August 18, 2022

Trump and Johnson: the parallels between their populism and influence

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Trump and Johnson may be gone, but their ideas almost certainly are not.

There have been many comparisons between former US President Donald Trump and outgoing British prime minister Boris Johnson since 2016.

With Johnson soon to leave office, parallels now seem even greater, such as their influence out of power.

Trump himself styled Johnson as ‘Britain Trump’, upon the latter winning the Conservative leadership election in 2019. Whilst not identical, the similarities between the two have been frequent. This continues to be visible to this day, as both have continued to maintain a grip on their respective parties.

Many consider Trump a populist. His ‘drain the swamp’ message was complete populist rhetoric, with the idea that a war was being waged on the ‘people’ by the ‘elites’. This was echoed in Johnson’s flagship policy of ‘levelling up’, which was all about taking power away from the ‘Westminster bubble’. One idea proposed was moving the UK’s Upper Chamber, the House of Lords, to York.

Being on the ‘people’s’ side was a central aspect of both Trump and Johnson’s time in office, despite themselves often ignoring rules and norms. For example, Trump used the White House as a campaign location during the Republican National Convention in August 2020 and refused investigations into how his office was conducted.

Johnson has conducted himself in a similar manner. The ‘wallpapergate’ scandal was considered an abuse of power and his own ethics adviser quit in the wake of the ‘Partygate’ scandal. This disregard of norms alongside advisors leaving became the new standard during the Trump administration and Johnson premiership.

The most consequential of Trump’s actions was refusing to concede the 2020 election. This is unprecedented, in a leading democratic country such as the US, even when compared to the rest of Trump’s presidency. Very few people would have predicted that the election result and the US President’s actions would have culminated in the January 6 riot on the Capitol.

Cult of personality

Trump maintained his grip largely because of his cult of personality. The conspiracy theory QAnon enhanced this, with the belief that Trump was a saviour from a cult of ‘Satan-worshiping pedophiles’, which is predominantly made up of senior Democrats such as Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama.

Trump has previously denied involvement in QAnon, without explicitly denouncing it, but his cult of personality extends far beyond this. His whole style of governing centred around himself, with an almost God-like worship and following, that has rarely been seen before in US politics.

Trump’s cult of personality has allowed him to survive two impeachment trials; the January 6 committee hearings, which included the revealing testimony of former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson; and now raid on his home. He not only survives these moments, but comes out hungry.

He has always framed these events as ‘politically motivated’ or a ‘witch-hunt’, which have kept his grip on the party.

Furthermore, even amidst the backdrop of the January 6 Committee, a poll from the recent Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) showed that Trump had increased his lead amongst Republicans by 10% since February. At 69%, he was well ahead of second placed Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. It is thus no surprise that Trump has repeatedly teased running again, and shows that the party is still very much within his grasp.

Losing public support

Similarly to Trump, Johnson did have a large personal following. Whilst the UK has so far largely remained unscathed from conspiracy theories (such as QAnon) and Johnson does not have that same cult-like following as Trump, his style of governance was a new phenomenon in the British Parliamentary system.

General Election 2019 results

Seats needed: 326

Conservative seats: 365

Labour seats: 203

Johnson has garnered a mass following towards ‘Johnsonism’ rather than the Conservative Party itself.

Over the years he has gained a reputation of becoming a ‘serial election winner’, most recently with the collapse of the ‘Red Wall’ during the 2019 General Election.

Despite Johnson losing support amongst the general public such as during the Sue Gray report, many of those who voted Conservative for the first time in 2019, largely because of Johnson, feel betrayed by the fact he was forced to resign. This echoes the iron grip Trump manages to have on his base party, even when losing the support of the general public.

Like Trump, Johnson also refused to leave office. Since January, members of his own party, such as David Davis have publicly called Johnson to leave. Johnson survived a vote of no confidence shortly after the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. One argument that Johnson used to stay in office was to say he had a “colossal mandate” from the people due to the 2019 General Election. However, this is not how the UK Parliamentary system works. Unlike a US President, a prime minister is not directly chosen by the public, rather by their individual constituents.

Johnson did eventually resign on July 7, but this was only after mass resignations from his government. There were over 50 resignations in 48 hours, meaning that it became virtually impossible to form a cabinet and thus govern.

Even after announcing his resignation, during his last Prime Ministers Questions (PMQs), Johnson stated “mission largely accomplished – for now”, hinting at a possible comeback. In fact Lord Peter Cruddas, a Conservative donor, has even started an online petition to keep Johnson in power, believing that ousting him was ‘anti-democratic’. Whilst even senior Tories have denounced the petition and it has failed to get traction, the fact that this almost entered into the mainstream, shows how close it was to succeeding.

Despite their similarities, there are important differences between Trump and Johnson.

Johnson did refuse to resign, even when he was fined by the police and found to have broken the law. Yet, this is still a major difference to Trump refusing to accept the 2020 election.

Whilst Johnson does have considerable sway and influence over a large proportion of the electorate, unlike Trump, his following is not as loyal. During his time in office, Trump’s approval ratings remained historically low, but consistent; remaining between the high 30s to love 40s. For example, 59% of Conservative Party members wanted Johnson to resign, contrasting to Trump’s loyal support.

Influence fading?

However, despite signs pointing towards Trump and Johnson retaining grips on their parties, it may not be as strong as it initially seems.

Trump is no longer the President of the US, nor the official leader of the Republican Party. Likewise, whilst Johnson may currently be the prime minister, he has announced that he will resign on September 5th, and is very much a ‘lame duck’ until then.

Even outside of the concrete fact that neither of the two men will soon be the head of government, there are signs that their grasps are weakening.

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President Donald J. Trump shows newspaper clipping to celebrate being acquitted following the U.S. Senate Impeachment Trial, 2020.

During Trump’s second impeachment trial last year, seven Republicans voted to convict Trump, in the most bipartisan impeachment trial. Whilst this may not have been enough, this was still an increase from the previous year, when former presidential candidate and Utah Senator, Mitt Romney, was the sole Republican to vote to convict Trump of one of the charges.

It is not only party congressmen who may now be turning against Trump. Many Republican voters are also seemingly affected by Trump’s actions on Capitol Hill and the aftermath of the investigations.

Almost half of Republicans say that they are paying ‘a lot or some’ attention to the January 6 committee, despite Trump denouncing it as the ‘unselect committee’. Furthermore, as a result of the Committee, the number of Republicans who now believe that Trump was at least ‘partly’ to blame for the riot, has risen to 40% from a previous 33%. This is a small increase, but an increase nonetheless.

Along with Trump’s diminishing influence, he may even be barred from running again. There are currently a series of criminal investigations into Trump, both as President, but also his business dealings. If convicted, he could be ‘disqualified from holding federal office’. This would prevent him from leading the Republican party under law.

Even if Trump is allowed to run, the situation is not as rosy for him as it may initially seem. Regardless of the CPAC poll, there are signs he may no longer be the favourite. National and state-wide polls put DeSantis ahead of Trump. This shows that now even Republican voters are moving away from the idea of voting for Trump, showing he no longer commands the support and following he used to.

The situation is similar in the UK. Johnson was ousted by the parliamentary representation of his party, but as many as 59% of Conservative party members wanted him to resign. Even the most loyal Conservatives urged him to go which shows that Johnson has almost entirely lost his grip amongst the party base.

This is further exemplified by the fact that during the second Conservative Party leadership debate, none of the five candidates said that Johnson would serve in their cabinets. This shows that like Trump, Johnson is losing control of the party, both the party representatives and the grassroots as well.

Amongst all their similarities and differences, Trump and Johnson still command a large following.

This following can become so loyal, that they are often given near God-like status and threaten to be above the law. Of course, there are differences between the two, with Trump taking things to a more extreme level. It has gotten to the point that their own parties have even rejected them or now favour someone else.

However, it is not as simple as this. The current favourite to succeed Johnson is the Foreign Secretary Liz Truss. She has positioned herself as the continuity candidate, with the support of Johnson loyalists. This is similar in the US. DeSantis, the candidate best polling against the former president, has moulded himself similarly to Trump.

Trump and Johnson may be gone, but their ideas almost certainly are not.

Written by:

author_bio

Isaac Kadas

Writer, Editor

Politics & Society

London. UK

Born in London in 2003, Issac Kadas plans to study politics. For Harbingers’ Magazine he writes about politics, sport and history as well as edits the Politcs & Society Section.

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