Boris Johnson is set to win the Conservative Party leadership election and become prime minister of the United Kingdom within weeks. Both the British and U.S. media abound with comparisons of him to President Donald Trump. And the comparison is apt, as far as it goes.
Both are gangly, large men wearing ill-fitting suits, with tousled fair-haired mops. Both have little more than a passing acquaintance with the truth and are happy to use racist dog-whistles to score cheap points. And both Trump and Johnson owe their entire fame and fortune to the media’s fawning attention over decades and now, when it fits their purpose, are treating the media like the enemy. And both men make bombastic promises they have no idea or plan for carrying out.
But there is an important distinction between them. Not all populist-nationalists are the same. Trump owns a certain low cunning and instinct for the innate fears of his voters. Essentially, though, he is an ignoramus, a man who has never read a book, and has to get his daily briefings in extra-short bullet points and pictures.
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Johnson was a student at Eton and Oxford on pure merit, not because his family was particularly wealthy. He may be lazy, but he is also very clever and well-read. While Trump lies out of instinct, Johnson’s falsehoods are more cleverly constructed. Trump’s racism is real, Johnson’s calculated.
Trump is a president by a wild confluence of bizarre circumstances. He probably never meant his presidential bid to be more than a marketing gimmick for his tawdry business affairs. Johnson is a lifelong politician who won two difficult elections as London mayor and has been preparing his entire career for Downing Street.
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To get a better idea of how Johnson may act as prime minister, it would be more useful to compare him to another populist politician, Benjamin Netanyahu.
Like Johnson, the Israeli prime minister also has quite a lot in common with Trump. But unlike Trump — and like Johnson — he is also extraordinarily clever and knowledgeable, and a lifetime politician.
There are advantages and drawbacks to clever, populist leaders. Once they’re elected, they tend to be slightly more pragmatic. Unlike Trump, who has spent the last two and a half years trying (not always successfully) to destroy every domestic and foreign policy legacy of his hated predecessor Barack Obama, dismantling legislation and tearing up international treaties, the clever populists are usually more subtle and will accept the status quo if it works for them. Trump is more destructive, but there is less strategy to his chaos, and therefore he is much more likely to be a one-term aberration. Johnson, like Netanyahu, is in it for the long haul and could end up staying in power much longer.
You can expect Johnson to be like Netanyahu, who for all his rhetoric against Iran and the Palestinians hasn’t launched wars or annexed territory, just kept the conflicts boiling on a low flame. In the British context, it means that Johnson, despite his promise to leave the European Union by October 31, is fully aware of the chaos a no-deal departure will cause. And he won’t go for it.
He will find a way to repackage the same deal outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May achieved with the EU but failed to pass through parliament. Then, if he can’t pass it himself, he’ll convince the Europeans and Parliament to delay again, and again. Nothing like a simmering conflict for whom you can blame someone else. And he will. Brexit will remain just within grasp, if not for those defeatists on the opposition benches and the perfidious Eurocrats in Brussels.
Netanyahu has spent the last 40 years, since he was a jobbing hasbarist in Boston, promising that peace in the Middle East is eminently possible if it wasn’t for Palestinian rejectionism. Johnson, who began his career as the Daily Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent, inventing reports of outlandish EU regulations, needs his bogey Europeans and knows Brexit will be a disaster. He once admitted he believes in having his cake and eating it, and will try to apply the same strategy to Brexit, never giving up on it as a convenient cause but never actually carrying it out. And if you think the leaders of the EU won’t allow him to get away with it, you haven’t noticed how toothless their condemnations of Netanyahu’s policies have been all these years.
On the plus side, Johnson as prime minister will never actually leave the EU, which will be better for Britain. The disadvantage is that as a clever populist, he will keep Britain in limbo, continuing to exploit the lies and anger over Europe that are dividing British society.