National Security & Defense

The Ballad of Boris and The Donald

Boris Johnson (Neill Hall/Reuters)
What all those Johnson/Trump comparisons get right — and what they miss

The last time most Americans took notice of Boris Johnson he was suspended in mid-air, hanging from a zip line as part of celebrations for the London Olympics. He was in his second term as mayor of London, and he looked ridiculous. It was the kind of incident that ends a political career (think Michael Dukakis with the helmet), but not for Johnson: Now, four years later, having been the public face of the Brexit campaign, he looks poised to become Prime Minister.

Johnson, known simply as “Boris” in most of Britain, has had a prominent presence in politics since the late 1980s, as a columnist, journalist, editor, and media personality. He continued his journalistic career even while serving as a member of Parliament and mayor of London. Apparently, the mayoral salary of £140,000 was not enough to live on and he needed the extra £250,000 from the Daily Telegraph. It seems he has expensive tastes.

Presumably he acquired those tastes at Eton, perhaps the most famous boarding school in the world, which he attended with David Cameron, the current prime minister. They also attended Oxford together before making their separate ways in London. From his perch as a journalist, Johnson was elected to Parliament twice, from two different ridings, and had a variety of portfolios in opposition. In both campaigns he had safe seats selected for him. Only his mayoral races were real contests, and he won them anyway. This brief biography would suggest he is the logical next choice as the Queen’s first minister. A well-known journalist and successful politician with the right education — nine of the last twelve prime ministers since Churchill attended Oxford and four of them Eton — would be on any short-list for high office. But this one shouldn’t be.

That zip-line incident was only the most photogenic of the many events that should have ended Johnson’s political career, or even prevented it from starting. In his work for the Spectator and the Telegraph, he’s taken so many contradictory positions it is almost impossible to know what he actually believes, except on the European question. The one constant in his career as a gifted and pugnacious writer is a penchant for politically incorrect gaffes. “For ten years,” he once wrote, “we in the Tory party have become used to Papua New Guinea-style orgies of cannibalism and chief-killing, and so it is with a happy amazement that we watch as the madness engulfs the Labour party.” When he was later forced to apologize to the government and people of Papua New Guinea, he couldn’t quite bring himself to do it properly: “I meant no insult to the people of Papua New Guinea, who I’m sure lead lives of blameless bourgeois domesticity . . . ”

Of course, he and his supporters defend him as being one of the few people brave enough to tell the truth.

Johnson possesses many of the characteristics Trump’s conservative detractors wish he possessed.

Truth might be a problem for someone fired from his first job at the Times after fabricating a quotation. He was later fired from the shadow cabinet of Michael Howard for lying about an affair, of which he has had many, at least one resulting in a child. (He might wish blameless bourgeois domesticity on the people of the South Pacific, but he seems to have little interest in it himself.) Serial lying and adultery are not the preferred habits of one being groomed as the Queen’s first minister. Speaking of grooming, there is also the hair. It has both Twitter and Facebook accounts. Is he starting to sound like someone familiar to Americans?

Comparisons of Johnson to Donald Trump started to accumulate once “The Donald” took the lead in the primaries and “Boris” became the public face of the Leave campaign. They have only increased since Leave’s unexpected victory last week. They are impossible to avoid, but equally impossible to sustain for very long. Yes, both men have overcome difficulties with honesty, fidelity, and consistency, and both possess remarkable talents for self-promotion. The movements they lead have been characterized as motivated by anger and hate, sometimes fairly, often as a way to discredit their ideas on the cheap and avoid understanding why so many people agree with them. But as individuals they are very different, and their differences are instructive.

#share#Johnson possesses many of the characteristics Trump’s conservative detractors wish he possessed. Boris is not only a graceful writer and a fine wit, he is deeply and widely educated to an extent unheard of in American politics. He has written a well-received biography of Winston Churchill, a hero to more American conservatives than British Tories, and recently engaged in a public debate with Mary Beard, the Cambridge University classicist, on whether Roman civilization or Greek civilization left the more positive legacy. He sided with the Greeks, but is as likely to quote Latin in his public addresses as Greek. (Yes, he really does this. He also speaks several living European languages.)

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It would be unfair to even speculate on Trump’s views of classical civilization. And yet it would be equally unfair to ask any major American politician the same question. Is there anyone in American politics since the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan capable of authoring a book on a major American statesman and convincingly debating the relative merits of Aristophanes and Terence? Americans just don’t do this, and that’s why the differences between Johnson and Trump are so interesting.

As much as it may be painful to hear, Donald Trump is quintessentially American. What other culture could have produced him? What other educational system could have left such little imprint on his soul? The academic Left and Right (what there is of it) may want to repudiate him in every way, but he graduated from some of their most prestigious institutions. How could you tell? When Americans lament a “crisis of the humanities,” they are met with quizzical looks in Europe. This is because European leaders do not make personal phone calls to congratulate professional sports teams. Nor do they publicize their predictions on college basketball. They are far more comfortable with high culture than any American politician.

Donald Trump is quintessentially American. What other culture could have produced him?

Yes, Donald Trump is thoroughly American. Even his promise, widely denounced, to build a wall and have the Mexicans pay for it is as American as apple pie. It is as American as Tom Sawyer, in fact. Fine, Tom didn’t tell his aunt that he would make the other kids in town paint her fence and that they would pay him for the privilege. But they did. He even got a dead rat and the string to swing it. And that swagger, that Tom Sawyer hucksterism, just has to make you smile. When people like Trump, that’s what they like. Trump is Tom Sawyer all grown up and become a Robber Baron.

As for Boris Johnson, he is harder to find in literature. Among American personalities, he might best be described as a bizarre combination of William F. Buckley and Woody Allen. But in literature, who is Boris? There is some element of Falstaff in the man. We can imagine he has heard the chimes at midnight on occasion. But he is also far too obviously ambitious to be compared to Falstaff. For instance, it is said he intentionally tousles his hair before every public appearance in order to cultivate his image. Falstaff is also far too medieval. Boris Johnson is out of the 19th century.

The British historian John Robert Seeley wrote in 1883 that, “We seem, as it were, to have conquered and peopled half the world in a fit of absence of mind.” Johnson’s entire political career embodies that approach. Everything is made to look accidental, from his speeches and his opinions to his policies and his hair. In his own way he is quintessentially British, or at least a certain kind of British. There is a type who believes trying too hard in sports, business, and certainly in physical appearance is what Johnny Foreigner does. A proper British gentleman just lets things happen and, lo and behold, through the same absence of mind that acquired the Empire he always wins. This is the image Boris Johnson has painstakingly cultivated to tremendous political success.

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Johnson and Trump may be riding populist waves toward the highest offices in their respective lands, but they are strange tribunes. (Mr. Trump, the tribune was an office of the Roman Republic meant to be a representative of the lower classes. Mr. Johnson will be able to tell you all about it, probably for a fee.) Trump is ostentatiously rich and Johnson ostentatiously educated. The question that has hung over both of their political careers from the start is why more people don’t resent them. How could they get so far?

The answer is that they are each a recognizable cultural type that resonates with their constituents. Trump is so American it hurts. By contrast, if you changed Hillary Clinton’s accent or taught her a foreign language, she could be mistaken for the head of the IMF or culture minister of Sweden. Likewise, in a photo lineup of European leaders David Cameron would be hard to pick out if you didn’t already know him by sight. No one will mistake Boris Johnson for an Italian or a Belgian when they see him in those suits or, again, with that hair.

#related#This is not to say that Johnson and Trump have risen to success by embodying the best of their cultures. Far from it: To many people Trump is an ugly American, perhaps the ugly American; to others he might just be an exercise in wish fulfillment, spending money the way they would if they had it. Johnson’s public persona is of self-effacing English heroism. He could be mistaken for any number of characters played by John Cleese, the Monty Python member and (coincidentally?) Brexit supporter.

The autobiographical style in politics is on the rise. Barack Obama was propelled to victory by his improbable story eight years ago and Hillary Clinton is hoping that the only non-controversial part of her biography — that she is, indeed, a woman — will work for her this time. Boris Johnson rode his zip line to victory in the Brexit referendum, turning embarrassment into triumph as only the English can, and he might yet ride it all the way to No. 10 Downing Street. Donald Trump is hoping to ride his escalator to the White House. It might not work, but if it does, expect to see him swinging a dead rat. It would be Mexico’s down payment on that wall.

— Geoffrey M. Vaughan teaches political science at Assumption College in Worcester, Mass.

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