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10 August 2022

Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the “deep state”

Why authoritarians use conspiracy theories to distract from their own failures.

By Hugh Smiley

In one of Boris Johnson’s final addresses to the House of Commons as Prime Minister, he accused Keir Starmer last month of working in secret with “the deep state” to pull the UK back into the EU.

The conspiracy that shadowy actors are secretly controlling the government has long flourished in the murkier corners of the internet. But the theory burst into the mainstream of Western politics when former US president Donald Trump began to espouse it at his rallies, claiming that “unelected deep state operatives who defy the voters to push their own secret agenda are truly a threat to democracy itself”.  

As Jonn Elledge, New Statesman writer and author of Conspiracy, observes in the video above, Donald Trump’s staff “were now in some of the most powerful jobs in American politics, and they discovered that even despite that they still couldn’t make the American political system do exactly what they wanted”.

The US system contains necessary checks and balances to limit how much power a president can exercise – but this “boring” truth was overlooked by Trump. Instead, says Elledge, the “deep state” became a useful scapegoat for the failings of the president’s administration: “it’s a useful political idea because it conjures up an enemy, but it keeps it vague. So you can keep changing who the deep state might be.”

When Boris Johnson was facing his own imminent departure following a slew of scandals and policy failures, he adopted his own version of this “Trumpian” language. 

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“Boris Johnson has landed on [the deep state] as an explanation because” – much like Trump – “he too failed” as a leader, says Elledge.

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But 18 July was not the first time Johnson used the language of conspiracy theories at the despatch box. 

On 31 January, the same day that the redacted version of the Sue Gray report into Downing Street lockdown parties was published, Johnson accused Keir Starmer of “failing to prosecute Jimmy Savile” while he was director of public prosecutions.

This false claim led to much media uproar, successfully distracting, for a while, from the Gray report. But it also had real consequences for Starmer’s safety.

Only eight days after this accusation, the Labour leader was harassed by protesters near parliament. Shouts of “Jimmy Savile” and “traitor” could be heard as Starmer was escorted into a nearby police vehicle.

Conspiracy theories appear to have become an unfortunate mainstay in the post-truth era of politics, with real consequences beyond the virtual world of the internet where they first flourished.

[See also: Inside the Tory grassroots: what do Conservative Party members really want?]