Whatever the outcome of tomorrow’s US elections, it’s clear that the model of politics espoused by Donald Trump and Boris Johnson has failed its first contact with a crisis.
With a third wave taking off in the US and deaths approaching a quarter of a million, the complete absence of executive skills that was always the biggest challenge for a Trump presidency has become tragically manifest.
As one conservative critic wrote, Trump “stinks at his job”. That’s before you get to more mundane policy failures such as the disruption of the international order to the benefit of China and Russia or the enabling and encouragement of far right terrorism.
In the UK, which has just re-entered lockdown in the face of a catastrophic second wave far bigger than the first, Johnson has had to clumsily reverse his anti-lockdown rhetoric, infuriating backbench Tories as well as opponents who had called for a return to lockdown weeks earlier.
Johnson and Trump are similar politicians, with the same political method. Both are the product of the elites of their countries; both pose as outsiders determined to challenge those elites; both exploit a deep sense of grievance on the part of white voters about the impact of neoliberal policies pursued by elites, but both ultimately aim to deliver policy outcomes that benefit those same elite — particularly their donors and friends.
And both lead countries that are back in the same deep economic mess that they exploited to achieve power in the first place.
Trump and Johnson have discovered that exploiting the politics of resentment can only get you so far; that at some point, competence at making the machinery of government deliver real impacts on the ground at a large scale is needed — and neither man has the most basic competence.
Johnson was notoriously incompetent as both mayor of London and as UK foreign secretary; Trump’s business career was characterised by serial bankruptcy and heavy borrowing.
If hopelessly unable to run a government, both men have other skills. Both are expert at media manipulation and the construction of a media profile that could transfer easily to a political sphere dominated by jaded, disengaged electorates. Alas, the COVID-19 virus has no interest in either. It just spreads relentlessly, revelling in the environment created by policy failure.
But both men are adept at helping their friends. Johnson’s COVID response has been characterised by sleaze and corruption. Hundreds of millions of pounds have been handed to Tory donors and Tory-linked companies in the UK for PPE manufacturing or “research” and “consultancy” services to advise the Johnson government.
Similarly, much of the Trump administration’s COVID spending has been directed to Trump donors or companies linked to the Trump family. That’s consistent with the Trump family’s entire approach to the presidency, which has been to see it as an opportunity for enrichment on a colossal scale.
Hundreds of thousands may have died, but the friends and family of Trump and Johnson got richer, which is the important thing.
Trump and Johnson share other similarities. Importantly, their respective political parties abandoned long-held ideologies under them. Under Trump, the Republicans embraced protectionism, debt (well before the pandemic), racism and conspiracy theories. The Tories under Johnson shifted leftward on fiscal policy well before the pandemic, nationalised railways and, in the words of The Economist, “abandoned the principles by which it has governed Britain for most of the past century”.
Both drove out of their party more traditional Republican and conservative figures. In Johnson’s case, he actually kicked senior Tories like Kenneth Clarke, Philip Hammond and Dominic Grieve out of the party. This act was emblematic of the broader significance of their leaderships: both have ensured that there is no home for genuine conservatives within parties that have traditionally been a vehicle for conservatism in their countries.
Conservatives with real convictions about the importance of family, religion, the rule of law, limited government, well-tested institutions and property rights have no home in parties led by men who — their personal morality aside — have trashed institutions, undermined the rule of law (Johnson actually boasted of a part of his Brexit agreement that violated international law) and encouraged racism, conspiracy theories, xenophobia and, in the case of Trump, anti-Semitism.
Now, both have failed at allegedly the most important conservative value of all — protecting the lives of the community.
But Trump and Johnson only completed a process that had begun well before them: the Republicans have been retreating into obscurantism and fundamentalism since the 1990s; the Tories have struggled with Euroscepticism for decades.
In the longer term, the core values of the neoliberalism embraced by their parties since the 1980s — the utter primacy of the market, of corporations and individualism — are often at odds with elements of conservatism.
But the crony capitalism of Trump and Johnson is a different thing again, no longer any kind of ideology, just a toxic combination of ego and avarice exploiting the worst human instincts.
The shearing off of genuine conservatives is just one of many fragmentations in both countries — a lunatic far-left fringe of the Labour Party continues to seek to keep that party trapped in unelectable opposition; the Democrats face intense criticism from identity politicians and a woke left uninterested in actually achieving change; in both the UK and especially in the US, aggressive white supremacism is on the march.
No matter tomorrow’s result, the question of where exactly real conservatives can go will remain unresolved in the toxic world of grifters and crooks presided over by Trump and Johnson.