The Donald & Boris: The Past is Just What it Used to Be

The “Special Relationship,” between the US and UK, just might be dragging itself into a new era. The Donald (Trump) is already on the podium and Boris (Johnson) has just joined him. Iran, and the rest of us, hold our breath.

Two recent events show how this new era might be taking shape. One is the recent resignation of the UK’s ambassador in Washington, Kim Darroch. He was effectively squeezed out by a well-coordinated Transatlantic game plan: a selective leak, followed up by a predictable Trump condemnation and a Johnson no comment did it for Darroch. The other is Trump’s recent tweets, echoing Johnson’s earlier newspaper pieces, in which he talked of Africans’ “watermelon smiles.”

The advent of Trump and Johnson either represents a recalibration of the old WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) elite on both sides of the Atlantic, or its final stand. Or perhaps both.

The Special Relationship is of course more special to London than Washington, but it is based on a shared mythical superstructure.

Athens and Rome

A widely held notion since 1945 has been that the UK has passed on the role of the ‘global policeman’ to the US, from an exhausted London to an impatient Washington, from Athens to Rome.

If there are similar dynamics driving both the election of Trump and Brexit, it is perhaps best understood in terms of this mythical ‘Anglosphere,’ a term that connotes an historical link to the roots of English common law, the principles of separated powers, but also a wink to ethno-nationalism, that ‘our’ rules and status are someone defined by our ethnicity.

This narrative is held together by several micro-narratives, stretching back to ‘We won the war,’ – bad Germans, weak French, Napoleon and Hitler. The anti-European mythology seeps through a lot of the rhetoric of Trump and Johnson.

Other micro-narratives pervade the public space that both men now occupy. “Political correctness has gone mad” – Trump and Johnson want white, middle-aged affluent men to be able to say the things they want to say in public, after 40 years of the PC brigade telling them what is acceptable. Allied to this is the notion of victimhood. ‘We’ are the beleaguered minority now, they say. ‘We’ are the ones being crowded out. The language is one of walls, borders, whether on the Mexican border or the English Channel.

Cultural Marxism, without realising its antisemitic undertones, or perhaps being aware and gaslighting, implies that all that has undermined traditional values is culturally marxist. The word itself is designed to scare. Women’s liberation, gay rights, ethnic minorities’ rights are thus to be opposed.

The ‘mainstream media’ is leftwing, the narrative tells us. Its persistent attacks on this ‘mainstream’ media – BBC and CNN – are designed to put it on the back foot, to force it to explain itself and avoid poking into areas that threaten the status quo.

The narrative trumps facts. In fact, facts can be made and unmade at the will of the narrative, a development that plays into the spawning of conspiracy theories. Such strategies are multipurpose, used to undermine arguments and individuals that are problematic, but also to propagate alternative narratives, without the need for fact checking.

Reality bites

The reality is that the Western World faces multiple crises simultaneously. The confrontational binary nature of US and UK politics has been exposed in the last 20 years. In the UK, after the 2009-10 expenses scandal, and the current stasis in British politics, the notion of Westminster as a model for democracy has been challenged. In the US, Trump has exposed the bipartisan character of the political process.

In turn, the 2008-09 financial crisis exposed the way that the US-UK political-economy actually works. The post-crisis compact, in effect, socialised the costs of saving the banks, meaning the financial system survived, while the public purse was ransacked by austerity policies. The fairness of the system, essential to its legitimacy, has been challenged. The Thatcher-Reagan era of promoting social mobility has largely failed. The celebrity culture that acts to propagate the notion that ‘anyone can make it’ creates demands that the system cannot meet. 

Both the UK and US are essentially still low-wage economies, driven by immigration, designed to hold down wages. Structurally, both economies have seen stagnating wages, as no governments have tackled post-industrial decline and increased inequality. Neither has answered the question of what to do with the bottom 20% and now, increasingly, the middle class. Trickle down clearly doesn’t work, but there are few new ideas on the right.

The rightwing shift

The Republican and Tory parties are diving to the right, if by right we mean a form of small-state quasi-libertarian uncertainty, mixed – oddly – with nationalism and protectionism, that bears very little resemblance to old school Toryism or Republicanism.

The European Research Group (ERG) in the UK and the Tea Party (or its modern incarnations) have long called for the tearing up of what’s left of the post-war compact, by cutting taxes to the bone, slashing welfare, focusing on the financial sector, alongside privatisation and deregulation and imposing selective protectionism. It may be a recipe for ecological crisis, social unrest and international discord.

But in its bold gesture politics, the more this group appears to dominate, the weaker it may actually be becoming. Perhaps what we are witnessing in fragments is a battle of succession within the ruling parties, a struggle between the insurgents within Republicanism/Toryism and the Old Guard. Old school elites have had to invite the Tea Party/Brexit insurgents into the tent, rather reluctantly, and one of the few things that keep them together is a mutual disdain for other groups. They are thus glued together by a rhetoric of nationalism, exclusion and division. The Republicans at first distanced themselves from Trump, and Boris was never flavour of the month in many Conservative Party circles. But that changed when the Old Guard realised these harsh new noises had traction among enough of the electorate to count.

But US interests are not UK interests

Johnson’s limited leverage, meanwhile, is dependent to a large extent on offering a trade deal with the US, something that he hopes can ignite the imagination of those Brits who still believe Brexit makes sense. But it also gives Trump enormous leverage over Johnson. And it’s doubtful it will also mean that future UK access to US markets will be preferential over existing access via an EU-US trade agreement. Many believe such an agreement would flood the UK with cheap and worse quality food, undermine health standards and undercut domestic producers. In the lexicon of economic nationalism, international brotherhood is an oxymoron.