Whilst Donald Trump continues his efforts to steal the 2020 election, Joe Biden will be replacing him as president in January 2021. Nevertheless, Trump’s presidency has illustrated just how fragile liberal democracy can be. Although Trump is in many ways a “fake” authoritarian, his narcissism, his endless crusade against the press, and his blatant efforts to undermine the US electoral system have represented a very real and dangerous lurch towards authoritarianism.
In Britain, Trump is viewed as an almost comedic character – a reminder of how ridiculous our American cousins can be. Part of this sentiment, it must be said, stems from the somewhat arrogant (and certainly dangerous) idea that “we” would never elect somebody so obviously inept.
But this is far from self-evident, and it is important we don’t imbue ourselves with any special talent for decision-making. Trump’s presidency has given right-wing nationalist movements a renewed energy, and in the UK, people like Nigel Farage continue to poison our politics.
But would Britain ever elect Trump?
This question has floated around for the better part of Trump’s presidency. And the short answer, I am glad to report, is no. Trump’s brazen personality is a particularly American phenomenon, and one that he would struggle to sell to British voters. A recent poll by POLITICO & Hanbury Strategy showed that Biden would win every single British constituency if he went up against Trump in the UK.
But don’t get too comfortable. Polls have proven themselves to be essentially useless – especially when it comes to Trump. And even if the UK wouldn’t elect The Donald himself, it’s certainly possible to imagine Britain being duped by someone who manages to wrap Trump’s characteristics up in a more palatable personality.
As popular as they are, comparisons between Boris Johnson and Trump are not as helpful as is often suggested. Politically, Trump is something of a right-wing virtue signaller. Being, above all else, a celebrity, he lacks any real ideological or moral convictions, and instead seems to invent his half-baked opinions the instant he is asked a question. Johnson, on the other hand, is a relatively standard conservative, whose ideology is one of tax-breaks, free-trade, and privatisation – in contrast to Trump’s protectionist “America First” policies.
Nevertheless, Johnson’s success does illustrate the British public’s willingness to accept someone with Trump-like personality defects. Like Trump, Johnson manages to stand out from his fellow politicians as a particularly committed liar. And while he may not spout lies with the ferocity of Trump, Johnson’s political and journalistic past does leave a trail of questionable ethical behaviour. Both men are reported philanders and have each received a litany of xenophobia and misogyny accusations. But whilst Trump cannot contain his prejudices, Boris disguises his in a more playful vocabulary – when he referred to veiled Muslim women as “letterboxes,” for example.
Such instances highlight the “toned down” nature of British culture, and thus politics. Boris has largely the same personality traits as Trump, but he doesn’t take them to the extreme in the same way as the US president.
Further examples are not in short supply, and there are some political parallels to be made. Both men have risen to popularity on the back of their crusades against political correctness, both have used nationalist rhetoric to galvanise supporters around an imaginary golden age, and both have capitalised on the anxieties of the white majority with a focus on national sovereignty. There is, however, an important difference between Trump and Johnson, and one that is vital to understanding British politics.
At least in the Western world, the last decade has seen a growing mistrust of societal elites. There are countless reasons for this – be it our pointless wars in the Middle East or the 2008 financial crash – and Donald Trump has managed to weaponize these sentiments to a much greater extent than Boris ever could. Unlike Johnson, who can’t resist throwing in a Latin phrase to remind us of his aristocratic status, Trump is slightly outside of the US political establishment. In fact, Trump rose to prominence pledging a radical departure from it, promising to “drain the swamp,” and rid the American public of corrupt politicians.
As history would have it, Trump has now presided over one of the most ostensibly corrupt administrations in US history – but the point is that Trump and his family have never been part of the political class that dominates American politics. In this sense at least, Trump is much more comparable to former labour leader Jeremy Corbyn than the sitting PM. Despite their obvious differences, Trump and Corbyn’s most ardent supporters see their leaders as victims of societal elites, who are engaged in underhanded campaigns to undermine their support in ways that, hyper-exaggerated as they often are, are not always imaginary – the Democrats’ pointless insistence on Russian “collusion” are but one example.
What are we to make of all this? Well, although it seems unlikely that the British people would elect Trump himself, Trump-like characteristics and personalities have found success in British politics.
Defining Trump politically is a tedious task, but it’s possible to imagine an awkward Johnson-Corbyn love-child – a kind of Oxford-educated Tommy Robinson – appealing to large swathes of the British electorate. To some, Johnson is already halfway there.
The UK may be immune to Trump, but it is far from immune to Trumpism.