Image credit: Andrew Parsons, Creative Commons

The temptation to lump together Boris Johnson and Donald Trump as two sides of the same trans-atlantic political coin is understandable. Both are celebrity-politicians playing to the most right-wing elements of their respective parties’ grassroots. Both were promoted by the same liberal media establishment which now trades off despising them. Both bluntly defy the respectability of technocratic politics by flying in the face of traditional conceptions of ‘leadership’ in liberal democracies. They are clumsy, affable, illiberal and politically incorrect. They bait the left while appealing to the far-right.

Two paths to power

Both Johnson and Trump effectively navigated their domestic political process to reach the highest position, but their paths to power are different. Understanding this should inform the left’s response.

Trump used his personal wealth and celebrity reputation to bulldoze through the Republican primaries, crucially building a large base of popular support along the way. He had an incredible slogan, “Make America Great Again”, and put it on a widely worn cap. Oppositional chants recurred at rallies across the country: “Lock her up!” and “Build the wall!”

To build his popular support Trump had to diagnose the socio-economic problems faced by Americans. He also had to be clear in his proposed solutions. Where ‘illegal immigration’ was an issue, building the wall was the answer. To combat domestic terrorism, Trump called for a Muslim ban. For trade imbalances and lost jobs, he would impose tariffs on China and Mexico.

In his route to 10 Downing Street, Johnson had to do nothing of the sort. He successfully maneuvered the intricacies of Parliamentary politics and the Tory party machine. There is no popular mandate in Johnson’s positioning himself as the eventually inevitable – if initially improbable – successor to Theresa May.

Johnson began by seeking selection as an MP before cynically siding with Leave in the referendum. From there he occupied the position of Foreign Secretary before strategically resigning in protest at May’s handling of Brexit. Then he bided his time from the backbenches as her authority withered. In that time he prepared a reportedly impressive operation to ensure his ascent.

Johnson did have to build support among Tory MPs and members. But this is incomparible to what Trump achieved in scale. Johnson was able to focus on Brexit with political interventions limited to the largely opaque and increasingly alienating constitutional dilemma. He has not yet had to weave a compelling vision for Britain beyond Brexit.

Parallels emerging

Where Johnson’s government and Trump’s Presidency look close to aligning is their superficially anti-establishment character. This was increasingly clear as Johnson announced his Cabinet. Though Sajid Javid, a remainer, as Chancellor was to be expected, Priti Patel as Home Secretary and Dominic Raab as Foreign Secretary laid down the gauntlet.

Shocking to pundits was the inclusion of Patel who was ousted from the Cabinet by May in 2017 for unauthorized meetings with Israel. Raab was the Tory leadership candidate who entertained proroguing Parliament to force through no-deal Brexit. The inclusion of either previously would have been remarkable.

Neither Johnson or Trump will play by the rules of the game. They refuse to be held accountable by the standards of the technocratic elite and liberal media. In fact, smear, scandal and accusations of impropriety only serve to strengthen their projects. Every liberal attempt at a ‘gotcha!’ is used to reinforce their undeserved anti-establishment credentials.

This is the strategy that allows Trump to weather substantive accusations of sexual misconduct, collusion with Putin’s Russia and flirtations with white supremacists. Trump himself incisively recognised this trend when he said: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters”.

Johnson will be unconcerned by scrutiny of his own record of that of his Cabinet. His plan will not be to govern normally or respectably. With Brexit looming these are not normal times. With British conservatism in decline, respectability will not win a snap election.

Johnson’s government of extremist ideologues, where it does manage to legislate, will extract what it can from the dying years of 21st century Tory rule with no holds barred. Javid will seek to strip away workers rights while Patel hands greater powers to police to repress protest.

If the Tories are to win again, it won’t be by obeying the rules of the game with optics or policy. They have to eschew convention, cause chaos and divide the population along cultural and identitarian lines.

What should Labour do?

It would be easy for Labour to attack Johnson as incompetent and scandalous. To do so would make the same arrogant mistakes of Hilary Clinton’s campaign which precipitated her loss to Trump. Instead, Labour’s messaging must cut through the bullshit and define Johnson’s government as a status quo defence of the ruling class: cruel and without answers for Britain’s myriad social and economic crisis.

Most importantly, Labour needs to go in hard with a compelling vision for a prosperous future. Labour has a head start on this because Johnson was not under the same pressure to offer one as Trump. But as Aaron Bastani argues, it’s time to go further than anti-austerity. Labour must weave together existing policies of a green industrial revolution, National Education Service, National Care Service and investment in grassroots sport into a compelling response to almost a decade of Tory rule.

To win, though, these positions must now be supplemented with bold claims to the future. We need a Green New Deal to democratise and decarbonise the economy. We need a revolution in work to give everyone a shorter week, higher pay and greater say. We need a working class cultural renaissance to unlock talent and potentials lying dormant. Now more than ever, we need to be clear that this fight is socialism or barbarism.