Politics & Policy

What Trump Can Learn from Boris Johnson’s Mistakes

President Donald Trump and then-British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson at U.N. headquarters in New York City in 2017. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
Relying on an image of personal strength is a mistake.

On the cover of yesterday’s New York Post, the president’s favorite paper, is a picture of Trump, looking regal, and peeling off his face mask. “FACE OFF,” the headline reads. “Prez claims: ‘Don’t be afraid of COVID.’” Such a gesture is open to interpretation. Either, you might say, as some have, that Trump is emulating the kind of Gospel wisdom espoused by the likes of Pope John Paul II (“Be not afraid”), that what Trump means to say is that God is in His Heaven, thus, as Julian of Norwich put it, “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things will be well.” Alternatively, you might say that Trump is exhibiting the sort of reckless personal pride that typically precedes a gigantic tumble.

In either case, the headline does recall the fate of a certain prime minister of the United Kingdom, who at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis was quite adamant that human fearlessness was the way to go. This singularly cheerful chap boasted about his “shaking hands with everybody” at a hospital he visited — as if COVID-19 worked something like AIDS — including hands belonging to coronavirus patients. We all know how that turned out. Boris Johnson contracted the virus, was admitted to the hospital, and thereafter was moved to an intensive-care unit, where he now says that it “could have gone either way.” Having fallen gravely ill, Johnson grappled (with varying degrees of success) with the following issues which we might also consider in relation to Trump.

Transparency with the public.

As National Review’s editorial on the subject reads, “at this sensitive moment, it is of the utmost important that the White House convey accurate information about the president’s condition.” We opined that the initial talk of “mild symptoms” and Trump’s going to hospital out of an “abundance of caution” was “misleading,” as was the White House physician’s “dancing around to avoid disclosing that the president had received supplemental oxygen.”

There was a very similar “dancing around” in Britain with regard to Johnson’s diagnosis. When he was first admitted to the hospital, in April, Johnson tweeted that he was going in for “some routine tests,” since he was, after ten days, “still experiencing coronavirus symptoms,” though he assured the public that he was in “good spirits.” The BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, complained that “after very, very little information was shared today, the prime minister was taken into intensive care at around 19:00 BST.” The result of this strategy was more fear and distrust, not less.

An opportunity for political enemies to gain ground.

In response to the president’s positive coronavirus test, the Biden-Harris campaign removed all negative political ads, as well they should have. However, lest Trump think that the “outpouring of love,” which has been “incredible,” should serve his interests, he should consider the case of Johnson, whose national unity was short-lived and immediately followed by a major dive in the polls. As Johnson was on his back foot, fighting for his life, Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour Party, emerged in the public eye as a compassionate and competent leader. Once the prime minister was back to work and floundering, Starmer was able to use his new image as leverage while savaging Johnson during the weekly debate sessions.

Johnson enjoys a comfortable majority in Parliament. Trump is just weeks before an election. He can’t afford to cede any more ground in the polls to Biden.

Grandiose claims of personal strength.

When Johnson was sick, Trump described him as someone who is “strong” and “doesn’t give up.” Perhaps he sees something of himself in him? Dominic Raab, the British foreign secretary and second in command, made similar remarks, noting that he knew Johnson would pull through because he was a “fighter.” Such rhetoric backfired. Is the implication (asked the indignant band of BBC journalists) that those who do succumb to the disease are weak and wimpy?

Regardless of how it was intended, many have also interpreted Trump’s “Don’t be afraid of COVID,” the disease that has killed over 200,000 Americans, as a personal insult. Johnson made up for this by, after his recovery, stressing his struggle with his weight, hence humbling himself as a man of ordinary vulnerability as well as the great physical strength for which he insists he is famed. (Johnson once told me that the most noteworthy thing about him is that he’s “immensely physically strong.”)

From all this, Johnson’s politics have sadly not recovered. Knocked down by the virus, the prime minister fell a liberal Tory and has risen a bumbling authoritarian. He has gone from not being cautious enough to being overly and arbitrarily micromanaging. Initially Johnson’s popularity ratings soared. No longer. Of course, he can afford this setback (at least for now). Britain had its last election in December, when he swept up a massive parliamentary majority. The same cannot be said for Trump, whose health and political future have never looked more precarious.

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