“Make America great again” and “taking back control” shared both principles and principals.
The time was right in that transactions – deal making – were central to Trump’s appeal and to his practice. And with his superseding of alliances came the attraction of working directly with other self-consciously charismatic – male – leaders. Unlike most of the others, Johnson was at least elected.
The time was right given that both owed their position to successfully having targeted voters and concerns traditionally of their opponents. They embodied their supporters’ will against elites. Walls featured prominently, their building and breaching, respectively.
The time was right since self-consciously charismatic leaders could, in the neologism of the day, craft their own narratives. Trump and Johnson certainly did, initially. Both were pre-eminent in the mastery of their platforms – social media and newspaper columns, respectively.
The time was right because obstruction in America and Britain – by Steve Bannon’s swamp, and Dominic Cummings’s blob – to the outcomes of 2016 served to rally their supporters in grievance against their own “deep state”, judiciary, legislature, mainstream media, and cultural establishment.
It was the right time because it was perhaps the first time that a president and a prime minister had served as proxies for each other. Johnson was seen as “Trumpish”; in Italy, Johnson was “Trump’s little dog” ; in France, Johnson in Downing Street was “tantamount to installing a Trump”. For Republicans Johnson’s success might “presage a consecration of the Trump movement in America”; for one Democrat, Johnson was a “kind of a physical and emotional clone of the president”. That Democrat was Joe Biden.
Peas in a pod
Though their differences were, if anything, greater, it was their similarities that attracted attention. Their physical attributes meant that they were a boon to caricaturists: two middle-aged white men in suits yet instantly recognisable from any angle.
There was the unusual public and political prominence of their families. Both were libertines, sharing a history of multiple marriages and relationships – and around five children each. Both were insiders running as outsiders; demotic sons of privilege.
Trump and Johnson, to an unusual extent, aroused opposition and hostility from within their own parties; indeed, never could so many colleagues have attested publicly to the unfitness for office of a candidate for president or prime minister. Neither would ever have been nominated, much less elected, by party officers. Their appeal lay with the ranks. Their party commands backed them because it was thought that they provided the best chance of winning power.
And in 2020, as winter became spring, both were emphatically to prove critics’ predictions that their genius was for campaigning rather than governing.
Trump’s effusions about a “magnificent” post-Brexit free trade deal were rhetorical and the row over Huawei and Britain’s 5G suggested that what should have been the easiest post-EU relationship had soured surprisingly quickly. When they spoke on the phone, Trump accused Johnson of betrayal and became “apoplectic”. The call was ended abruptly. British policy was changed.
Their last meeting was a year ago at the London Nato Summit. During a general election campaign. Trump’s unparalleled unpopularity in Britain ensured that other than the formal summit handshake of welcome, the pair were not seen in public together. Johnson even found ways of not referring to Trump by name.
That it was their last meeting was due to the pandemic, the defining event of their periods in office. Both initially made light of COVID; both eventually contracted it. But where the severity of his experience impressed on Johnson the gravity of the situation, Trump’s speedy recovery merely affirmed his view that there was nothing to fear. Politically, the virus prevailed.
Of all the relationships between presidents and prime ministers, that of Trump and Johnson was an inversion; a unique example of president infatuated with a prime minister. But where that was a dynamic any number of prime ministers would have craved, this was the president from whom such attention was least welcome. And it was not even as if it was offset by shared achievements.
Insofar as either could be said to exist as a mode of governing, Trumpism and Johnsonism were definable as expressions of will. For each, charismatic populist impulse was stronger than ideology. But as a mode of governing, it was found wanting in a pandemic. As a relationship, Trump and Johnson was unusually personal. That between Johnson and Biden will be less so – but it may be the better for it.