“Events, dear boy, events.” That’s how former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan once described the difference between success or failure for his ministry.
Four years ago, voter backlash against the political establishment and globalism brought about two stunning political upsets. British voters chose to “Take Back Control” by skipping town on the European Union. And Americans decided to “Make America Great Again” with Donald Trump. Both revolts were fueled by frustration and a desire to alter the course of their respective countries.
Then came the “events” that Macmillan warned of a half century ago. Instead of “Make America Great Again” or “Take Back Control,” the caption for 2020 is “Everything is Out of Control.” The Brexit-Trump phenomenon is dead, and COVID-19 killed it.
One year ago, Trump and the pro-Brexit crowd appeared destined for a prolonged hold on power. Last December, the U.K.’s Conservative Party and Prime Minister Boris Johnson won a landslide victory in the general elections in the United Kingdom. And in early March, The Economist’s election forecast gave Trump a 53% shot of reelection. The Vegas oddsmakers gave Trump a better-than-60% shot of winning a second term.
Then the coronavirus hit the U.S. and U.K. Amid panic and confusion, governments tried to slow the spread with lockdowns and quarantining, which brought fear, confusion, and frustration with leaders in Washington, D.C., and London. In particular, the unsatisfactory responses from both the Trump administration and Johnson ministry undercut the public trust. While Americans only make up 4% of the global population, the United States has accounted for 20.4% of all COVID-19 cases, according to Google. The Journal of the American Medical Association reported that death rates in the U.S. are more than 20% higher than the rest of the world and 85% higher per capita than developed nations, including Germany and Israel. And the American people have noticed. A recent survey by NBC News revealed 65% of American adults say they are worried that someone in their family will be exposed to the virus. Another survey by Reuters revealed only 37% of American adults approved of Trump’s handling of the pandemic, with 59% disapproving.
The United Kingdom’s response tells only a slightly better story. Despite constituting only 0.85% of the global population, the U.K. is responsible for 3.9% of coronavirus-related casualties, according to Google. And Prime Minister Johnson’s net approval rating has plunged nearly 50% since the beginning of the crisis, according to Wikipedia.
People feel scared in the United States and United Kingdom. To them, everything seems out of control. The frustration and disgust with the establishment they once felt have been replaced by fear and helplessness; lost adrift at sea without a competent captain.
At least back in 2016, someone was in control; even if it was not them.
The coronavirus pandemic ended the anti-establishment wave. Only one year ago, the British and American populaces were still riding the wave of this backlash. But the events of 2020 tested and ultimately broke the momentum of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, and their respective movements. The combination of the circumstances of COVID-19 and their failure to adequately restrain the spread of both the virus and public distrust spelled the doom of the Trump presidency.
“Events, dear boy” are indeed what determines the course of politics and the fate of world leaders. The events came and the leaders faltered. And the Trump presidency and Brexit fervor are now both officially casualties of COVID-19.
Matt Fisher is a senior studying politics.