97. Tweedledee and Tweedledum: Donald Trump and Boris Johnson
19 March 2020
Publication: The Guardian (Nigeria)
Image courtesy of Eddie MULHOLLAND / POOL / AFP
English writer, Lewis Carroll, created two of the most memorable fictional characters that Alice encountered in Wonderland: Tweedledee and Tweedledum. The two rotund men in identical outfits were so similar that they are almost indistinguishable. These buffoonish characters provide an apt description of current American president, Donald Trump, and British prime minister, Boris Johnson. While Trump is seeking re-election this year after three divisive years in office, Johnson won a landslide 80-seat victory in British parliamentary polls in December.
Both men are manipulative opportunists prepared to betray allies to achieve their selfish goals. Both are seen as lacking the aptitude to absorb detailed briefings and for deep policy reflection. Both have sometimes run the government like a celebrity game-show. Both wear flamboyant blond hairstyles, while trying to cultivate the air of anti-establishment pitchfork radicals. Both egomaniac leaders were, however, born in New York into privilege. Trump attended the Wharton School of the Ivy League, University of Pennsylvania, while Johnson studied at the elite Oxford University.
Both men are nativists who have made xenophobic and vulgar comments. Trump sought to condone the actions of anti-Semitic neo-Nazis in Charlottesville in 2017. The US president has simply thrown away the dog whistle, and openly employs a giant blow-horn to mobilise the mob. Despite this jingoism, 80% of Republican voters, 71% of white evangelicals, and almost all Republican legislators, continue to back him. More recently, Trump referred to African and Caribbean countries as “shit holes”, and awarded the presidential Medal of Freedom to Rush Limbaugh, a hate-mongering radio jock.
Boris Johnson, for his part, failed to apologise for calling black Britons “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles”, and referring to Muslim women in burqas as “letterboxes.” He had earlier complained that Caribbean people in Britain were “multiplying like flies.” Both leaders have fuelled anti-immigrant sentiment, and stoked divisive culture wars. While Trump has damaged the Republicans’ reputation for conservative internationalism, Johnson has destroyed his Conservative Party’s ideals of “One Nation Toryism.”
Both men are crude populists who have been able to attract insecure working class voters in Michigan and Manchester with appeals to their basest instincts. Both have, however, promoted tax cuts for the rich, while pretending to be ruling in favour of the middle and working classes. Both have also been accused of monarchical delusions. Republican and Conservative legislators, however, feel that they owe their loyalty to these leaders who are more respected as vote-getters than genuinely loved by their parties.
Both are congenital liars. The noses of the Pinocchio president and premier have grown longer in office. Trump has falsely claimed to have reduced the costs of prescription drugs; to be protecting patients with pre-existing conditions; and to have defeated the Islamic State (ISIS). His recent impeachment by the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives was based on a clear attempt to pressure Ukraine to launch an investigation into Democratic presidential rival, Joe Biden’s son’s business dealings, in an extortion effort more expected of a Mafia Don. As a journalist for The Times, Johnson invented quotes that eventually led to his sacking. He was fired from the shadow cabinet for lying about an amorous affair. He led the 2016 “Brexit” campaign that grossly exaggerated how much money Britain would get back from leaving the European Union (EU). More recently, Johnson convinced Queen Elizabeth II to prorogue Parliament for five weeks on spurious, self-serving grounds. Both leaders also have a penchant for cultivating wild conspiracy theories, revealing a sense of paranoia in which alien foreigners are undermining national purity.
Both are gamblers and risk-takers. Trump threatened North Korea with nuclear annihilation, boasting to its dictator, Kim Jong-un – dismissed as “Rocket Man” – that America’s nuclear button was bigger than his, before sitting down to negotiate with Pyongyang. Trump’s reckless killing of Iranian general, Qassem Suleimani, in a drone strike in neighbouring Iraq in January, nearly led to a catastrophic war that could have set the entire Middle East ablaze. In his blundering dealings with Brussels, Boris Johnson often has the air of a deranged poker player.
Both men are also anti-multilateralists. While Trump has questioned the utility of NATO and the United Nations, Johnson led a populist campaign that took Britain out of the EU in January after three decades of fruitful membership. Both men are philanderers who are on their third marriages, and have been ensnared in sex scandals.
But there are also differences between Trump and Johnson. While Johnson served as a two-term mayor of cosmopolitan London and Foreign Secretary, Trump had little prior governing experience before assuming office. Trump is usually impeccably dressed, while Johnson likes to cut a scruffy figure. Trump also leads a country that is a superpower, while Johnson leads a small island off the coast of Europe whose days of glory – when Britannia ruled the waves – are far behind it. Trump has sought to use America’s might to pressure China, Japan, Canada, Mexico, and European allies to cut trade deficits by slapping tariffs on them, often using bogus national security arguments. The American president has also taken a wrecking ball to smash the multilateral trading system, neutering the World Trade Organisation in the process. He has pursued mercantilist beggar-thy-neighbour policies reminiscent of the ruinous 1930s protectionist era that helped lead to the rise of Fascism and the outbreak of the Second World War. Trump has talked loudly, and carried a big stick. In phallic machismo style, he has often acted like a gun-slinging sheriff, wielding a bigger gun than his adversaries whom he habitually challenges to deadly noon-day duels.
For all the bluster of Tweedledee and Tweedledum, Johnson has recently defied Trump by choosing Chinese telecommunications company, Huawei, to build Britain’s 5G network. This reportedly led to a nasty row in which Trump slammed the phone in the ear of the British premier, resulting in Johnson cancelling a trip to Washington D.C. But London still needs Washington more than America needs Britain. Following Brexit, a free trade deal with the US still remains a highly sought-after prize.
Another Trump four-year presidential term would almost certainly irreparably fracture the Western alliance, resulting in the possible demise of NATO, to the benefit of China and Russia. Only 13% of British, French, and German citizens polled last year had faith in Trump’s foreign policy. Peace efforts in the Middle East will also be hard to resurrect as the US president would continue to act as a dishonest broker, condoning Israeli expansionism and illegal settlements.
Under Boris Johnson, Britain will continue the most spectacular decline experienced by a contemporary Great Power. With its exit from the EU market which takes half of its exports, London will continue to cut off its nose to spite its face. “Great Britain” is on a downward spiral to becoming “Little England”, and could eventually lose both Scotland and Northern Ireland from the Union, declining into global irrelevance.
That both of these deeply flawed leaders represent “leaders of the Free World,” speaks volumes about the current state of Western “civilisation.”
Professor Adekeye Adebajo is Director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation in South Africa.