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The Divergence of US and British Populism

With its recent election, France seemed to distinguish itself from the US and the UK, both of which seem to exemplify the populist revolt that swept the West in 2016. In fact, it is the UK – where rethinking the biggest political decision of people's lifetimes is viewed as an affront to democracy – that may be the odd one out.

LONDON – Britain, France, the United States – which is the odd one out politically? The answer seems obvious. Last year’s Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom and the election of Donald Trump in the United States were the twin symbols of populist revolt against global elites. In Emmanuel Macron, France, by contrast, has just elected as its president the quintessential “Davos Man” – a proudly globalist technocrat identified with his country’s most elitist financial, administrative, and educational institutions.

But step back for a moment from these political clichés, as I did earlier this month when I fled the British election campaign to attend the Milken Institute Global Conference in Los Angeles. The Milken conference is the US equivalent of Davos, but with a more serious business focus and the strong US government representation that Davos has never achieved.

Listening there to Trump’s key economic officials – Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross – plus a galaxy of Congressional officials and business leaders, made clear that Trump’s election is only a temporary aberration. The US has taken a detour into a theme park of nationalist nostalgia, but it remains focused on the future and the benefits of globalization, not the costs.