A Comb Over of Contemporary Politics
Words by Austen Hunt
This decade has seen the very nature of world politics dramatically shift to the right. This shift has ushered in the strongman to the world stage, invited the eccentrics to the podium and kindly asked the barbers of the world to leave these figures to compete for the title of ‘most untamed combover’.
The figurehead leaders of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson are nod to the new era of global politics. Upon first glance these two figures may appear to have a lot of common ground; both leaders of the conservative business parties, both elderly anglo-saxon males, both dependent on the rhetoric of inciting pandemonium, and both are self professed ‘deal-makers’ of their age. Though it may be easy to conflate these two figures as carbon copies of one another and indicative of what the new face of world politics is becoming, the differences between the two is stark.
There are a few areas of interest which outline the differences in these two leaders: their respective rises to power, the differences in the political structure of the United States and United Kingdom, and finally the politics each pursue. There is a common use of the ‘eccentric strongman’, however, the nuance differences between the two help to separate the archetypes of each leader. There is one Donald Trump, a chaotic businessman seeking to ‘drain the swamp’, and the other Boris Johnson, a seasoned statesman attempting to maintain the status quo of a nation.
The Rise to Power
The notion of populism typically entails a shedding of the status quo, which disproportionately favours the affluent and elite, to cater for the common people. Regardless of whether the promises of a populist can come to fruition, a populist leader is normally linked to systemic reform and a shifting of policy direction. What’s more, the romantic ideal of a populist leader is framed as someone who understands the struggles of the common people and has been elevated by society to address the inequalities enforced by an established elite. Given this, it is again interesting to see Donald Trump, the son of a property mogul who was afforded the humbling “small loan of one million dollars”, and Boris Johnson, an Eton College and Oxford University alumni, as ‘populists’.
None the less, Donald Trump’s rise to power was carried by the populist rhetoric which defined his 2016 presidential campaign. Spurring distrust for established powers through the use of focusing events such as the infamous leaked emails of Hilary Clinton, encouraging the need to ‘Drain the swamp’, and of course the reframing of issues as being the fault of immigrants which encouraged the desire to ‘build that wall’. These central points of Trump’s campaign, alongside the familiarity he had developed with the American base through his involvement in reality television, framed the 45th President as something altogether separate to the political system. An outsider looking to make changes to an order which had failed to cater to the rural and non-cosmopolitan sectors of the populace.
Conversely, Boris Johnson has been a career politician who has contributed to the wellbeing of the Westminster system of governance. Boris’ Euroscepticism has been Fostered since his early career as The Daily Telegraph’s correspondent in Brussels, the now Prime Minister’s alignments have been consistent. Boris has been an entrenched politician amongst Britain's conservative elites since his election as an MP for Henley in 2001 (an area most known for its upper-crust showmanship and internationally cherished regattas), his succession to be the Mayor of London in 2008, and more recently serving as the Foreign Secretary to Theresa May between the years of 2016-2018. Boris Johnson is not an outside figure looking to change the political system. He is not a populist in the strict sense of the word, rather he is a calculated statesman who has endorsed populist rhetoric when it aligned with his politics or came with the promise of advancement.
Democracy! Is it the same between nations?
The stark difference in political systems between the US and the UK outlines another reason why the two figures differ greatly.
The United States government is spread between three branches; legislative (the senate and house of reps), the courts (Supreme Court and lower courts), and the executive branch (the oval office). This division of power allows for the advancing of policy to have to go through the legislative branch before being approved by the executive branch (or vis-versa), and if there is a conflict it must be arbitrated by the courts. One notable caveat is the use of the ‘executive order’, a tool in the arsenal of the President which allows them to advance policy through the use of executive privileges which must be challenged in order to be delayed or halted. This is a power that should not be undervalued, it has the power to influence the politics of a nation for an indefinite period of time. This structure, coupled with the majority held by the Republican party in the Supreme Court has allowed for the sitting president to have enjoyed more momentum in his directives. A leader, in this case Donald Trump, acting within the executive office has the flexibility to challenge, or in some case ignore, the precedent of the governing bodies they act alongside.
The political system of the United Kingdom does not enjoy the same concentrations of power enjoyed in the American Republic. The United Kingdom is a parliamentary democracy. This style of governance divides power between two houses; the house of commons and the house of lords. The house of commons is comprised of the elected officials (MP’s) of different electorates who pursue the interests of their constituents, while the house of lords is comprised of appointed officials who reflect the business, industry, or otherwise interests of the crown. The house of lords can, somewhat crudely, be referred to as a technocratic body which can approve bills passed in the house of commons based on their viability. This body of governance limits a sitting Prime Minister to have to appeal to a majority in the house of commons, to even pass a bill, before it is subject to another body which can again deny it. In this system the power which resides in the role of the Prime Minister is still diluted amongst the party they come from, and the broader make up of representatives in the house of commons. This structure limits the impulses of Boris Johnson and means that unless his demeanor is able to effectively appeal to the hearts and minds of constituents across electorates he has to maintain favour amongst his own party and those across the aisle.
The master Deal Makers
Finally we have a distinction between the ‘deals’ which defines the legitimacy of both leaders. For Donald Trump the ‘deal’ is a crisis which has been defined and escalated by his own administration, the trade tensions with China. Conversely, Boris Johnson’s ‘deal’ is the inherited, though much endorsed by his own politics, issue of Brexit which has been plaguing the United Kingdom. The difference in the composition of these two ‘deals’ outlines how the two leaders vary greatly. One Donald Trump positions himself at the centre of both the problem and the solution as a self professed paragon of diplomacy, while one Boris Johnson continues the rhetoric of past ‘out means out’ campaigners. The nature in which these leaders define and aim to address the problems which face their nations are polar opposites to one another.
The ability of Donald Trump to carry out foreign policy with relative independence has allowed the President to control the narrative. Through the use of impulsive tweets, sporadic insults directed towards other nations, and the awarding of praise to unlikely figures such as the dictators of North Korea, the Trump administration has been able to escalate and address tensions at will. Holding the aforementioned executive position and a strong Republican influence in both the house (recently lost in the second year of his presidency) and courts , Donald Trump has been allowed to enjoy a sense of unbridled entitlement.
The slim majority of three seats held by the conservative party in the parliament has placed Boris Johnsons diplomacy as requiring more tact. The British Prime Minister has taken the strongman approach of mandating that Britain will leave the European Union on the 31st of October ‘with or without a deal’. This rhetoric is assertive and far reaching, causing the expected backlash amongst remainers and leavers alike who are concerned about how business, travel, and the Irish backstop will look if this approach is taken. The ability of Boris Johnson to adopt a similarly volatile style of diplomacy to that of the President of the United States is impeded by the restraints on power that exist within the Westminster system and the fact that his party does not hold a comfortable majority.
In short, the difference in how the two leaders must approach the ‘deals’ before them is this; Donald Trump is seemingly allowed to throw tantrums and demand the world grieve his losses and praise his wins with him, while the Prime Minister Boris Johnson must work to maintain the unity of his party, the agreement of his opposition, and the concessions of foreign powers. The two are not conducting the same style of diplomacy, they are simply utilising a similar ‘eccentric strongman’ persona to help them.