The 2012 US election is Bush-Kerry in reverse

Like the Democrats in 2004, the Republicans have over-estimated their instinctive appeal to voters.

So here's the situation. The sitting US president is an incredibly divisive figure. The challenger is pushing a single big policy issue, in which he believes he's at an unassailable advantage. And the opposition are so fired up with loathing for the president that they've convinced themselves they can nominate a gaffe-prone plank of wood from Massachusetts and still walk home to a win.

If all this is starting to feel eerily familiar to you, it might be because we've been here before. Back then, the parties were the other way around, of course, and the killer-issue-that-wasn't was defence policy, not the economy. But all the same, some aspects of this election cycle are starting to feel a lot like 2004 all over again.

Back then, when our biggest economic problem was how to pay for the Iraq War, the Democrats hated Bush. Hated him. And that hatred was shared by vast swathes of the world, so much so that most of British left spent the autumn of 2004 repeatedly clicking refresh on various US polling websites. "Kerry's gaining!" we'd tell each other, ignoring the fact he’d been trailing since the conventions, convincing ourselves that, okay, he’s behind now, but he has to win because, well, look at the other guy. Obviously they couldn't re-elect George W. Bush. Obviously.

What we hadn't counted on was that much of the Democratic Party was feeling much the same way. They were so convinced of their own righteousness that they'd chosen a candidate who was just, well, there. John Kerry wasn't bad exactly; there just seemed to be little reason to vote for him beyond "not being George W. Bush".

This, it transpired, wasn't enough. Even Kerry's killer argument – that he'd served in Vietnam, while Bush was passed out under a tractor or something, and was thus far better suited to being president at a time of national emergency – ended up being used against him. Republican sympathisers who claimed to have served with him attacked his war record every three seconds for about six months, and 'swiftboating' ended up joining Watergate and McCarthyism in the US political lexicon.

Compare that to the present. The Republicans are so consumed with loathing of Obama that they've lost sight of the fact it's not shared by everybody else. All the moderates think they're frothing at the mouth. The Dems have turned Romney's business credentials against him, by making it an argument about private equity ethics, rather than the state of the economy. And, like Kerry, he's utterly unable to connect with the voters. Plus there's the plank of wood from Massachusetts thing.

Elections don't follow neat patterns, of course, and there's still nearly two months to go. Anything could happen, and when we’re watching President Romney sworn in next January this might start feeling a lot more like 1980, or some other election, or like nothing that’s ever happened before.

But to me, right now, it feels very 2004. The opposition have over-estimated their instinctive appeal to the voters – and underestimated the size of the job ahead.

In 2004, a divisive president triumphed over a wooden opposition candidate. Will history repeat itself? Photograph: Getty Images.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.

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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt