Thought I am far from the first to see major similarities between the ever-ebullient BoJo and The Donald, there is much more to be learned from the pair of them about modern politics than the PR value of a prominent thatch of golden locks. Though widely diverse in background, they have each taken to the rise in sound-bite journalism and the decline in stoically noble professionalism in politics. They are as far from Churchill and FDR as the National Enquirer is from the TLS.
But politicians are products of their times. Edward I is rightly seen as the founder of the successful English state—even thought the Welsh and Scots of his time might raise furious objections. As with fashion, sport or business, the day-to-day of politics is shot through with conventions, in order to function smoothly. Which gives rebels a chance to break fresh ground, whether it be business suits for women or introducing the back flop to the high jump.
As Mayor of London Boris turned breaking the mould into his calling card. Whether introducing Boris bikes or waging a war on /bendy buses’, he made a point of being consistently in the Evening Standard’s front page. That the Standard isn’t read outside London was irrelevant because the movers, shakers and voters he wanted to reach all lived within commuting distance. Since the Brexit issue came along, Boris has surfed it like a pro, cultivating popularity with juicy misdeeds, rascally enough to attract press but not sufficiently outrageous to derail his career by getting his jotters.
Similarly, The Donald was brought up by his tycoon father to value the ‘Art of the Deal’—and not to be too squeamish who got hurt in the process—provided it wasn’t you. The sheer space of America created the snake oil salesman, trading on the naivety that comes from isolation. But Donald and his ilk realised that the ever-increasing complexity of modern life created similar (but much more lucrative) opportunities to hoodwink existed among city dwellers.
But BoJo and The Donald share much more that a thatch of blond hair, a bottomless well-spring of chutzpah and a neck-less-wrestler build that male me glad they were never opposite me as prop forwards in the rugby scrum. Though each would doubtless protest high moral standards in all their (frequently abrasive) dealings, both have exercised highly elastic interpretations of acceptable behaviour when it advanced their ends.
BoJo’s disarmingly buffoonish demeanour conceals a tactical shrewdness in calculating the degree of outrage he can get away with. He was elected President of the Oxford Union by downplaying his Bullingdon Club credentials and masquerading as a Social Democrat. When he wrote for The Times, he fabricated quotes, including one from his own godfather, a famous archaeologist.
“As a journalist in Brussels, he was one of the greatest exponents of fake journalism“, Chris Patten on BJ’s stint reporting on the European Commission for The Daily Telegraph 1987-94.
The Donald’s fortune was started by his German immigrant grandfather, who made a bundle out of the Klondike gold rush and augmented by some hard work and shrewd dealings in building housing in New York City, mainly in Queens. When The Donald took over in 1971, he switched into redeveloping skyscrapers in Manhattan. This proved to be as good a move as his later investments in Atlantic City casinos would prove to be bad.
The latter would prove to be the stuff of legend, other rich investors like Carl Ican, po-faced legal teams and tortuous financing of a dizzying array of company names. Despite plastering the Trump name all over properties he owned (and leasing it to many he didn’t), he managed to walk blameless from the collapse of the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino that left hundreds of contractors and suppliers stiffed and 1,300 employees out of a job.
The lynch-pin of all his businesses was supreme belief in himself and his ability to strike stupendous deals in a one-to-one environment. During the ‘Greed-Is-Good’ 1980’s, this worked for him. Indeed Rolling Stone magazine claims the iconic figure of Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street was modelled on The Donald. While self-belief and selective aggression give clear advantages in business negotiation, the moral dimension plays less of a role, partly because it is less in the public eye than in politics.
But even his private life shows the same flexibility of morals. He met his first wife, Ivana (a Czech model in New York for a fashion show) by offering to get her a table at Maxwell Plum’s Upper East Side restaurant. She said to the rest of her party: “‘The good news is, we’re going to get a table real fast. The bad news is, this guy is going to be sitting with us.’ ” They married a year later. But The Donald had a well documented history of infidelity. One of the women with whom he was unfaithful was Marla Maples, whom he regularly spirited away to Atlantic City and eventually become his second wife. That lasted less than 4 years before he met Slovenian model Melania Knauss, during New York Fashion Week. As he recalled “I went crazy, I was supposed to meet this supermodel but I said: ‘Forget about her. Who is the one on the left?‘”
“I do receive Holy Communion…but do not ask God for forgiveness“. —Donald Trump
Although there are clearly huge differences between our two blonde subjects, what is most revealing are their shared characteristics of self-belief, shamelessness and an ability to read the times and act accordingly to further their own self-interest. Western culture has traditionally praised the hard-working, self-effacing, principled hero, whether in a film like High Noon or Barack Obama’s humanity or Princess Diana’s charity work. But we are in a new politics for the 21st century. The idea of Lord Carrington resigning as Foreign Secretary for misjudging Argentinian intentions in the Falklamds seems quaintly Victorian.
Like Kim Kardashian, who realised that, once you are famous, you don’t actually have to do much to stay famous, our twin sons of different mothers on either side of the pond have twigged that in politics:
- media is king for anyone building a career
- media loves controversy, especially among recognised names
- controversy need not be profound (and thus career-threatening)
- populist positions need not be intellectually sound or even consistent
- positions can change because media memory is short
It could be said that people like BoJo and The Donald don’t play by the rules. But there is no common agreement on what the rules are—and unwritten conventions change over time anyway (see Lord Carrington above) and the above bullets may be the new code of conduct. Perhaps our brace of egotists are simply early and effective exponents of what will chatacterise politics in the future: easily recognised, teflon ego-ed media magnets with more incommon with rock stars than sober-suited pillars of the community..
“And the megalomanic shall inherit the earth…”