And yet, even as we scratch our heads at the great American self-deception that is President Trump, we Brits are sleepwalking into our own. Because for all the formalities and carefully codified ways that dominate Westminster, British politics has long had its own critical core of boorishness, clownishness and hucksterism. True, historically, British boors have shared little kinship with their American cousins; ours has been a wilier boorishness, obscured by a miasma of supercilious, ironic detachment. But as Trump makes his long-delayed state visit — which will include a banquet at Buckingham Palace on Monday with the queen he dared walk in front of last summer — the lines have begun to blur. The president might just arrive in a political landscape increasingly fashioned in his own obnoxious image, but with posher accents.
Look no further than Trump’s main British cheerleader, Brexit Party founder and newly reelected member of the European Parliament he despises, Nigel Farage. In his previous stint in that body (he has yet to win election to his own Parliament), Farage spoke of the European Union president as having the “charisma of a damp rag and the appearance of a low-grade bank clerk.” This was marginally cleverer than Trump’s characterization of the former vice president as “Sleepy Joe” Biden, “a low IQ individual,” but still the boor’s blunt instrument.
Competing with Farage for chief clown is Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London who has his eye on No. 10 Downing Street. Johnson has pioneered the art of saying the most appalling things under the guise of a kind of intellectual cosplay. The Conservative lawmaker, Brexiteer and columnist has parlayed a crusty persona, love of history (if not quite its rigor) and flair for off-the-cuff remarks into a hugely successful political and media career. Like Trump before 2016, Johnson’s cover was his image as a privileged buffoon — cartoonish but ultimately harmless. Unlike Trump, Johnson’s persona implied that he was absurd, and in on the joke of his own absurdity. This has somehow afforded him the latitude to describe the queen’s being greeted on a commonwealth visit by “flag-waving piccaninnies,” and then-Prime Minister Tony Blair’s meeting “tribal warriors” with “watermelon smiles” on a trip to Congo.
But in insisting that Trump’s brand of boor is distinct, ours is as seductive and comforting a delusion as they come. It goes like this: Obnoxiousness as a nation-changing political force has worked for Trump in the United States because of unique conditions there. American politics is smash-mouth, successful only in a country given to extreme knee-jerks, from Prohibition to McCarthyism, from Salem to the South. British politics is slower, more considered. Our constitution is not codified in a single document but in an endlessly and minutely changing accretion of laws in place since the 12th century. A Trumpish character can exist, but he’s not going to run the place.
Or is he?
This is a country where any whiff of self-aggrandizement is regarded as proof of deep-seated personal inadequacy. It’s a country where lines of decorum and unacceptable behavior are so crucial, yet almost invisible to outsiders, that Harold Macmillan, the former prime minister, illustrated them with the telling difference between two almost — almost — interchangeable terms for badly behaved men: “In war a bounder is a chap who goes to the Front, wins the [Victoria Cross], then seduces his colonel’s wife. But a cad seduces his colonel’s wife and never goes near the Front.” One can imagine Macmillan’s view on the presidential bone spurs. But this may, in the end, be a distinction without a difference. Because Britain has a long history of indulging, even elevating, its political boors, though this is not always acknowledged.
They come with the swing of the pendulum. Margaret Thatcher’s government of the 1980s pioneered proto-Trumpian levels of obnoxiousness precisely because so many of its members and supporters felt ecstatic liberation in overturning what they saw as a stuffy, limiting, Labour-dominated status quo. In a bonfire of values, appeals to things like decency and fairness seem as quaint, absurd and outmoded as embroidered homilies. Thatcher’s attack dog, the Tory lawmaker Norman Tebbit, was so obnoxious throughout his time in government that his character on the satirical puppet show “Spitting Image” was a leather-jacketed skinhead wielding a knuckle-duster. He gained fame less for his work than for calling an opposition lawmaker a “flabby, fat, fornicating fool” and proposing that immigrants declare their cricket allegiance as a test of loyalty to Britain. Like Trump, Tebbit leaned into his boorishness, reveling in the way it boosted his profile. After a quarrel with a fellow Conservative cabinet minister, he snarled: “It’s time we buried the hatchet. Normally I do that in the other guy’s head.”
Such was the scorched-earth effect of the boorishness around the Thatcher administration that every year or so, the Conservatives’ leaders still have to make speeches insisting that “we are no longer the Nasty Party.” The Tories didn’t have the field entirely to themselves, though. Blair’s Labour government regarded boorishness as a feature, especially when dealing with the media. Alastair Campbell, the trash-talking former porn-writer head of Blair’s strategic communications unit, was so famous for his expletive-laced broadsides that he became the template for the Malcolm Tucker character in the political comedy series “The Thick of It”
The cut and thrust of parliamentary debate is notorious for bringing out the boor even in normally mild-mannered members of Parliament. In 2017, Tory MP Nicholas Soames was forced to apologize for what he called a “friendly canine salute” after making barking noises at a female MP as she rose to speak in the chamber.
Now, with neoliberal economics in the firing line, cynicism about politicians rising across the board, Brexit and Scottish independence referendums whipping up partisan passions, and no shortage of chancers only too ready to surf that wave by parading their “anti-elitist” credentials, it’s a bumper year for Trumpian boorishness in Britain. (The Tory Brexiteer Mark Francois had this blunt radio message for a fellow Tory, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, whom he accused of an attempted coup: “If you’re listening Mr. Hammond, my fraternal message to you is: ‘Up yours.’”)
But while both Atlantic political tribes wear obnoxiousness as a marker of regular-Joe authenticity, there remain differences. British politicians’ boorishness frequently comes coded in an acute consciousness of class and of the latitude afforded by eccentricity and underdog status. Traditional British boorishness was born of privilege and the drive to undermine others as not-quite members of an “in-group” whose entry qualifications are nonspecific and undefinable (“If you have to ask, then you’re not one of us”). Thus the dominance of irony, snobbery, a vague code of manners. Conversely, traditional American boorishness was rooted more in the need to assert, to create and to establish that in-group — by declaring what it was about them that was better. America was written into existence. Declarations. Documents. Lists. Amendments. The ongoing idea of the Great American Novel, like the white whale out there to be captured, represents a curious consciousness that Who We Are is still up for grabs, even if Trump tries to present it as set. Whereas there is an equally curious consciousness in Britain that Who We Are is a given, but also incredibly complicated and not worth explaining. And often deliberately withheld.
Humpty Dumpty, in Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass,” said in a rather scornful tone, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” This is the root of Johnson’s linguistic shadowboxing. He wrote a limerick portraying Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as having sex with a goat, and likened Muslim women who wear face-covering veils to “bank robbers” and “letter boxes.” Is he a bigot? Is he quoting? Is he playful? Is he sending himself up? Is he serious? Yet still he rises. Time and again, he reacts to censure like a naughty boarding-school boy caught out. As if those words were just ventriloquism, just a bit of stage campery. The play-actor takes the hit, the politician escapes unharmed.
Farage, meanwhile, has always sought to mask his frequent boorishness with a friendly-chap-next-door stance and a conspiratorial wink — you half-expect him to lean through the privet hedge and attempt to warn you, sotto voce, about your new neighbors. But the mask has a habit of slipping. The pint of beer, easy grin and flags tell one story. The former school contemporaries who claim to recall him marching through English villages singing Hitler Youth songs (he has long denied this) tell another.
Farage’s plucky-commoner posture (he has a $5 million mansion and a chauffeur-driven Range Rover) is the opposite of Johnson’s and more akin to Trump’s own. The effect is the same, though, earning his lifelong tendency to petty boorishness a free pass.
But now Farage has begun reading from the most nakedly confrontational sections of Trump’s playbook. The last two months saw him holding rallies in deprived provincial towns and cities across Britain, where supporters shouted “Lock her up!” at the name of Theresa May, reporters were confronted and howled down for being part of the “fake news” media, and politicians and voters from other parties — along with those who oppose Brexit — were decried by ralliers as unpatriotic traitors who should be put to death.
Let’s not forget Jacob Rees-Mogg: Eton-educated, of inherited fortune, and part MP, part Victorian period-costume sideshow. In Rees-Mogg’s world, Boer War concentration camps were no worse than Glasgow, same-sex marriage is an affront to God, and E.U. membership is “vassalage” for Britain. Even admiring parliamentary sketch writers call him “the honourable Member for the Early 20th Century.” Of course, technically he might be more twit than boor. These things are finely nuanced, after all.
America’s national myths about straight-talking mavericks might have found their nightmarish apotheosis in Trump, but Britain’s comforting delusions are coming home to roost, too. In Farage and Johnson’s combined wake, as in Trump’s, there’s a whole pack of sea lions — boors-to-order, vying to outdo one another. Katie Hopkins, Paul Joseph Watson and Stephen Yaxley-Lennon galumph across YouTube, an endless pileup of obnoxiousness, victim-posturing and conspiracy theories. This homegrown cadre of outrage generators feeds off Britain’s dearest national myths — the underdogs, the gentleman scholars, the put-upon working classes, the plucky outsiders — like carrion. Convicted fraudster Yaxley-Lennon chose his character as carefully as any political brand strategist: Adopting the name “Tommy Robinson” was his attempt to harness working-class sympathies for the common conscripted “Tommy” soldiers of World War I trenches and to cast himself as a son of Robin Hood.
Trumpism both devours this and generates it. Former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon has working dates with Johnson and engages in public courtship rituals with Yaxley-Lennon. Trump has presented Farage as a guest of honor at his rallies. Their surrogates have begun working together to counter anti-Trump protests in their own boorish way. Last summer, the Trump-as-baby blimp that greeted the president’s low-key “working visit” to London was countered by British Trump fans with their own balloon, an apparently racist caricature of Sadiq Khan, London’s liberal anti-Trump mayor. Trump’s upcoming state visit promises to be many things. Dignified is not one of them.
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