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Is Boris Johnson better at Trumpism than Trump?

Boris Johnson
REUTERS/Toby Melville
Boris Johnson is staking a claim on large stretches of a beaten-down, post-industrial heartland that the Labor Party took for granted for decades.

Boris Johnson is looking like a very clever politician these days.

He’s still an unprincipled and supremely self-centered rich guy. As the campaign for parliamentary elections wound down, he pocketed the phone of a reporter who wanted to show him the picture of a 4-year-old sleeping on the floor of an overworked hospital. Then there was the accusation he hid in a walk-in refrigerator to avoid an interview. So statesmanlike. 

Like him or not (and even many who voted to keep him on as prime minister don’t like or trust him), his electoral landslide last week would not have been possible without some real political skill. Given his famous lack of discipline and the tough road ahead — including the real possibility he could lose part of the country he governs — it all could evaporate quickly. But even if he hasn’t quite achieved his childhood ambition of being king of the world, the dexterity that got him this far should put a certain leader across the Atlantic to shame. If, of course, that leader was capable of shame. 

U.S. pundits, and President Trump himself, were quick to look for lessons in Johnson’s victory that might apply to Trump’s reelection campaign. U.S. and British politics do seem at times to travel on parallel tracks. But it’s all speculation. 

Here’s what’s more certain: Trump faces near certain impeachment in the House of Representatives this week. As he plots how he survives it and campaigns for reelection, he shows no indication he will do anything other than what he’s always done: Maximize his base, and try to drown his Democratic opponent in a pit of mud. 

Johnson, on the other hand, is digesting his main opponent’s lunch. He’s also staking a claim on dinner and grocery orders for years to come. On behalf of a party whose austerity programs made life much tougher for many, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is staking a claim on large stretches of a beaten-down, post-industrial heartland that Labour took for granted for decades.

In other words, Trump wins by subtraction. Initial indications are that Johnson is at least thinking that long-term success might be about addition. 

The reasons why Conservatives did so well in those traditional Labour areas depends on your viewpoint. It has something to do with Parliament’s unending squabbling about how and whether to leave the European Union, and with Johnson’s ability to craft a simple message: “Get Brexit Done.” It helps that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was a dismal candidate. And some of Johnson’s victory, as it was for Trump in 2016, was pretty clearly about something cultural — a feeling among people of being forgotten, of unhappiness with the EU and with immigration.

But look at Johnson’s initial moves after the size of his electoral victory became clear. Instead of trying to tear up government health care programs, as Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress tried to do repeatedly after the 2016 election, Johnson promised to increase funding for the National Health Service.

He went to the north of England, the site of many of those shocking Conservative victories, and whether you believe him or not, he projected a touch of humility in his comments to constituencies where people held their noses while voting for the Tories.

“I can imagine people’s pencils hovering over the ballot paper and wavering before coming down for us and the Conservatives,” he said. “You have changed the Conservative party for the better, and you’ve changed the future of our country for the better.”

Johnson also is reported to be considering drastically increasing infrastructure spending in those areas

Maybe it’s all pretty words. Still, can you imagine Trump doing any of it?

Having delivered such a huge election victory gives Johnson room to maneuver within his party, pushing it for higher spending on government services. But the Conservatives aren’t going to completely change their stripes, and they can’t count on Labour to keep choosing leaders as unpopular as Corbyn. 

Among the clearest challenges is a demand for a second referendum on Scottish independence. Scotland is heavily in favor of remaining in the EU, and while Johnson was sweeping England, the Conservatives took a drubbing north of the border. Now, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon says she will release a blueprint this week for the path toward a second independence vote. 

Johnson’s government must agree for it to happen, and the prime minister says he won’t. No prime minister would want to have a 300-year-old union end on their watch. But as a practical matter, it would be hard to keep Scotland in the union if it’s determined to leave. Politically, there might even be an upside for the Conservatives. They would be rid of a part of the country that never votes for them, anyhow. The net effect could be to strengthen their hold on what remains. 

What Johnson means, in the words of Andrew Sullivan in New York magazine, is “Trumpism without Trump. A conservative future without an ineffective and polarizing nutjob at the heart of it.” At least for now, he has a mandate to pursue it — and he’ll probably be better at it than Trump himself. 

Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by joe smith on 12/16/2019 - 12:04 pm.

    Johnson has one mandate from the voters, get Brexit done. The elites in London and media missed this simple message from the voters “we don’t like the EU”. Johnson, much like President Trump, understands that most citizens want a better life for themselves through jobs, peaceful communities, great education for their children and equal opportunities (not equal outcomes, that is impossible) for everyone. What you make out of that is up to you….. They do not want a huge overreaching bunch of bureaucrats and politicians deciding their life’s direction.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 12/16/2019 - 12:52 pm.

      Except that a majority of voters chose parties that supported remaining in the EU or a second referendum.

      • Submitted by joe smith on 12/16/2019 - 01:49 pm.

        They won 365 out of 650 seats in their parliament, giving them the super majority to get out of EU. Not sure how you think their system works but Johnson and Conservative party steamrolled the liberal opposition.

        • Submitted by Pat Terry on 12/16/2019 - 02:32 pm.

          I understand how the electoral system works. But it remains true that most voters oppose Brexit, and that was reflected in the election results even if the Conservatives won the election.

    • Submitted by Hiram Foster on 12/17/2019 - 06:32 am.

      The simplicity of the message was classic campaign tactics. “Get Brexit Done” fits so comfortably on a bumper sticker. But the terseness of the message has never been the issue. What is the issues have to do with what Brexit is and how should Britain go about doing. Among other things Brexit means dividing the UK, jeopardizing the peace in Northern Ireland, and dramatically increasing reliance on America, significant matters which don’t fit nearly as well on cars.

  2. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 12/16/2019 - 12:04 pm.

    The problem as I see it is that Boris may not be able to keep Britain together. Why wouldn’t Scotland leave to rejoin Europe? Would you want to be a part of a country that has Boris Johnson as it’s leader?

  3. Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 12/16/2019 - 12:40 pm.

    The elite and media condmned Corbyn and Labour as antisemitic in the strongest terms. I assume they would rather take their chances with Brexit and Johnson than face a future with Corbyn and Labour.

    Here in America, elite and media condemn Trump in the strongest terms, while most acting as if Bernie does not exist, when they aren’t otherwise mischaracterizing his politics. Except the Republican party is now mostly the Trump party, and the dems, though desperate for a moderate, pretend the combined support of Warren and Bernie is not at least as great and probably greater than support for staus quo candidates, or Trump.

    What our elite and media don’t get is how deep the feeling in the West is, that the neoliberal path we have been on since Reagan/Thatcher has been disastrous. But fearing “socialism”, our elite and media are leaving the door open for the right wing. I assume because the right wing will not interfere with status quo economics or foreign policy. Bernie would most definitely reduce compensation for the top 10%, and be less inclined to support the total surrveillance war complex.

    • Submitted by Hiram Foster on 12/17/2019 - 06:37 am.

      The elite and media condmned Corbyn and Labour as antisemitic in the strongest terms.

      In fairness, lots of non-elite and folks outside the media condemned Jeremy for his posh, London-based anti antisemitism perhaps because he is antisemitic.

      • Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 12/18/2019 - 08:44 am.

        In fairness, I have heard a great deal of condemnation of Corbyn as antisemitic, but I rarely hear any examples of his antisemitism. Maybe he is antisemitic, but I am also aware that the elite of the UK and America are happy to assassinate the character of anyone who defends working people before the wealthy, and amplify the messaging with media.

        • Submitted by Pat Terry on 12/18/2019 - 10:18 am.

          Corbyn attended a ceremony honoring the perpetrators of the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. Not the victims, mind you, but the actual murderers – who were later hunted down and killed themselves. If you actually care to look, this and numerous examples of Corbyn’s anti-Semitism aren’t hard to find. And its not just him – the Labour party is full of Anti-Semities, although Corbyn has done his best to protect them and stymie investigation into the anti-Semitism of its members.

          Few, if any, people have done more to hurt working people than Jeremy Corbyn.

  4. Submitted by Pat Terry on 12/16/2019 - 01:03 pm.

    Boris Johnson is an utter buffoon. A lying clown.

    But somehow Labour came up with a guy that was substantially worse. Jeremy Corbyn is a vile, dishonest anti-Semite. My UK friends who stuck with Labour absolutely loathed him. They didn’t want Corbyn as PM – they just wanted a hung parliament or reduced Tory majority.

    I do worry about the Democrats having electability issues with a left wing candidate, but I don’t think the UK election is instructive. This was less about Corbyn’s policies than Corbyn himself. Sanders and Warren are not bigots and do not have Corbyn’s unpopularity.

  5. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 12/16/2019 - 09:50 pm.

    Like Trump, Johnson has accomplished nothing positive. Most experts appear to think that Brexit will cause a British recession, much as Trump’s trade war had hurt rural America.

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