likely to replace Mrs. May as prime minister, is now pledging to do just that.
The Brexit Party’s campaign was a one-man show. While it has a sophisticated digital strategy, the party has no members and no manifesto, and none of its candidates were democratically selected. It offered only one policy: a “No Deal” Brexit. Its rallies focus on star performances by Mr. Farage, introduced with thundering motivational music. He is a gifted communicator, verbally dexterous, with a sense of humor.
Like many English reactionaries — including Mr. Johnson — he speaks in a nostalgic, “old world” register. He doesn’t talk about taxes or privatization. He talks about unfairness and loss, about the sovereignty supposedly ceded to Europe, immigration and elite cosmopolitans. And he names a placebo solution within reach: Brexit. The great escape. It’s a powerful antidepressant.
It is ironic that Mr. Farage appeals to people who are besieged by precisely the kind of volatile financial capitalism that he champions. He is, like President Trump, that paradoxical figure: the capitalist populist. He made his money as a City trader during the boom years of the 1980s, reveling in its adrenaline-fueled, heavy-drinking culture. He is the Gordon Gekko of British politics. It’s striking, to those who care to look, just how much his agenda is about class interest: He opposes extended maternity leave, raising the minimum wage and reducing the retirement age — anything that inconveniences his nouveau riche confederates. If he had his way, many of his supporters would be working harder, longer, for less money, with less protection. That, indeed, is his Brexit dream: Singapore on the Thames.
Even his racism is class-bound. Mr. Farage’s problem is not just with immigrants, it seems, but with poor immigrants especially: those from Eastern Europe, or Muslim countries, or those with H.I.V. He has said he would be uncomfortable with Romanians as neighbors, but he married a woman from Germany. He hates the European Union because its moderate social legislation and free movement defy what he thinks is a Darwinian cultural ecology through which some rise and others fall.
It is a mistake to overstate his “white working-class” base — UKIP included plenty of professionals and managers — but he has wooed many older, white workers, remote from the center of financial power where he built his career. Some were ex-Labour voters in manual jobs. His offer to them is that, in a society of dog-eat-dog competition, they will not have to compete with foreign workers. This is why the liberal press’s muckraking about his racism and far-right connections, by itself, generally doesn’t work. Far from impeding Mr. Farage, racism is his ticket to success. It puts him on the same side as his poorest voters.
With Parliament deadlocked and the Conservatives nearing their death throes, Mr. Farage has spotted an opportunity: a new political model, inspired by the Five Star Movement in Italy. A “digital platform” that harnesses the free labor of its “users,” allowing them “participation” through content-sharing and online polls, rather than rights. Parliamentary democracy is slow at the best of times, and these are not the best of times. Such platforms, however, introduce volatility to the system. Dropping UKIP, a traditional membership party, he launched something like a venture capitalist start-up, with crowdfunders rather than members, and a chief executive rather than a leader.
Hence, the Brexit Party. Unlike older party models, it doesn’t invest in lasting infrastructure. It is nimble-footed, expert at gaming social media — the stock market of attention. It won the battle for clicks, and made a killing in this election. Such online frenzies are akin to destabilizing flows of hot money, forcing legacy parties to adapt or die. But when Parliament is so weak, its legitimacy so tenuous, they can look like democratic upsurge.
That may be Mr. Farage’s ultimate triumph. The quintessential City trader and apostle of cutthroat competition, he is exploiting our democratic crisis to remake politics in his own image.
Johnson has repeatedly made the false claim that Britain paid £350 million each week to be in the European Union. The claim was famously touted on a Vote Leave campaign bus during the run-up to the Brexit vote.
.. In 2017, the head of the U.K.’s Statistics Authority sent Johnson a letter expressing his disappointment and telling Johnson it was “a clear misuse of official statistics” to say leaving the EU would free up £350 million (more than $440 million) weekly to spend on national healthcare.
In 2018, Johnson acknowledged that the figure was inaccurate — but he said it was “grossly underestimated.”
On his crowdfunding page, Ball stresses that he’s not trying to stop Brexit from happening. Instead, he’s targeting what he sees as the real threat facing society: lying, particularly the falsehoods that flow from those in power.
“Lying in politics is the biggest problem. It is far more important than Brexit and certainly a great deal older,” Ball wrote. “Historically speaking, lying in politics has assisted in starting wars, misleading voters and destroying public trust in the systems of democracy and government.”
He added, “When politicians lie, democracy dies.”
Ball says he wants to set a precedent by making it illegal for an elected official to lie about financial matters. If he’s successful, he says, the case could have a wide ripple effect.
“Because of how the English common law works, it’s possible that such a precedent could be internationally persuasive by influencing the law in Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Canada and India.”
In Britain’s legal system, private prosecutions can be started by any person or company with the time and money to do so.
As the London-based law firm Edmonds Marshall McMahon (which was once involved in Ball’s case) states, “Other than the fact the prosecution is brought by a private individual or company, for all other purposes they proceed in exactly the same way as if the prosecution had been brought by the Crown.”
From Australia to Europe, the signs are multiplying that conservative populism is on the rise.
Sometimes political revolutions occur right before our eyes without us quite realizing it. I think that’s what’s been happening over the last few weeks around the world, and the message is clear: The populist “New Right” isn’t going away anytime soon, and the rise of the “New Left” is exaggerated.
Start with Australia, where Prime Minister Scott Morrison won a surprising victory last week. Before the election, polls had almost uniformly indicated that his Liberal-National Coalition would have to step down, but voters were of another mind. With their support of Morrison, an evangelical Christian who has expressed support for President Donald Trump, Australians also showed a relative lack of interest in doing more about climate change. And this result is no fluke of low turnout: Due to compulsory voting, most Australians do turn out for elections.
Or how about the U.K.? The evidence is mounting that the Brexit Party will do very well in this week’s European Parliament elections. Right now that party, which did not exist until recently, is in the lead in national polls with an estimated 34% support. The Tories, the current ruling party, are at only 12%. So the hard Brexit option does not seem to be going away, and the right wing of British politics seems to be moving away from the center.
As for the European Parliament as a whole, by some estimates after this week’s election 35% of the chamber will be filled by anti-establishment parties, albeit of a diverse nature. You have to wonder at what margins the EU will become unworkable or lose legitimacy altogether.
Meanwhile in the U.S., polls show Joe Biden as the presumptive front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. He is one of the party’s more conservative candidates, and maybe some primary voters value his electability and familiarity over the more left-wing ideas of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. That’s one sign the “hard left” is not in ascendancy in the U.S. Biden’s strategy of running against Trump is another. It’s hard to say how effective that will prove, but it is likely to result in an election about the ideas and policies of Trump, not those of Democratic intellectuals.
Meanwhile, the U.S. economy has remained strong, and Trump’s chances of re-election have been rising in the prediction markets.
One scarcely noticed factor in all of this has been the rising perception of China as a threat to Western interests. The American public is very aware that the U.S. is now in a trade war with China, a conflict that is likely to provoke an increase in nationalism. That is a sentiment that has not historically been very helpful to left-wing movements. China has been one of Trump’s signature causes for years, and he seems to be delighting in having it on center stage.
The Democratic Party is not well-positioned to make China a core issue. Democrats have been criticizing Trump’s tariffs for a while now, and it may be hard for them to adjust their message from “Tariffs Are Bad” to “Tariffs Are Bad But China Tariffs Are OK.” Their lukewarm support for free trade agreements — especially the Trans Pacific Partnership, which could have served as a kind of alternative China trade policy — also complicates matters. The net result is that Republicans will probably be able to use the China issue to their advantage for years to come.
Elsewhere, the world’s largest democracy just wrapped up a lengthy election. The results in India aren’t yet known, but exit polls show that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling coalition — and his philosophy of Hindu nationalism — will continue to be a major influence.
In all of this ferment, I am myself rooting for a resurgence of centrist cosmopolitanism. But I try to be honest about how my ideas are doing in the world. And in the last few weeks, I’ve seen a lot of evidence that a new political era truly is upon us.