Boris Johnson Mirrors Trump's Style; Differs in Education & Experience By Joshua Turner
If one were to make a surface level appraisal of Boris Johnson, the incoming Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, there would appear to be a number of similarities with current President of the United States Donald Trump. Both men have disheveled blonde hair, a penchant for making inappropriate statements at inopportune times, and a tenuous relationship with the truth.
Perhaps where the men are most similar is in their governing styles and philosophies; during his tenure as Mayor of London, a post to which he won election twice beginning in 2008, Johnson was known to make off the cuff promises while hastily pursuing questionable policies for momentary political gain and with little thought to the potential aftermath or difficulties. A term that has been used to describe Donald Trump’s political instincts is ‘day trading’ or the notion that what matters most is owning the news cycle; whatever issues may arise from what one said or promised today will be cause for worry at another time. Acclaim from the crowds seems to be what if foremost in both their minds and political calculations.
A facet of each man’s political persona that, in part, makes applause chasing a more viable strategy is a real lack of a foundational ideology, political or otherwise, aside from the pursuit of power. While Donald Trump’s transformation from a moderate Democrat to a right-wing populist has been well documented, he is not alone. Johnson was purported to have told a colleague in the late 1990’s that he was worried about his lack of any real political opinions. He was able to win election as Mayor of London, a cosmopolitan city that did not seem likely to elect a conservative, in part by moderating and packaging his message in a way that was attractive (or a least not prohibitively bad) to the population. By many accounts, even his worst failures as Mayor were taken as a sign of his authenticity and framed him as a normal human being; he was relatable.
An additional similarity between the two men, and what perhaps generate the most controversy, is their opinions on immigration and ethnicity. While Trump is rightfully credited with beginning the birther movement, which claimed that Barack Obama was not a US citizen, Johnson also made racially tinged remarks about the then president, proclaiming that Obama was against Brexit in part because of his Kenyan heritage and thus possessed a natural dislike of colonial powers.
Indeed it was Brexit, or the campaign for the UK to leave the European Union, where all of these aforementioned aspects of Johnson’s political life crashed together to produce one of more perplexing tragedies (or triumphs, depending on whom you ask) in British political history. Johnson was at the forefront of the leave campaign, granting them an air of legitimacy, alongside fellow MP Michael Gove, that was a counterbalance to the eccentric United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage. Johnson was once again loose with the facts in an effort that seemed unlikely to be successful and, when the results were tallied, was met with a bit of surprise from Johnson himself. It has been speculated by some that Johnson did not actually want Brexit but instead planned to use the issue to further his political career (for what its worth, many have said the same about Trump, claiming that he never actually expected to win).
For all their similarities, it is worth noting that the two have very real differences in some key areas. Johnson is very well read and erudite, boasting an Oxford education, speaks fluent French, and has a background in journalism (where he was fired from his first job at the Times of London for falsification). In fact my first encounter with Johnson was watching him on a Question Time panel, which included the famous writer Christopher Hitchens, discussing the writings of Salman Rushdie. It is not a stretch to say that Donald Trump can boast of no such background. But it is his intelligence that might make Johnson an even more risky proposition for the UK than Trump has been for the US. Johnson is a skilled political operator and knows how to get things done; Trump has largely been hampered from enacting his agenda by his own incompetence and lack of understanding of the political system he sits atop of.
While it would be unfair to claim that Trump offers the United Kingdom a blueprint for what they can expect from Johnson, it is striking how, in a number of key areas, the two men are echoes of one another. Their personal relationship, despite Johnson’s early disdain for Trump, is also likely to be much warmer than that between Trump and outgoing PM Theresa May. Johnson has employed to some degree the Lindsey Graham tactic of criticizing early but recognizing which way the political winds are blowing, and then changing course. Both men remain unpopular with many of their European allies, which may also serve to push the two closer together.
No matter what, it will an interesting few years for the United Kingdom, as the next call for elections does not have to happen until 5 May 2022. First up in Prime Minister Johnson’s inbox: the impending Brexit deadline of 31 October, which Johnson has promised to deliver, deal or no deal.
Joshua Turner is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at the State University of New York- Buffalo