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SAME SAME BUT DIFFERENT

No, Boris Johnson isn’t the UK’s Donald Trump

Donald Trump, Boris Johnson
AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Separated at birth?
  • Natasha Frost
By Natasha Frost

Reporter

In the wake of Boris Johnson being declared the UK’s prime minister, Donald Trump said, wonderingly: “They’re saying Britain Trump. They call him Britain Trump and people are saying that’s a good thing. They like me over there. That’s what they wanted. That’s what they need.”

The US president seems to warm to the comparison. Johnson, despite cozying up to his hair twin, has reasons to avoid it. How much overlap is there between these two unconventional leaders—and what can it tell us about what lies in store under Britain’s newest leader?

Here’s a look at how they line up on key indicators, along with our verdict on how good a match they make for each.

The political views of Johnson and Trump

“Johnson’s instincts are liberal in a way that Trump’s aren’t—Trump has given every indication that he is a protectionist authoritarian, whereas Johnson seems to be if anything a laissez-faire Tory liberal,” says Constantine Fraser, European political analyst at the TS Lombard research group. “The difficulty is, with Johnson more than with Trump, there is a willingness to say whatever is necessary.”

There is perhaps no better example of this than Brexit. Johnson oscillated between supporting either leaving or remaining, before throwing his weight suddenly behind the Leave campaign. Once there, he approached the task with a boyish zeal, making impossible claims about Brexit’s potential to make Britons wealthier, healthier, and more secure.

Getting a handle on his slippery ideological core isn’t always easy. Johnson’s voting record, on the occasions that he has showed up to vote, is generally in line with his party. He has rebelled only on a few occasions: opposing raising university tuition fees, supporting LGBTQ rights, and backing stronger regulation of the gambling industry. Where Trump remains an outsider within the Republican party, Johnson is a properly Conservative beast, with fiscally conservative, socially liberal-ish views to match. In terms of foreign policy, that means being pro-free trade, Russia-skeptic, and in favor of the open world that has helped Britain to prosper.

But it isn’t clear that Johnson would carry on in this vein. A no-deal Brexit would precipitate a trade war of sorts, while his choice of cabinet members suggests a strong inclination to pander to the nationalist Brexit Party sympathizers that threaten the Conservatives’ future. Already, he has given choice roles to the disgraced former foreign secretary Priti Patel, “career psychopath” Dominic Cummings, and hardline Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg.

“The question is,” says Fraser, “how far Johnson has yoked himself to the nationalist right and will now be dependent on them.”

Verdict: 50% match

Professional experience 

One key word seems to connect Trump and Johnson’s professional experience: incompetence.

After a very brief stint in consultancy, Johnson spent his earliest years in the workforce bouncing around within the national press. He was sacked from the Times of London for making up quotes, then earned himself a reputation in Brussels as a Daily Telegraph reporter for his wanton disregard for the truth. Later stints at The Spectator and in politics were equally characterized by chaos, lies, disloyalty, and general bungling and blundering.

Reporting from the New York Times paints Trump in a remarkably similar light. A Pulitzer-prize winning exposé suggests that the president and his family had benefited from “outright” tax fraud to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. Later stories reveal that, even as Trump marketed himself as a preternaturally savvy businessman, his businesses were hemorrhaging cash, with losses between 1985 and 1994 exceeding a billion dollars. He lied, misjudged, concealed—and somehow came out on top.

When he took the highest office in the land, Trump’s political experience was functionally nil. Despite that, he won the White House after voting in all 50 states; while Johnson is the stated choice of significantly less than 1% of the British voting public, after nearly two decades in politics, as London’s mayor, UK foreign secretary, and a shopping-list of other, more minor Conservative party roles.

Though both are visibly power-hungry, Johnson seems to have been “rewarded” for years in party politics by Tory members, while Trump simply parachuted in at the top.

Verdict: 40% match

Personal lives 

The two men’s family lives bear a striking similarity. Each has a reputation for lascivious philandering. Both have had at least five children, by at least two women. They both have a significantly younger current partner. (Both relationships have an age gap of precisely 24 years.) Despite a shared desire to be liked and appraised, only Johnson seems to have much in the way of friends.

Their childhoods and family backgrounds, while both immensely privileged, are less alike. Fred Trump, the president’s father, was the child of German immigrants. He would make millions in New York real estate. Trump’s mother had been working as a maid when his parents met. The Johnsons, by contrast, were rather more traditionally upper-crust: Johnson’s great-grandfather was an interior minister of the Ottoman Empire government who was later assassinated. His father, Stanley Johnson, is an environmentalist, World Bank employee, poet, and novelist. Trump grew up in Queens, New York, to a family whose outlook was distinctly local in scale. From an early age, Johnson famously declared an ambition to be “world king.” He has mastered several languages, lived overseas, and maintains a global worldview.

“With the Johnsons, there was a feeling that a few generations ago they were terribly grand, and their rightful place in society has been taken away from them, so they were all going to have to compete to get back at the top of the pile, the biggest and blondest dynasty of all,” Sonia Purnell, author of Just Boris: The Irresistible Rise of a Political Celebrity, told Vice. “[Their father] lit the touch paper and asked, ‘OK, which of you is going to get to the very top?’ and Boris was the eldest sibling, so it was always going to be him.” The Trumps, by contrast, were outsiders on the ascent, with Manhattan’s elite winking tantalizingly from across the East River.

While both are very wealthy, Trump’s personal fortune—though hard to ascertain exactly—is hundreds and perhaps thousands of times larger than Johnson’s.

Verdict: 70% match

Bases of support

According to the British polling company YouGov, Johnson fans tend to also like Audi cars, the British low-alcohol drink shandy, and the small football club the Blackburn Rovers. They are usually men over 40.

Despite a stated preference for midrange Dewar’s blended-scotch whisky, Trump supporters favor all-American brands: Chick-fil-A, Tostitos, Dunkin’ Donuts. Like Johnson fans, they are also more likely to be male and over 40. Trump voters in the 2016 election were mostly quite affluent, contrary to a popular narrative of a wave of support from disenfranchised, white, working-class voters. The Tory party members who elected Johnson earlier this month fit the same profile: white, male, around 55, and middle class and affluent.

Neither group seems especially bothered by both men’s frequent sexist and racist rhetoric, though it’s important to note a difference in scale. It’s hard to imagine Johnson suggesting a person of color who disagreed with his views should “go back” to where their family originated—or a British public able to countenance such overt bigotry.

Verdict: 80% match

Leadership styles 

Neither Trump nor Johnson resemble traditional national leaders.

They are linked by their disregard for precision or accuracy, with a shared dislike for reading memos and getting down in the details. Both maintain a consistently loose relationship with the truth.

Though each is cartoonish and larger-than-life, their images are rather different. Johnson has a cultivated, so-called “silly style”, while Trump despises being laughed at. Johnson’s political stylings are bombastic and wordy—this is, after all, a man who styles himself as a Shakespeare expert and Classical enthusiast. Trump’s jokes, where they exist, are mean and frequently crude. It is hard to imagine him making any kind of a joke about an olive (let alone eating one), while Johnson’s carefully constructed tricolons and oratorial flourishes are a far step from the blunt force of MAGA.

More recently, however, Johnson seems to be taking a leaf out of Trump’s book. In one of his earliest meetings as prime minister, he promised to “make the UK the greatest country on Earth.”

Verdict: 70% match

In summary 

These two political animals are much less alike than they look—for now. There’s no guarantee that that will always be the case, especially as a possible trade war from a no-deal Brexit looms on the horizon.

For many Britons, being ruled by a homegrown DJT is a deeply unappealing outcome. For Johnson’s emboldened right-wing supporters, it may be a dream come true.

Overall: 62% match

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