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Thanks, 2016

Is This the End of Grifter Populism?

Donald Trump and Boris Johnson have risen and fallen together. They may not be done yet.

Boris Johnson and Donald Trump
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
Can you believe these jokers?

Former President Donald Trump did not like many world leaders when he was in power, but he liked former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. “We have a really good man who’s going to be the prime minister of the U.K. now,” Trump told an audience of supporters in 2019. “He’s tough, and he’s smart. They’re saying, ‘Britain Trump.’ They call him ‘Britain Trump,’ and people are saying that’s a good thing.”

It is hardly novel to compare Trump and “Britain Trump.” They share a preference for hard-right conservative politics, a strange charisma that produces fiercely loyal supporters, a reputation for cartoonishness and unseriousness, and an (to put it mildly, in Trump’s case) unconventional approach to obtaining and wielding power. The two men even slightly resemble each other. Donald Trump is noticeably taller, his dyed blond hair carefully coiffed. Boris Johnson’s lightly colored mane, by comparison, is almost always tangled, and he has also taken better care of himself over the years.

Each man’s rise to power is largely a product of exploiting the political winds of the time. For Johnson, it was his leading role in championing Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union in the Brexit referendum in the summer of 2016. For Trump, it was his unexpected victory over Hillary Clinton that fall. That made it all the more fitting this month when they fell in tandem: Johnson by resigning from the House of Commons amid a year-long political scandal; Trump by pleading not guilty to federal charges of mishandling classified documents.

The EU referendum capped Johnson’s long campaign of sorts against European integration. As a Brussels correspondent in the 1990s, Johnson regaled his British readers with tales of continent-wide condom standards and banana-curve regulations, all being imposed upon the helpless British people by faceless continental bureaucrats. A healthy amount of his reporting was exaggerated at best; some of it was denounced as outright false. But Johnson’s profile grew, tapping into a deep vein of British euroskepticism that would eventually subsume the Conservative Party.

Trump, like Johnson, had a striking ability to tap into certain voters’ resentments and fears: about immigration and demographic change, about terrorism and refugees, about trade and outsourcing, about corruption and establishment politicians. They also had a formidable knack for blaming all their personal and political troubles on liberal elites, nonpartisan civil servants, journalists, and so on. Trump blamed the “swamp.” Johnson blamed the “blob.” For a critical electoral mass of Americans and Britons in 2016, it resonated.

“Populism” was the term most often used to describe the two men’s inchoate philosophies. But this was a misnomer: Neither Johnson nor Trump nor, for that matter, Brexit was ever really all that popular. Trump only became president in 2016 thanks to the Electoral College; a clear majority of Americans have never supported him and never will. Britain withdrew from the European Union at Johnson’s behest with just 52 percent of the vote, a majority so narrow that it ultimately worsened divisions on the issue instead of solving them. The two men are, in a way, last gasps of a fading demographic and political order. On a purely actuarial basis, the British electorate is expected to only get more europhilic over the next 20 years, just as the American electorate is only getting more diverse and more tolerant over time.

The two men also got extraordinarily lucky with their political opponents and their systems of government. Trump’s victory in 2016 would have been impossible without a few strokes of luck. Hillary Clinton was a historically unpopular presidential candidate who had been dogged by a Republican-driven scandal over a private email server. When then–FBI Director James Comey announced less than a fortnight before Election Day that he would be reopening the investigation into it, Clinton’s lead in key states evaporated. Trump won a sizable lead in the Electoral College, which masked the narrowest of victories: All that separated the country from a Clinton victory in 2016 was 60,000 or 70,000 voters in three states.

Johnson too had a few fortunate breaks over the years. The Brexit vote he championed torpedoed the political careers of two British prime ministers from his own party. First went David Cameron, who opposed withdrawal but, during Britain’s 2015 general election, agreed to the Brexit referendum in order to fend off a hard-right electoral challenge by Nigel Farage’s UKIP. He resigned the day after the 2016 vote. Then went Theresa May, who struggled for three years to hammer out a trade deal with the EU. She too fell after struggling to knit together a workable majority in Parliament to pass the exit deal.

After succeeding May, Johnson defeated the rival Labour Party in a 2019 election to secure his own power. British voters leaned toward his campaign pledge to “get Brexit done” over Jeremy Corbyn, a longtime member of Labour’s hard left whose campaign was dogged by antisemitism allegations. With an electoral mandate, Johnson pushed through an eleventh-hour trade deal that narrowly avoided a disastrous no-deal Brexit.

Then the pandemic changed both men’s fates. In late 2021, reports emerged that Johnson and other top Conservatives had held multiple parties and other gatherings at 10 Downing Street and elsewhere in defiance of Britain’s strict Covid-19 lockdown rules. “Partygate,” as it came to be known, steadily weakened Johnson’s political position throughout 2022. He eventually admitted to attending multiple events, including boozy garden parties in the early months of the pandemic and one on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral in 2021, for which his office apologized to Queen Elizabeth II. Johnson ultimately resigned as prime minister amid a backbencher revolt last September.

Trump too saw his faint reelection prospects vanish as the pandemic collapsed the American economy and killed hundreds of thousands of Americans by Election Day. So desperate was Trump to keep power that he incited a mob to attack the Capitol during the electoral vote count on January 6, 2021. His supporters stormed the building in the unfulfilled hope of attacking members of Congress and stopping the transfer of power; they also chanted their desire to hang Trump’s own vice president.

Even this may not be the end for either man. Johnson and Trump share a degree of political persistence that their rivals do not possess. Federal indictment or condemnation by Parliament might be terminal for other politicians, but not for them. Trump is actively running for president even as he faces criminal prosecution in New York and Florida; at least two other investigations are underway. Whatever policy aspirations or political goals he might otherwise have, Trump’s campaign this time is deeply personal. Winning the presidency in 2024 is his best chance to avoid going to prison.

Johnson, for his part, finished off his resignation letter in Trumpian fashion, denigrating those who held him accountable, claiming an ephemeral popular mandate, and teasing a future return to power. “It is very sad to be leaving Parliament—at least for now—but above all, I am bewildered and appalled that I can be forced out, anti-democratically, by a committee chaired and managed, by [Labour lawmaker] Harriet Harman, with such egregious bias,” he wrote. Both men often bandy about the term “witch hunt.”

Johnson’s top allies include Jacob Rees-Mogg, an antediluvian former hedge-fund manager who has boasted that he’s never changed one of his six children’s diapers. “The nanny does it brilliantly,” he once remarked. Rees-Mogg received a knighthood in Johnson’s resignation honours—British prime ministers get to hand out awards and decorations when they are kicked out of office, for some reason—and has, in turn, pointedly warned that there would be a Tory “civil war” if Johnson isn’t allowed to stand for election in the future. British political parties do not hold primary elections, and party leaders choose the legislative candidates themselves.

To that end, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, 10 Downing Street’s current Tory caretaker, has reportedly told associates that he won’t allow Johnson to stand as a member of Parliament in the next general election. But even this exclusion might not be fatal for Johnson. Thanks in no small part to him, British voters are souring on Tory rule after a lost decade of austerity and Brexit and are now poised to sweep Labour into power by a landslide at the next available opportunity. Sunak will probably be gone after that, and the Johnsonites can begin plotting their comeback.

It is possible to overstate the two men’s similarities. Johnson lacks Trump’s predilection for political violence, his willingness to directly overthrow his country’s democratic structures, or his open bigotry. And while Trump shares Johnson’s habit of rewarding his own supporters for their loyalty with titles and offices, the former president does not share his basic capacity for governance. For much of the Trump era, legislative dealmaking took place despite him, not because of him, and most of the executive branch essentially ran on autopilot.

But they have both had an enduring and disastrous impact on their countries. Brexit is a catastrophe in two separate but related ways. For one thing, it completely misunderstands the United Kingdom’s place in the twenty-first century. Long gone are the days when British finance and industry dominated global trade. Severing Britain from the European Union also separated its businesses and consumers from their closest trading partners, kneecapping the island country’s economy. British trade is suffering, and British economic growth is negligible. Brexiteer promises of more NHS funding and better trade deals have come to naught. Even Farage, another top leader of the 2016 campaign, recently admitted that Brexit “has failed.”

Second, and perhaps more ominously, Brexit has endangered the Northern Irish peace process. The U.K. and the Republic of Ireland were both EU members when the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1997. The free movement of goods and persons across the Irish border helped elide Irish republicans’ deep resentment of continued British rule. Even if Ireland was not politically unified, people in Belfast and Dublin could visit one another without passports or border controls.

Thanks to Brexit, however, London now faces what is known as the Northern Irish trilemma. The British government cannot restore free movement across the Irish border without reversing Brexit, which was the direct will of the British people. It cannot properly enforce the Irish border without violating the Good Friday Agreement, which is unacceptable to nationalists and to the United States. And it cannot create a border across the Irish Sea without compromising the U.K.’s territorial integrity, which is unacceptable to unionists and their allies in the Conservative Party.

Johnson’s “solution” was a complicated special protocol of the withdrawal agreement. At the risk of grossly oversimplifying things, most EU rules and regulations still apply within Northern Ireland but nowhere else within the United Kingdom, allowing free movement across the land border—but not entirely across the sea border. Even this has solved less than it seems: The Northern Irish Assembly has effectively shut down after the implacable Democratic Unionist Party withdrew from power-sharing agreements to protest the protocol. In their nostalgic hubris for a bygone era of twentieth-century British supremacy, Johnson and other Brexiteers have risked reviving some of the darkest and bloodiest chapters as well.

Trump’s damage is most acute with the American political system. The molten core of Trumpism, especially after the failed January 6 coup attempt, is an authoritarian, lawless, and violent rejection of liberal democracy itself. Trump and his allies are openly willing to take and hold power by force and quell any opposition through similar means. The Republican Party is so thoroughly in his thrall that most GOP senators refused to convict him for inciting an insurrection in their own workplace, and his primary opponents are pledging to pardon him if they somehow win in 2024 instead of him. Even after Trump vanishes from the political scene, his legacy will shape American politics for the rest of our lives. That is the tragedy of right-wing “populists”: Their opponents need to win every time, while they only need win once.