Beware The Disrupter With No Follow-Up Plan (A Post-Brexit Lesson)

What do you call leaders who lead their nation off a cliff, then, surveying the wreckage, they cut and run? How about "unconscionable"?
07/08/2016 07:15 pm ET Updated Jul 08, 2017

What do you call leaders who lead their nation off a cliff, then, surveying the wreckage, they cut and run? How about "unconscionable"?

Such is the case with the two lead instigators of the movement to get Britain out of the European Union, the so-called Brexit---Boris Johnson, the conservative former mayor of London and Nigel Farage, leader of the far-right, anti-immigration U.K. Independence Party, UKIP (also here).

First, Johnson and Farage pushed their electorate with scare tactics and misrepresentations to vote for exit. Then, when they succeeded, causing a political and economic earthquake---the British pound immediately fell to a 31-year low (almost 15%), London may lose its primacy as a world financial center, who knows what lies ahead for the ordinary bloke?---both Johnson and Farage abandoned the field (also here, here, and here).

What kind of responsible leadership is that? These disrupters cause the earthquake, then vanish at the clean-up and recovery? Unconscionable.

Adding ignominy to irresponsibility, before bowing out, both walked back their prior claims of what Brexit would achieve for Britain: that monies the government sent to the E.U. would be rerouted to the National Health Service (Farage, video), that the scurrilously anti-immigrant Brexit campaign wasn't about immigration at all, not really (Johnson, column).

Clearly, these disrupters had no follow-up plan to victory. One wonders, then, how serious they were. Johnson in particular---brilliant, witty, host of a very successful summer Olympics in London---was known to have ambitions to become Prime Minister. Apparently, though, he's more wit than wisdom, or even political know-how: Just days after the Brexit vote, Johnson announced he would not stand for P.M. and guide the nation out of the upheaval he spearheaded.

(Johnson's conservative rival, Prime Minister David Cameron, resigned immediately upon the Brexit vote, but Cameron's resignation is understandable: Advocating that Britain remain in the E.U., he has no wish to oversee a divorce he does not want.)

Days later Farage resigned as head of UKIP. In his announcement (video), it's clear he too had no follow-up plan to victory: He simply wanted Britain out of the E.U., full stop. Once he achieved that, not wanting to be a "career politician," what more could he want? (How about continuity?) Also, as his parting shot, Farage made a singularly ungracious and disruptive speech to the European Parliament (video).

The lesson for America, of course, is this: We have a major disrupter in our midst---Donald Trump, presumptive GOP presidential nominee (also here). Learning from our British friends, we must ask: Should he win, how serious would Trump be about governing? Trump's whole campaign---from destroying his Republican presidential rivals with insults and smears, to his notions of what he'd do once in the White House---is based on disruption.

But Trump's disruption is for spectacle, not reform or coherence. Indeed, the burden to disprove this claim would lie with Trump's supporters: Where is the rationale for any of his proposals? Trump states flatly that, in foreign relations, he would prize "unpredictability," i.e., disruption. In an unsettled world, such behavior from the superpower would be....unconscionable. Don't think Trump wouldn't be disruptively unpredictable in domestic affairs, too.

Disrupters and disruption are all the vogue now, especially in technology and business (also here and here). For sure, disrupting the business-as-usual, establishment model is sometimes the only way forward, as Bill Gates and others demonstrated with their computer revolution. The history of capitalism is replete with other instances of "creative destruction."

But disrupters come with various intentions, good or ill; they come more or less equipped with follow-up plans post-disruption; and they come more or less serious and responsible. In an article titled "The Disruption Machine," Jill Lepore of The New Yorker discusses disruption's downside, "what the gospel of innovation gets wrong." An important distinction: The stakes in technological disruption bear on profits, while the stakes in the public realm---politics---are mediated, as Lepore writes, by "obligations, your conscience, loyalty, a sense of the commonweal" (or should be).

Lord knows, the political establishment throughout much of the world invites---begs for---disruption. In the Brexit case, the European Union, originally established to prevent another European war like World War I and II, has shown itself ineffective in managing the recent Eurozone debt and refugee crises, while encumbering member states with sometimes silly regulations. Can the E.U. reform itself? With Britain's exit, will other members follow suit? Or could disruption lead to renewal?

Here in the U.S., the political establishment likewise begs for disruption, with years of partisan dysfunction, decades of American jobs shipped overseas, decades of stagnant wages squeezing the middle and working classes in real suffering, and more---all leaving Americans wondering if America the Great is in decline. No wonder this presidential campaign features two disrupters: Trump and, on the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders. (Hillary Clinton is more steward than disrupter.) People desperately want change.

But Bernie Sanders is a constructive disrupter: A deeply committed man of the people, he's railed for years against income inequality and money-power in politics, while advocating for free public college tuition and universal healthcare. Though he too was rather light on a follow-up plan if he won---he did not map out the trillions in new taxes required to pay for it all---one could trust this disrupter. But Trump?

We who love Britain pray that the Brits will recover, but in this post-Brexit moment, there is considerable buyer's remorse there. We who love America should note that remorse: My fellow Americans, beware the disrupter with no follow-up plan.

For interviews about the Brexit result on "Charlie Rose," see here, here, and here. For a post-Brexit essay by Guardian columnist Timothy Garton Ash, see here. For the Fox News documentary, "Donald Trump: The Disrupter," see here.

Carla Seaquist's latest book is titled "Can America Save Itself from Decline?: Politics, Culture, Morality." An earlier book is titled "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character." Also a playwright, she published "Two Plays of Life and Death" and is at work on a play titled "Prodigal."