No, this isn’t America in November 2016. I speak of Britain in July 2019.
Boris Johnson is the odds-on favorite to become Britain’s next prime minister on July 24, when a new leader is slated to take over from Prime Minister Theresa May. Johnson is currently in a two-man battle (against British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt) for the leadership of the Conservative Party.
There are, of course, plenty of differences between Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. But their biggest hidden similarity — the one nobody is talking about — is how their paths to power were paved by a conservative political party that decided to become a vehicle for xenophobic nationalism, co-opting bigots and lunatics rather than denouncing them.
In the United States, the tea party movement emerged a month after Barack Obama became president in January 2009. Ostensibly, the movement was about taxes and government spending. And while that may have been true for some of the intellectual architects of the movement, the rank and file were far more motivated by xenophobic nationalism and social conservatism. If you wanted to see signs or hear speeches that falsely claimed Obama was a secret Muslim from Kenya, the best bet was to attend a tea party rally.
That’s because the tea party wasn’t really about government spending. It was far more about nostalgia for a whiter, more socially conservative America — an America Trump would promise to bring back with the slogan on his red hats.
That fact was laid bare when the tea party moved seamlessly from opposing Obama to supporting Trump, who hasn’t just racked up trillions of dollars of new debt with soaring deficits but also has been the only president to do so during times of economic prosperity.
For mainstream Republicans, the tea party was a threat. It was able to eliminate establishment Republicans who refused to bow to the far right, including far-right bigots. When the tea party flexed its electoral muscles in 2010 and knocked off a series of old-guard Republicans, the Republican Party made a short-term calculation: to co-opt rather than condemn the movement. Mainstream Republicans pandered. And in the process, the GOP lurched right. Bigots and birthers were brought in from the fringe. Many of them became the rising stars of a more ethno-nationalist party.
Trump is the consequence of that electoral calculation. In just eight years, the GOP has gone from the party of John McCain — who bravely denounced a supporter who suggested that Obama was “an Arab” — to the party of Trump, who mainstreamed the racist lie of birtherism.
Across the Atlantic, the Tories are making a similar calculation because of the rising electoral might of the Brexit Party, the brainchild of xenophobic firebrand Nigel Farage. That party is ostensibly held together by opposition to the European Union, but a sizable percentage of its members are also driven by xenophobia. The party has been embroiled in scandal from the outset, as its former leader had to resign after it was discovered that she had retweeted a series of far-right bigots and had herself made extremist anti-Islam comments on social media.
And yet, a recent YouGov poll showed the Brexit Party tied with the Tories — both at 22 percent of the vote. That’s a fundamental shift in British politics, which for the past few generations has functioned as a binary struggle between the Tories on the right and Labour on the left. When a new party has taken half your political base virtually overnight, as the Brexit Party has, you have to take note.
Enter Boris Johnson. Despite the fact that his Eton-Oxford background screams elite establishment, he has positioned himself as an anti-establishment populist — and one who will destroy the Brexit Party not by defeating it but by co-opting it into the Conservative party. A recent poll by ComRes, a respected British polling firm, confirms that dynamic, suggesting that the Brexit Party would surge if the Tories put a more centrist establishment figure in charge. If Johnson were elected, the splinter party would die.
But before die-hard British Conservatives pop open the champagne at the thought of Johnson in 10 Downing Street, they might want to consider the cautionary tale of America’s path from tea party to Trump. Neutralizing an electoral threat by mainstreaming a certain percentage of bigots comes with long-term costs. Sure, Johnson is a political jellyfish who drifts on the waves of public opinion, so perhaps he will abandon the dangerous commitments he has made during the current leadership contest. But the bigger question is this: What will the Conservative Party look like in a few years if the fringe enters the mainstream? To find out, they should gaze across the Atlantic. They might just get a disturbing glimpse of what may be to come.