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Trump and Johnson: Plot to Return to the Populist Era Postponed

Boris Johnson and Donald Trump
Boris Johnson and Donald Trump meet at the White House in 2019. Credit: video screenshot/Donald Trump White House

Boris Johnson’s failed attempt to return to power in the UK sends a strong signal to his US ally Donald Trump that strongman populism may have had its day.

Johnson, who resigned less than seven weeks ago, announced late on Sunday that he is pulling out from the race to return to No. 10 Dawning Street following the dramatic resignation of Liz Truss.

Donald Trump said he’ll decide whether to run for the presidency again “in the not-too-distant future.”

On Thursday, he told Fox News that it would be “very disloyal” if former Vice President Mike Pence or any other member of his Cabinet decided to run against him in the GOP primary for for the 2024 presidential race.

Most political commentators in the US were expecting he would seek the nomination of the Republican Party. However, Johnson’s humiliation may alter his ambitions.

Earlier in October, former GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan predicted that Trump will not be the Republican Party’s White House nominee in the 2024 election.

“We all know that he’s much more likely to lose the White House than anybody else running for president on our side of the aisle, so why would we want to go with that?” the former lawmaker from Wisconsin said.

“Whether he runs or not, I don’t really know if it matters,” Ryan added. “He’s not going to be the nominee…I don’t think.”

Scandal-ridden Johnson and Trump leadership

A few days ago, it seemed that the two major Western powers would return to the controversial politics of the late 2010s ushering in a new wave of populism on both sides of the Atlantic.

Donald Trump made history by becoming the first president in US history to be impeached twice by the House of Representatives.

In December 2019, he was impeached on two articles related to his alleged attempt to pressure Ukraine to interfere in the 2020 presidential election. He was impeached by the House but acquitted by the Senate.

In January 2021, only weeks before his term expired, he was impeached a second time— this time on a charge of incitement of insurrection for his role in attempting to overturn the results of the 2020 election, leading to the January 6th Capitol riots.

Losing to Joe Biden in November 2020 has dented the one-term president’s pride and fueled eighteen months of controversy following his claims about rigged ballot boxes.

Johnson’s list of scandals became overwhelming. He was accused of misleading Queen Elizabeth to earn her support for an illegal shutdown of Parliament during the political fight over Brexit.

He tried to force fellow Conservatives to overturn the suspension of a member of Parliament accused of lobbying.

He failed to report an estimated $280,000 in donations that he used to upgrade his Downing Street residence.

Johnson was fined by London police for attending one of multiple Downing Street parties that defied COVID-19 lockdowns, including a boozy event on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral—charges that Johnson denied despite photos that showed him at two such events.

The final straw involved Chris Pincher, who was named deputy chief whip despite allegations of sexual misconduct.

Return to strongman populism postponed?

Johnson’s and Trump’s continuous domination of headlines and public opinion signifies the emotional pull the two leaders have over large segments of their respective citizens.

The failures of the Democrats in the US and the introverted post-Brexit political system in the UK keep them in the public eye.

“Britain Trump” was the label that Trump attached to Johnson to indicate the close political and ideological relationship between the two—a relationship that grew stronger during Brexit.

As author Pascale Smorag notes in his book Trump’s populist contentment with Brexit, the former US President eager to witness the dawn of a new day for US-UK trade agreements promised better economic deals for both countries.

Brexit also signified that the UK had finally succeeded in disposing of the European yoke and could now exercise its regained freedom.

The nationalist ingredient in supporting Brexit has been fueled by “politics of anger,” which resonate with Trump’s populist rhetoric based on accusations against corrupt elites, citizens’ enemies and conspirators, open borders, multilateral agreements, and die-hard world finance.

There’s a general acceptance that Brexit and the election of Trump were both, in part, side-effects of the fallout of the financial crisis in 2008. Ordinary people wanted to teach the elites a lesson.

Widely respected Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman wrote recently that both Johnson and Trump live in a world of alternative facts, where inconvenient truths are ignored or dismissed as “fake news.” Both men are monstrous egotists, willing to trash the system in favor of their own interests.

The line from Johnson to Trump and then from Trump to other strongman leaders, such as Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Narendra Modi, Xi Jinping, and Vladimir Putin, is also shorter than is often appreciated, Rachman says.

“All the strongmen leaders claim to be indispensable,” Rachman said. “And most of them are also nostalgic nationalists. Trump’s pledge to ‘make America great again’ is similar to Xi’s promise of a ‘great rejuvenation of the Chinese people’ and to 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 FT columnist argues, “the basis is created for undermining independent institutions that might stand in the way of this vital task—in particular, the courts, the media and the constitution.”

At a period when the West tries to formulate a common response to Russian aggression in Ukraine, the US and the UK, the top military powers of the NATO alliance are looking to the past to find solutions to today’s challenges.

Andrew Scott, a writer and playwright, recently made a thoughtful observation on populism and strongmen politicians in a commentary in Politico.

“The essence of modern British and American populism is big personality politicians promising quick-fix solutions to complex or confected problems,”  Scott maintained.

“It’s an approach that has its appeal in the good times, but when a proper emergency unfolds, populists and their crowd-pleasing politics are quickly exposed as ill-equipped to deal with the fallout,” he said.

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