Cast your mind back to the febrile autumn of 2019 when, month after month, MPs fought bitterly over Brexit in a deadlocked House of Commons.
Boris Johnson, the British Prime Minister, did not incite a mob to invade the legislature, as Donald Trump did last week. But he certainly sought to harness the power of the mob, or what he preferred to call “the will of the people”, to intimidate his political opponents.
He accused them of “betrayal” and “surrender”, just as sycophantic newspapers had earlier denounced them as “saboteurs”, and judges as “enemies of the people”. Remainer MPs had to walk a daily gauntlet of jeering thugs in Parliament Square. They received death threats. Their offices were attacked and defaced. One Brexiteer, James Goddard, received a suspended jail sentence for abusing the former Conservative MP Anna Soubry and calling her a Nazi. Far from denouncing such conduct, the Prime Minister dismissed MPs’ complaints about his inflammatory language as “humbug”.
Now that Trump is disgraced and defeated, Johnson’s apologists are seeking to play down his relationship with the US president. “Johnson is not Trump’s transatlantic twin” proclaimed the headline on one such article in the Times by James Forsyth, the Spectator’s political editor, who happens to be married to Allegra Stratton, Downing Street’s new press secretary.
Forsyth rightly argued that there are many fundamental differences between the two men, though I would quibble with some of his examples. Unlike Trump, Forsyth contended, Johnson is fundamentally optimistic, craves harmony and believes in evolution not revolution.
He also argued that Johnson’s relationship was with the president’s office, not the man, but on that I do beg to differ. Johnson’s courtship of Trump went far beyond diplomatic and political necessity, his urgent need for a trade deal to offset Brexit notwithstanding.
As foreign secretary Johnson mocked Europe’s “collective whinge-o-rama” after Trump’s election, saying the incoming president “believes firmly in the values you and I do – freedom and democracy”. He told US diplomats in 2017 that Trump was doing “fantastic stuff” and “making America great again”. He told a private dinner in 2018 that he was “increasingly admiring of Donald Trump” and his uncompromising negotiating style. He facilitated Trump’s excruciating three-day state visit to the UK in 2019. He failed to defend Kim Darroch, Britain’s ambassador in Washington, when his unflattering cables about Trump were leaked. But for the Queen, Trump was the first person the Prime Minister called after recovering from Covid-19 in 2020.
Seldom, if ever, did Johnson express disapproval of the president’s repellent behaviour. Not after Trump defended white supremacists following a violent rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. Not after he threatened to unleash the military on peaceful protesters following George Floyd’s brutal killing by police officers last summer. Not when he claimed the 2020 presidential election was rigged. Even after last week’s storming of the US Capitol it took him 24 hours to criticise Trump by name.
Johnson’s reticence is hardly surprising because he and the president have long worked from the same nationalist populist playbook, even if the conduct of the man Trump dubbed “Britain Trump” has been less extreme.
Fundamentally both are conmen, snake-oil salesmen, unprincipled demagogues who won power by exploiting the grievances of the left-behind with promises they knew they could never keep and remedies they knew would never work (Johnson did, of course, deliver Brexit and end free movement but hardly the sunlit uplands he pledged).
Trump promised to “make America great again” while Johnson promised to liberate Britain from the suffocating shackles of the EU. Trump promised to “build a wall” to keep out immigrants, while Johnson promised to “take back control” of immigration policy. Trump promised to extricate the US from supranational alliances, while Johnson promised to take the UK out of the EU. Both men promised to raise, not lower, the proverbial drawbridge, and in doing so unleashed the darker, xenophobic and isolationist impulses of their respective countries.
In many ways they have governed similarly too, though again Trump is much more reprehensible. Both practise tribal politics – the politics of division. Both whip up anger against a political establishment they portray as rotten. Both engage in ugly jingoism and question their opponents’ patriotism.
Both subvert democratic norms and traditions, and resent checks on their power. Both surround themselves with subservient loyalists regardless of merit or ability. Both reward cronies with jobs, pardons, peerages or lucrative government contracts. Both have scant regard for the law. Both seek to blunt legitimate scrutiny by elected representatives and the mainstream media. Both seek to cow or co-opt supposedly independent institutions.
Both men have low ethical standards, and a diminished sense of right and wrong. Both routinely engage in hyperbole and outright lies. Both are lazy and have short attention spans. Both are showmen who prefer simplistic slogans and headline-grabbing announcements to serious, long-term policymaking. Both care more for power, one suspects, than for the struggling blue-collar workers they profess to champion.
There are other similarities. Johnson and Trump have both turned their respective parties into something not far short of personality cults – purging their moderates, empowering their extremists and upending their traditional conservative values. Both men have brought rancour and turmoil to their nations, and both have caused great damage to their countries’ global reputations.
As Lisa Nandy, the shadow foreign secretary, told the Observer on Sunday, Johnson and his ministers “were so eager to swallow the Trump playbook of how politics should be done that they abandoned British values, interests and their own self-respect”.
Forsyth is not wrong. For all of the above Johnson is not Trump, and there are other important differences worth stressing. Johnson is an egotist, but he is not unhinged, delusional or a borderline sociopath such as Trump. It is hard to imagine that he would ever condone an actual invasion of the Commons, or defy a legitimate election result. Despite Brexit he is not instinctively protectionist or isolationist. He appears to take climate change seriously. He is not as overtly malign, and he possesses both charm and humour, whereas nobody has ever seen Trump laugh.
Yet it remains to be seen which leader has caused greater long-term damage to his country. The enormous harm Trump has inflicted on his country may yet prove to be largely reversible. The immense damage Brexit will cause to the UK’s economy, national cohesion and global influence most probably will not.