Many political observers, and a large chunk of the public, are variously bemused, shocked and outraged by the leaders of the two main anglophone countries on either side of the Atlantic. Rather than being “Leader of the Free World” where “huddled masses yearning to be free” find welcome, America has upset more nations in the last three years than when LBJ ran a full-scale undeclared war in Vietnam. Likewise, the legendary stability of Britain—and of its “Mother of Parliaments” has displayed more indecisive neurosis in those same three years than in the decade prior to Thatcher’s iton rule.
In part, this is due to leaders holding office before those thee years. In America, the affable Clinton, the folksy Bush and the urbane Obama lulled Americans into thinking their institutionalised two-party system was perfrct and neede d no change. In Britain, the bookish Major, the ebullient Blair and the smooth Cameron played a similar role in soothing feathers ruffled by Poll Tax riots. The Commons resumed its arcane pleasantries to which no-one, besides anoraks in some late-night TV wasteland, paid much attention.
All that now seems long ago.
We should be grateful to the Trump & Boris shoow for waking us all up, for administering a dose of salts to constipated hallowed halls of democracy. Congress—and the Beltway Bandits vampiring a good living from it—were entirely too comfortable inside funded fortresses that made incumbents immovable. They got little donedone beyond ritual dissent. The Commons seldom raised its debate level to the level even of the Lords and pretended not to be under the thumb of government majorities and the baleful power of whips.
Under Trump and Boris, dust, cobwebs and reputations are scattering. A good section of their respective publics are welcome their iconoclasm among the fustier corners of the temple. Various Sir Humphreys jerk awake from slumber.
But, is all this doing any long-term good?
This muscular politics, taking many of its cues from Vladimir Putin, is one that even tin-pot tyrants like Assad, Allende and Mugabe, not to mention exemplars like Stalin and Hitler would recognise. It follows some simple rules that would be laughably simplistic, if the preceding regime and its politicians did not cling to decorum, politeness and convention as tools to confront it. The rules are:
- Nothing is sacrosanct, unless it keads to success
- Find a popular/patriotic cause—and trumpet it.
- Find a section of the population to demonise and blame
- Find an foreign enemy to demonise and blame.
- Create an aura of powerful determination: L’audace, toujours l’audace, in which the leitmotifs are: “Attack is the best means of defence” & “it’s always easier to receive forgiveness than to obtain permission”
- Eschew consistency: keep ‘em guessing with unpredictable behaviour
- Say whatever it takes to succeed; just make sure it’s plausible
- Never apologise; admit nothing; deny everything
- Mould principles and morals to the cause—you must believe them yourself
To say that either Trump or Boris is a tyrant is exaggeration. But don’t be surprised if memoirs from Dominic Cumming or Jared Kushner emerge some day, embedding this philosophy in their received wisdom. That does not, however, mean that they are not driving their constitutional go-karts well over the speed limit and without due care and attention. Neither Prime Minister nor President gives a fig for the niceties of either constitution nor political convention. Selfless appreciation of anything—most especially others—does not even come into it. It takes real chutzpah to be so brutally focussed. But both leaders have it in spades.
Trump started life already in a penthouse with a father worth $8bn and a lifestyle he regards as his due. In New York property and New Jersey casino dealings, he learned how to out-fox opponents by misinformation that would have evinced Sun Tsu’s admiration. He learned early the dictum that the appearance of wealth and powerbegets more wealth and power. Ostentatious display of both became his calling card. And neatly leaving other people in the lurch—as n his failed Atlantic City casino—was just part of doing business. With no-one but family and minions supplying advice, there was no pressure to deflate his ego. With his wealth, running for office was always a possibility. But the brazen certitude, honed in major business deals made him a natural as the forthright, self-made outsider to appeal to masses tired of watching silver-haired suits mumble away their time in Washington.
Boris had a different experience, with similar results. He did not start with a silver spoon. As eldest in a middle-class family, he was zigged and zagged across the Atlantic in pursuit of his father’s career and was lucky to secure a King’s scholarship to Eton on the strength of English and classics. There the swot became gregarious, mixing easily with the other pupils and moving on with several of them to Balliol College, Oxford. There he joined the upper-class Bullingdon Club, mixed with budding Conservatives like Cameron and Gove. But, keen to become President of the Union, he displayed early elasticity of principles by suppressing this from SDP and Liberal students, diving the impression he shared their views. He won. After a stint as a reporter in Brussels, over which he enthused, he lost his job at the Times by fabricating a quote from his own godfather. Moving to The Telegraph, he found a niche in Brussels writing virulent anti-EU columns which stirred up the Euroskeptics in the Tory party to action but which Chris Patten observed included fake news, which John Major spent much time disproving. Although his writing style was well regarded, he was frequently late with submissions and berated staff who published without waiting for his piece. By developing a bumbling upper-class persona, he gained national fame on various TV shows and then as Mayor of London. Holding down multiple jobs, he did none of them to the satisfaction of those who had to clean up after him. Rather, he honed his harmless bumbler image while shifting political stances with shrewd aplomb, culminating worth his being the clear leader of the Leave campaign, which he peppered with ‘creative’ sound bites that seldom stood scrutiny. His gaffes as Foreign Minster may have been deliberate and got him sacked. Other than a fracas with his girlfriend, he kept quirt until Theresa May self-destructed.
“The selection of Boris Johnson … confirms the Tory Party’s increasing weakness for celebrity personalities over the dreary exigencies of politics. Johnson, for all his gift, is not known for his excessive interest in serious policy matters, and it is hard to see him grubbing away at administrative detail. To maintain his funny man reputation he will no doubt find himself refining his Bertie Wooster interpretation to the point where the impersonation becomes the man.
—Max Hastings, London Evening Standard
In the case of both Trump and Boris, the personalities are the antithesis of the demure, reliable, if not downright elected representative that most people expect (and usually get) in a democracy. But these two are foxes, each loose in their local polital chicken shed. Their opponents cluck and fuss about the rules, condemning them for cavalier, capricious and confrontational behaviour—as if sowing alarm and confusion among their opponents were not intentional, if not meat and drink to them.
Significant numbers of votes relish the panic these two cause because they believe their own agenda is being furthered. This plays right into the “Rules…what rules?—I make the rules” *formely “Le Roi, c’est Moi) approach both leaders espouse. The resulting success will continue to, as long as either emperor convinces the cheering crowds the clothes are indeed real. But those who choose to live by such political swords should watch for opponents realising that ritual clucking is no defence. Boris stands closest to his Armageddon. If he goads them enough, the opposition parties may just forget their traditional enmity and line up to supplant him with an interim government that either reverses Brexit or, at least, gets a deal first.