Rich, racist, incompetent, a serial liar, a purported disrupter of the established political order who used a media profile to launch himself to political success, Boris Johnson has much in common with Donald Trump, even if the former described the latter as “unfit to hold the office of president of the United States”.
Is there some direct comparison between the two? Trump thinks so, calling Johnson “Britain’s Trump”. The Adelaide Advertiser agrees. But far-right Murdoch entertainer Chris Kenny disagrees. Over at Nine newspapers, Nick Miller also warns not to overplay the comparisons. We made our call early at Crikey, in the affirmative.
Johnson, at least, has held elective office for an extended period, even if his stint as Mayor of London was characterised by prominent stuff-ups– the watercannon farce, the Routemaster bus debacle — and his brief time as foreign secretary was marked by bungle after bungle after bungle. Indeed, the most common adjective applied to Johnson in media coverage is “incompetent”.
Unusually, it often comes from his own side of politics: Tory elder Chris Patten dismissed him with “as well as being mendacious he’s incompetent”; junior foreign secretary Sir Alan Duncan said about Johnson “cleaning up after him was quite a full-time activity”. By all accounts, though, Johnson is charming — something Donald Trump is entirely lacking. Johnson, however, may be the ultimate demonstration of Anthony Blanch’s warning in Brideshead Revisited: “Charm is the great English blight. It does not exist outside these damp islands. It spots and kills anything it touches.”
But ticking off the boxes of ways in which Trump and Johnson compare — hair, check; incompetence, check; bigot, check — isn’t overly useful. What is more productive is to identify what has produced them, for that is something they exactly have in common.
Johnson and Trump are the prime examples of a phenomenon of the last five years across the West: wealthy establishment figures who opportunistically attack the very system that created them, declaring themselves to be aligned with the interests of those who are victims of the system.
Johnson — multi-millionaire, Eton and Balliol College, the product of a life of privilege and wealth; Trump, multi-millionaire (though he claims to be richer than that), product of the US east coast elite and inheritor of all of his wealth (which he proved a poor custodian of). But both have come to power posing as disrupters of the systems that delivered them their wealth and influence.
Neither of them has any particular ideology — Trump has reversed himself regularly on major issues not merely in his time before running for the presidency, but even during his term in office. Johnson is best known for his leadership of the Brexit campaign in which he posed as the tribune of Little England isolationism, but was supporting the EU mere months and weeks before declaring his support for Leave.
As Trump’s time in office demonstrates, this lack of ideology means that, even though they pose as challengers to the political and economic order that delivered them wealth, ultimately they comply with it. Trump has delivered massive tax cuts for US corporations and the very wealthy, tried to destroy the health insurance system established by Barack Obama, ramped up military spending and escalated foreign military interventions. Johnson may deliver Brexit — likely a disastrous no-deal departure — but his economic policies will likely be exactly those that immiserated so many Britons who voted Leave out of frustration with the neoliberalism applied by Tory and New Labour governments alike since the 1980s. He has already promised tax cuts for high-income earners — not exactly the middling yeoman yearning to be free of Europe.
Trump and Johnson are parasites — opportunists who realised that, despite their massive advantages of wealth and privilege, they had no other way of succeeding in a political-economic system even vaguely meritocratic, and who thus decided to feign hostility to the very system that produced them, exploiting the deep resentment of its victims.
However, the skills that enabled that successful exploitation — media smarts, a carefully cultivated persona, charm in the case of Johnson, braggadocio in the case of Trump — are not what’s needed to actually lead a democracy successfully. At that, Trump has been spectacularly unsuccessful. Will Johnson be any better?