Johnson and Trump and how to get rid of a dictator leader

Independent institutions and interested voters are vital to maintaining democracy.

“British Trump” was the adjective former US President Donald Trump called Boris Johnson, the outgoing Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

Many in Britain during this time resisted the comparison between Johnson and Trump. After all, “Dear Boris” has the ability to laugh at himself, has a classical education and can write fluently, all of which is very different from Trump. I encountered this comparison when I wrote my last book, The age of the strong man. Was it really fair to include a chapter on Johnson alongside Trump — not to mention Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping?

The sight of Johnson’s damned efforts to cling to power dispelled my skepticism. The resemblance that once seemed exaggerated is now commonplace. “I have always resisted comparisons between Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, not anymore,” wrote Andrew Neal, a British commentator who knows both Trump and Johnson. As Neal pointed out, Johnson is the man who “behaved like Mr. Trump, as if the rules didn’t apply to him”. Jonathan Sumption, a former UK Supreme Court judge, has accused Johnson of carrying out a “failed constitutional coup” by demanding a presidential mandate.

Both Johnson and Trump live in a world of alternative facts, where uncomfortable facts are brushed off or dismissed as “fake news”. Both men are outrageously selfish, ready to destroy the system for their own interests.

The line from Johnson to Trump and then from Trump to other powerful leaders — like Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Narendra Modi, Xi and Putin — is also shorter than is often appreciated. The systems in which these leaders operate are quite different, but their political styles are strikingly similar.

All powerful leaders claim to be indispensable. Moreover, most of them are nostalgic nationalists. Trump’s promise to “Make America Great Again” parallels Xi’s promise of a “great renewal of the Chinese people” and Putin’s aspiration to be the heir to Peter the Great.

Once a strongman claims to be the only leader capable of restoring national greatness, the ground is created to undermine the independent institutions that could stand in the way of this vital task, particularly the courts, the media, and the constitution.

Anyone who protests is dismissed as a member of the corrupt elite that resists the will of the people. Erdogan, Xi, and Putin have changed their country’s constitutions to get rid of the restrictions on their terms in power. Trump “jokingly” said the United States should follow China’s lead.

Strong leaders emerged in both authoritarian and democratic regimes. However, it is much easier to stop them in democracies. Putin and Xi can silence and imprison dissenting voices with impunity and will not be bothered by independent investigations into their behavior or wealth. Erdogan is increasingly behaving in a similar environment.

In contrast, in the US and UK, independent institutions have been instrumental in keeping Trump and Johnson’s strongman instincts at bay. When Johnson suspended Parliament early in his term, the UK Supreme Court overturned it. American institutions have resisted Trump-inspired efforts to nullify the results of the 2020 presidential election.

However, the events of January 6, 2021, when a crowd stormed the US Capitol, are a reminder that independent institutions cannot be separated from the people who lead them.

If Mike Pence, Trump’s vice president, had made a different decision that day and refused to certify Joe Biden’s electoral victory, as Trump wanted, the United States would have been plunged into a deep constitutional crisis. Other US officials, at the state level, such as Georgia President Brad Ravensberger, also did their homework by refusing to fabricate the additional votes Trump was asking for.

However, what was true in 2020 may not be true in 2024. Senior Republicans, who were quick to condemn Trump after January 6, are increasingly willing to uphold the lie that he stole the election from 2020. The US Supreme Court has taken a turn to the radical right. Likewise, state-level institutions are threatened by Trump loyalists.

These developments may leave some Britons satisfied with the relative health of democracy in the UK, compared to American democracy. The sophisticated system of checks and balances in the US seems less able to keep a potential strongman at bay than the often weaker system of informal agreements in the UK. The Conservative Party put an end to Johnson, while the Republicans played alongside Trump.

It would be nice to attribute this to the superiority of British politicians. The real difference, though, lies in the nature of the voters. Republican officials shrank in front of evidence that the party’s rank and file remain in Trump’s hands. Most Conservative MPs will tolerate Johnson being the only British prime minister punished so far for breaking the law while in office if they feel he can still win the election.

Those who put an end to Johnson were voters in the Tiverton, Honiton and Wakefield constituencies, who inflicted two crushing defeats for the Conservative Party in regional elections. After that, the next scandal was always likely to kill him, and with Johnson you never had to wait long. In a democracy, the true guardians of the system remain the electorate.

Gideon Rachman

Copyrights – The Financial Times Limited 2021.

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