In August 2012, after Britain had won its first gold medal at what was to prove a highly successful London Olympics, the English capital’s then mayor, Boris Johnson, rode a zip line, Union Jack in each hand, in celebration. Unfortunately for Johnson, an Eton- and Oxford-educated journalist, Conservative MP and historian who cultivates a permanent air of dishevelment, the contraption misbehaved. The mayor thus found himself suspended helplessly midway along the route some 20 feet in the air, dangling over an amused crowd of onlookers and pleading for a ladder.
The ensuing ridicule would have doomed many a politician. The leader of the Labour opposition, Ed Miliband, was arguably destroyed in last year’s British general elections by his failure to decorously consume a bacon sandwich. But for Boris, who had already weathered scandals surrounding his private life and his journalistic integrity, the midair mishap near Olympic Park was no bother at all.
His similarly Eton- and Oxford-educated colleague and rival, David Cameron, acknowledged more than a little ruefully that, for anybody else, the fiasco could have been career-ending. “If any other politician anywhere in the world was stuck on a zip line it would be a disaster,” said the prime minister. “For Boris, it’s an absolute triumph.”
And indeed, Johnson’s spokesman lightly remarked that the mayor wouldn’t be winning any golds for artistic interpretation. The Olympics proceeded triumphantly for Britain. Johnson completed two terms as London mayor, smoothly returned to Parliament last year, and last week championed the unexpectedly successful Brexit campaign that saw Britain vote by a tidy 52-48 percent to leave the European Union.
I’m not sure that Donald Trump would have fared quite so well in similarly humiliating circumstances. I suspect Trump is less content to knowingly make a complete ass of himself than the cheerfully buffoonish Johnson, that he would have conveyed acute discomfort, and that the ridicule would not so easily have dissipated. But then again, I don’t imagine Trump would have attempted to ride a zip line in the first place.
And what he does share with Johnson is the proven capacity to shrug off disasters that would have destroyed most other politicians. Trump has insulted just about everybody, from women to war heroes, in the course of his campaign for the presidency. But the embarrassing White House wannabee who was never going to stay long in the race, was certainly never going to be the Republican nominee, and now can’t possibly win the presidency is, at time of writing, for all his falling poll ratings, disorganization and lack of cash, just a fresh Clinton scandal away from his goal.
There’s no need to overstate the Johnson-Trump parallels. Johnson, sights now firmly set on replacing Cameron — who has resigned in the wake of his Brexit catastrophe — is far smarter than he would have the voters believe, while Trump may be rather less smart than he himself recognizes. But along with absurd hairstyles, some flair with a soundbite, and the capacity to say what they think their audiences want to hear even if it’s the opposite of what they may have said in the past, the two do have something highly significant in common: They have positioned themselves — somewhat bizarrely in the case of wealthy tycoon Trump, and completely absurdly in the case of silver-spoon toff Johnson — as anti-establishment figures, attracting the protest vote, the votes of those who don’t want to be told what’s good for them by a paternalistic state. They are the anti-candidates, and all the more compelling for that.
Voters don’t want to be patted on the head and told the grownups know best
Democracy, as Johnson’s hero Winston Churchill famously summarized, “is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” The frustrated opponents of Johnson and Trump, baffled and defeated by voters’ irritating disinclination to make the “right” choices, are likely now wondering if some of those other forms of government might not be better after all.
But even though the beaten Remain camp has now mustered some 3 million petitioners for a re-vote, and even though there was a huge rise in Google searches on the purpose of the EU and the consequences of leaving after the referendum had been held, it is patronizing and foolish to try to portray those 52% as superficial idiots who didn’t know what they were doing and now wish they hadn’t done it. The Brexit supporters were emphatically voting out of perceived self-interest — whether because they were directly affected by economic hardship, or worried by Eastern European immigration and potential Middle East refugee arrivals, or because they have an abiding dislike for Johnny Foreigner and The Continent.
Likewise, Trump’s unexpected political tenacity is born of a whole host of American voters’ frustrations, including but not limited to the economy, immigration, and anger at the Obama administration’s handling of security and terrorism concerns.
With Johnson and Trump, those protest voters have two unusually colorful, outspoken, seemingly devil-may-care candidates, champions they feel are approachable, would-be leaders who they believe speak from the gut and are therefore more credible. In the case of the American presidential elections, moreover, Trump’s rival, Hillary Clinton, seems to attract quite extraordinary animus, as the epitome of establishment aloofness and deceit. I’ve just come back from the States and have lost count of the number of people who told me, to their own horror, that they are contemplating not voting at all in the presidential elections, because while they consider Trump to be bigoted, sexist and potentially irresponsible, they loathe Clinton as untrustworthy and corrupt.
Given that he is Israel’s second-longest-serving prime minister, it is ironic that Benjamin Netanyahu has also managed to position himself as something of an anti-establishment figure. In his case, in Israel’s case, it is the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and the rest of the global establishment that has enabled him to do so.
Johnson-Brexit voters were giving the finger to Cameron and the faceless EU officials he (and President Barack Obama) wanted them to stick with. Many of Netanyahu’s supporters admire him for giving the same finger to the Obama administration, the peacemaking Quartet and all those other do-gooders who presume to know better than they do where Israel’s interests lie. Johnson was telling Britons to resist the faceless bureaucrats of Brussels. Trump tells Americans he’ll rescue their country from inefficient, politically correct leadership that lacks the gumption to tackle its ills. Netanyahu tells Israelis he’ll stubbornly resist international pressures that would expose them to greater danger.
Personally, I am sorry to see Britain leaving Europe if only because any arrangement that sees the UK, France and Germany working together in stability has got to be beneficial to the free world and its prospects of remaining free. But I wouldn’t rush to dismiss the wisdom of that huge crowd of British exiters. We analysts and would-be experts, so manifestly incapable of predicting most seismic political developments and largely incapable of understanding them even when they are unfolding, ought to have long since learned some more humility.
I find it hard to believe that Trump would prove more adept than Clinton in running America, and certainly not unless he assembles a team with the necessary experience. But it’s only 35 years since the US was deemed a laughingstock for electing a B-movie actor as its first among equals, and look at Ronald Reagan’s reputation today.
As for Netanyahu’s continuing success, he is a highly skilled politician who ran rings around Isaac Herzog and Naftali Bennett in the final days of last year’s campaign. Israelis are unlikely to allow themselves a protest vote in general elections. Not when the stakes are existential. But choosing Netanyahu is a protest vote of sorts, against much of the local and international media, academia, diplomacy — the perceived Israel-bashers.
But what the victory of Boris Johnson and the surprisingly long march of Donald Trump should also show the legions of would-be Netanyahu replacements is that voters don’t want to be patted on the head and told that the grownups know best. They want to be energized. They want some color. They want to feel that their would-be leaders are prepared to buck conventional wisdom.
That doesn’t mandate Boris-style buffoonery or relentless Trumpish insult. But it does require forging some variation on the connection with the public that those two have managed. Netanyahu didn’t ride a zip line, but he mastered Facebook and he starred in the Bibi-sitter and other mildly amusing campaign commercials last year. And he left Herzog holding the metaphorical bacon sandwich.