As UK conservatives dump Johnson, most in GOP still embrace Trump’s far graver threat
Winston Churchill, the figure embattled UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson claims as his role model, once defined a politician as someone who “is asked to stand, wants to sit, and is expected to lie.” Yet in the end, Johnson’s incessant lying was proven so brazen that even a somewhat truth-challenged UK Conservative Party grew embarrassed, and its more principled leaders forced his pending resignation. In disturbing contrast, leaders of the U.S. Republican Party continue to embrace or fail to denounce the arguably far more dangerous lies of former President Donald Trump that increasingly threaten the fundamental basis of American democracy.
At this point, the American right-wing has propagated and accepted so many baseless ideas, including challenging almost any election loss as fraudulent, that the Republican Party as we once knew it has ceased to exist. Instead, America now faces the “ReTrumplican” Party — an ideological movement devoted to Trump and based primarily on stoking rapid resentment and grievance, with little or no regard for truth, the rule of law or the basic tenets of democracy. Americans of all stripes, but especially conservatives in leadership positions with any semblance of conscience, must now recognize a profound obligation to face down and defeat this perverse political faction.
Despite their many differences and the far more serious threat posed by Trump, Johnson’s political rise to power did share some key traits with Trump. It could be argued that Johnson’s ascendance as Conservative Party leader was based on a kind of “Big Lie” of his own, claiming the EU was somehow the root of UK problems. In fact, British trade has suffered from Brexit, according to The Economist, and has not recovered despite Johnsonian assurances it would. Brexit has also inflicted most harm on those who can least afford it, exacerbating near-record UK consumer inflation by raising the cost of food. Meanwhile, the separatist movement in pro-EU Scotland has gained ground, and may force a new referendum to leave the UK.
It was, however, a long string of other lies that led key conservatives to revolt against Johnson. Johnson and his staff repeatedly held parties, violating UK lockdown during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.The coup de grace forcing him to announce his resignation occurred earlier this month and involved Johnson’s support for a conservative member of parliament with a history of sexual assault, a fact Johnson falsely claimed to be ignorant of when he appointed him to a government post.
No doubt, Johnson’s double-dealing predated the political rise of Trump. Yet, it seems Trump’s own even more brazen style may have encouraged Johnson to push the limits.
Johnson and Trump share basic characteristics of successful populist communicators, including the glib willingness to deliberately violate conventional notions of fairness, civility and honesty. Each titillates the baser instincts of average voters with purposely outrageous innuendoes and attacks on opponents. And each appears to incite contempt for fact-based discourse and institutions, deliberately inflaming rancorous grievances, real or imagined.
When employed as the primary means of communication by a nation’s top political leader, the cumulative effect of these repeated assaults on reason and civility is to undermine respect for normal political fact-based discourse and institutions. This purposefully opens the door to the political chaos of complete relativism, into which they step sprightly as self-anointed solitary saviors. Their personas belittle conventional figures while creating powerful cults of personality around themselves alone.
It is no coincidence Trump and Johnson each cut their teeth in the cutthroat world of New York and London tabloid media culture, Johnson as a journalist, Trump as the subject of constant tabloid coverage. Each spent decades perfecting its particular (but to many irresistible) blend of fact-bending, vicious attacks thinly veiled as humor and false moral high ground. And while Johnson’s approach was always more subtle, droll and restrained than Trump’s, as befits British culture, it was no less effective for it.
Still, in the end, UK institutions have proven just strong enough to stand up to Boris’s fundamental dishonesty. Yet, U.S. Republicans and their media and political allies continue to indulge in a far more dangerous game.
A majority of the Republican Party leadership and rank-and-file members seem willing to embrace Trump’s Big Lie, even in light of the devastating revelations of ongoing congressional hearings on the January 6 insurrection. This is the most damning possible reflection of a Republican Party gone mad. This is not merely rhetoric: Republican political operatives across the country are spending millions of dollars on plans to challenge the legitimacy of any election result that does not elect Republicans in the upcoming mid-term elections and beyond.
As Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) said in a speech denouncing Trump last week, “We are confronting a domestic threat that we have never faced before — and that is a former president who is attempting to unravel the foundations of our constitutional republic. And he is aided by Republican leaders and elected officials who have made themselves willing hostages to this dangerous and irrational man.”
Cheney has faced intense backlash from her party, even been subject to death threats, forcing her to curtail her campaigning in Wyoming for reelection, as have other anti-Trump candidates. Jan. 6 hearings witness and former Trump White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson received a menacing call before a deposition before her testimony, in what appears to be a case of witness tampering, and is now “sequestered with her family and a security detail.” We have also learned Trump himself “tried to contact a witness after the last hearing held in June,” according to Cheney. This suggests that Trump and his followers may now be radicalized to the point of threatening and perpetrating routine political violence of the type historically practiced only in fascist regimes and developing world dictatorships.
The peril now goes far beyond Trump himself to the huge cadre of would-be Trump imitators at every level of office and election who mimic his divisive policy positions and political strategy of stoking grievance, the fundamental ideology of the new “ReTrumplican” Party. These Trump-imitators copy him shamelessly — even when they claim to challenge him, think of Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Conservatives — and the rest of America’s body politic — must pull ourselves back from the brink of this abyss if America is to defeat the “ReTrumplican” mania, and restore a fact-based, functioning democracy.
Paul Bledsoe is strategic adviser at the Progressive Policy Institute. He served as a staff member is the U.S. House, Senate Finance Committee and at the Interior Department and White House Climate Change Task Force under President Clinton.
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