Lesson Number 1 from last week’s election is that that electorally very successful populist politicians who are very good at communicating with and mobilising their political base can be beaten. Whilst historically that will be the main lesson from this election, I suspect most readers won’t need to learn that. The strong feelings you have for respect, decency and rationality led you to always believe that right would triumph.
Which makes lesson number 2 more important. Trump didn’t just lose, he was beaten. In fact he increased his vote dramatically. His base – who see him as the defender of their way of life – increased by 4-5 million. The only way he was beaten was by mobilising the biggest vote ever for the man that beat him – Joe Biden. This was a gargantuan political effort by millions of Democrats to register many more people to vote, persuade them whom to vote for, and then, through postal ballots, get out the vote.
So the lesson is that you can beat populists at the ballot box but to do so you may have to get out the biggest vote by both hard and imaginative political work.
The third lesson is that whilst Johnson is a right wing populist good at communicating with his base – he really isn’t another Trump. I want to explore that in the rest of this post.
Just a few days of looking at Trump’s behaviour in general, and over Covid in particular, shows how different he is. In England today we are in the second lockdown sanctioned by Johnston. Trump never really ‘gave in’ to epidemiology and called a complete lockdown. Where Johnson shut down the country twice (so far) Trump turned not wearing a mask into a statement of his political will. Johnson doesn’t.
In this country the libertarian right of the Telegraph believe that Johnson really is a libertarian who has been led astray by epidemiologists (and they are almost certainly right). But as the Prime Minister he has not trashed the science and experts and placed freedom above epidemiology. He may not be very good at it when he does it (Government are rarely good at implementing policies they really don’t believe in) but he has called lockdowns.
That makes him not ‘the same’ as Trump. I don’t think this is just a matter of personality and biography (though it is) it is also the nature of the British Constitution versus the American one.
Trump is President. He has ruled through a personal mandate that he won for himself in 2016. Whilst Johnson fought and won a very personal election in December last year, he only holds power with the agreement of his very large majority of MPs.
Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party has been nearly total. Even his refusal to concede the election has seen most elected Republicans go along with him. The Conservative Party has powerfully supported Johnson, but there is serious talk that he will be kicked out as Prime Minister before the next election. When Republicans had the opportunity to defenestrate Trump through impeachment, they rallied round him almost to a person. President Trump, through the US constitution, has much more power than Prime Minister Johnson has through his.
Then looking closely at what how they both operate – there are some similarities. As I’ve been exploring in my latest posts, they both use Government to recreate a very strong emotional bond between themselves and their socially conservative anti-elite base. As I’ve said on the blog previously whilst Government announcements may appear to be about policy, they are actually about powerful joining emotions. They aim (and succeed) in using those emotions to further develop, amongst their electoral base, a very strong US against a nebulous THEM.
But in looking closely at the emotions they use Trump and Johnson deploy their own favourite, different emotions. Given the need to project emotions very strongly and very often, the main one each chooses is one they feel most strongly in themselves and their lives.
For Trump it is anger. He is a very angry person. He knows his base feels hard done by and that they will respond to anger very well. Therefore what he has to do is project the emotion he feels strongest (anger) through a range of policy and political announcements to his angry base. The wall is a great example. Everyone can understand building a wall. A lot of people do it in their garden against their neighbours.. They can understand building a new one to keep people out. Build the Wall works as a communication of anger.
(We all scurry around quite rightly pointing out that the wall isn’t there. But what we have to come to terms with is that the nonexistence of the wall almost certainly did not lose Trump a single vote. It’s the promise of the wall and the fact that we all shout so loudly about how we hate it that works so well for Trump as a means of communication)
But Johnson’s prime emotional relationship with his base is not anger (I think for Cummings it is – best not to get the wrong side of him and his communications machine). But what makes Johnson tick is optimism. Global Britain will once again be a force in the world as it was before. When we are free of the EU we will be wonderful again. His link with his base is to raise their spirits and direct their gaze toward a world that will be breathtaking. And to promise that ‘yes, we can do it’, we’re an exceptional nation.
The problem with optimism comes when the promise is not realised. And that need never happen. Like Trump’s wall Global Britain will be just around the corner and the promise will still be there.
So anger for Trump. Optimism for Johnson. And then Covid hit.
Anger as a connecting emotion continues to work. The ‘China Virus’ is ruining our lives. Be angry at China. Democrat governors closing down their economies can be met with a literal call to arms. Be angry at them. The wimps insisting on masks can be blown away by righteous anger. Refuse to do it. Be angry at them. Covid helped the anger narrative.
But I don’t think optimism has been helped by Covid. “Covid will all be over in 12 weeks. Covid will be over by Xmas. A second lockdown would be like pressing the button on a nuclear deterrent.” The electoral base to which Johnson was talking would have loved this to be true. But then it wasn’t. Things kept on happening which undermined the emotional link through optimism.
Covid has made it much more difficult for Johnson to sustain the emotional relationship of optimism. Whereas anger has rumbled through it as normal.
The optimistic emotion that Johnson feels most strongly has, during Covid diminished him.