LONDON — There is a magnificent passage from P. G. Wodehouse’s 1938 comic masterpiece “The Code of the Woosters” that is often cited as definitive evidence of Britain’s exceptional immunity to demagogues, autocrats and Trumps. Confronted by Roderick Spode, tyrannical leader of the Black Shorts, Bertie Wooster lets rip:
“The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you’re someone. You hear them shouting 'Heil, Spode!' and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: 'Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?’ ”
One of the many reasons that Bertie’s outburst is so enduringly funny is that he is normally such an equable gent. His exasperation is the voice of Englishness recoiling from the sheer vulgarity of the would-be autocrat.
And it is a timeless critique. How easy it is to imagine David Cameron in the prime minister’s Downing Street residence berating the presumptive Republican nominee, Donald J. Trump: “The trouble with you, Trump …”
The two have certainly got off to a bad start: Britain’s prime minister described Mr. Trump’s proposal to bar Muslims from the United States as “divisive, stupid and wrong,” prompting Mr. Trump to warn: “It looks like we’re not going to have a very good relationship.” In turn, the British news media sneers at Mr. Trump, its contempt underpinned by a complacent certainty that he couldn’t happen here.
Yet there is less reason to be smug than some on this side of the Atlantic suppose. The most famous speech on immigration ever made in this country was delivered by the Conservative politician Enoch Powell, in 1968. In a famous phrase borrowed from Virgil, he foresaw as the dire consequence of mass immigration a river “foaming with much blood.”
That speech ended his career in front-line politics, but it awoke atavistic sentiments — especially among white working-class voters who most resented the recent influx of Commonwealth immigrants. There were marches and rallies in support of Powell. If a less hospitable economic landscape had prevailed in the 1960s, it is easy to imagine that the arc of Powell’s career might have been very different as a populist voice articulating an angry nativism against a backdrop of scarce jobs and depressed wages.
Consider another possibility: There is clear evidence that, with varying degrees of seriousness, there were at least two plots against the Labour Party leader Harold Wilson during his two terms as prime minister (from 1964 to 1970, and from 1974 to 1976). In 1968, the press baron Cecil King proposed a coup to replace Wilson’s elected government with a regime headed by Lord Mountbatten, a war hero and second cousin to the queen.
The conspiracy, and others like it, failed at the outset. Yet how much worse would have the economic crises, strikes and protests that roiled Britain in the 1970s needed to become for the grumblings of spooks and generals to grow into some more decisive intervention?
Britons, like Americans, fiercely protect their liberty, the genius of their constitution, their instinctive resistance to autocracy. But there is another strand in each nation’s culture, submerged perhaps, but still present.
Even within advanced democracies, there survives a residue of “the primal horde,” as Sigmund Freud described it, that seeks not enlightened statesmanship but a strongman: “The leader of the mass is still the feared primal father, the mass still wishes to be dominated by absolute power, it is in the highest degree addicted to authority.” Polling has shown that a significant indicator of readiness to support Mr. Trump is a voter’s inclination toward authoritarianism. The presumptive Republican nominee answers a yearning for an aggressive problem solver who is not queasy about his methods.
Much as it might suit other Western nations to dismiss this new outbreak of such yearning as American exceptionalism, there is no intrinsic reason for that conclusion. The stresses and strains of the 21st century — the upheavals of globalization, technological disruption, population mobility, the rise of fundamentalism — are not confined to the United States.
If a figure like Mr. Trump can stand at the threshold of the Oval Office in a freedom-loving country like America, then we must assume the reverse: It could happen anywhere.
If recent events in British politics have any lesson, it is that we live in the age of the unexpected. A year ago, Mr. Cameron surprised pollsters and pundits by winning an outright victory. Four months later, Labour elected a far-left rebel, Jeremy Corbyn, as its leader. Disequilibrium and uncertainty have replaced the old stabilities. This frightens a great many voters who seek reassurance in whatever form is available.
In Bertie’s outburst, Wodehouse composed the quintessential English denunciation of autocracy. In a later chapter of the author’s life, however, he personified the dangerous naïveté that is a subordinate yet significant part of the British character.
During World War II, Wodehouse, who was living in Le Touquet in northern France, was first interned by the German occupiers but then released — to make a series of broadcasts in Berlin during 1941. Those five programs were light and anodyne, not overt Nazi propaganda. But that was precisely the point: Wodehouse clearly had no idea that, even as Britain and its allies fought for their lives, his celebrated comic language was being annexed by the Third Reich to gloss over a terrifying reality.
Mr. Trump is not Hitler; nor is today’s world like the 1930s. But we in Britain must not make Wodehouse’s error, believing that a gift for repartee provides everlasting immunity to vicious autocrats.
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