I can comfort myself by noting all the differences between British and American politics. Johnson is smarter than Trump, and he hasn’t displayed the same thuggish instincts despite his ill-fated attempt to temporarily suspend Parliament. He doesn’t go after the press or mock individual citizens — such as 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg — as his American counterpart does. While Johnson has his own history of bigoted remarks (e.g., referring to African kids as “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles”), he was also a popular mayor of London, one of the most multicultural metropolises on the planet.
Moreover, Johnson’s opponent, Jeremy Corbyn, was so extreme he makes Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) look like Mike Bloomberg by comparison. Corbyn allowed the Labour Party to be defined by anti-Semitism and a socialist program of nationalizing energy, water, rail and broadband companies. Corbyn is also a terrible strategist: He let himself be baited into a general election that he was certain to lose instead of trying to force a Brexit referendum that Johnson might lose. And then Corbyn failed to take a clear position on Brexit, leaving “Remain” voters with no champion.
Yet, despite all the differences between British and American politics, there are too many disturbing parallels to ignore. Like Trump, Johnson was born to privilege and lacks empathy for those who weren’t. Like Trump, Johnson is unprincipled and opportunistic. Like Trump, Johnson lies like crazy and never seems to pay a price for his dishonesty. Like Trump, Johnson harnesses fear and loathing of immigrants among aging, white voters. Like Trump, Johnson weaponizes social media and spreads disinformation. Like Trump, Johnson has received Russian support (the Tory Party has gotten at least $4.7 million from Russian donors in the past decade) and has tried to block the public from learning about Russian political interference. And, like Trump, Johnson was long judged too much of a lightweight and opportunist to lead his nation.
That’s why he had to withdraw early on from the Tory leadership competition to succeed Prime Minister David Cameron in 2016. But after the failure of the supposedly safer alternative, Theresa May, the Tories came back to Boris — and he has gradually worn down all those who might question his leadership. Just as Trump has purged Never Trumpers out of the Republican Party, so Johnson has done the same with “Remainers” in the Conservative Party.
Johnson won on a brilliantly simple slogan — “Get Brexit Done” — which is as vacuous and alluring as “Make America Great Again.” The reality is that even if Britain pulls out of the European Union next month, it will probably spend years negotiating its trade relationship with the E.U. But Johnson, having done as much as any individual to create the Brexit crisis, cleverly took advantage of an electorate sick of the endless political squabbling to suggest that a vote for the Tories would allow everyone to “move on.” (That was, in fact, the point of his controversial commercial parodying the romantic comedy “Love, Actually.”) Yes, the man who started the fire campaigned as the only one who could put it out — and the voters bought it.
Trump has been similarly brazen and relentless in wearing down Americans’ resistance. He hammers us with unhinged tweets, engages in unethical and even illegal conduct, panders to racism and xenophobia — and somehow manages to survive. He has succeeded in making the unacceptable blase; stories that would be massive scandals in any other administration (e.g., Trump allegedly pressuring the Pentagon not to award a cloud-computing contract to Amazon because of his animus against Post owner Jeff Bezos) are barely noticed in this one. Trump is finally getting impeached, but he will never be removed by the Senate because he has managed to retain the loyalty of some 90 percent of Republicans.
Right-wing populists like Trump and Johnson have figured out how to mesmerize voters with their simplistic slogans and spellbinding showmanship. They are political sorcerers — and no opponent has yet figured out how to consistently break their spell. Unless Democrats can crack the code in the next 10 months, the West might never recover. A good start would be to avoid nominating a presidential candidate who — even if less extreme than Corbyn — is still far too left for the mainstream electorate.