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How Trump and Johnson, divisive populists with many similarities, ended up on different paths

Their diverging prospects illustrate the differences in the two countries and how a parliamentary system is harder for populists to crack than the U.S.’s two-party presidential one

Donald Trump y Boris Johnson
Then-president Donald Trump meets with then-British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the United Nations General Assembly, in 2019, in New York.SAUL LOEB (AFP)

At first blush, they seem so alike — two pugnacious, ideologically flexible politicians who latched onto the 2016 global explosion of populism to lead their respective countries before falling from power. But Boris Johnson and Donald Trump appear headed down different paths this week as they navigate the fallout from their conduct now that they’ve left higher office — a reflection of the varying political cultures and systems in the nations they once led.

On Thursday, a committee of the House of Commons released a scathing report about how Johnson lied to Parliament and intimidated those investigating lockdown-flouting parties in his administration during the pandemic. The committee said Johnson’s conduct was so flagrant that it warranted a 90-day suspension from Parliament, although that recommendation was largely symbolic because he resigned from the House of Commons last week. He was ousted as prime minister almost a year ago, partly due to the “partygate” scandal.

Two days earlier, Trump became the first former U.S. president to appear before a federal judge in a criminal case, pleading not guilty to 37 charges of obstruction of justice and improper retention of classified documents. He also faces charges of filing false business documents in an unrelated matter in New York, and additional legal risk in two more investigations of his attempt to overturn his 2020 election loss.

They want to come back. Can they?

Both men have decried efforts to punish them as undemocratic, describing the investigations into their conduct as “witch hunts.”

Both also want to return to power. But only Trump has a clear path — he is the frontrunner for his party’s 2024 presidential nomination. If Trump wins it, he’ll face President Joe Biden and stands a decent chance of winning back his old job in a country that’s evenly divided between its two major political parties.

Johnson, on the other hand, has a much less direct route back.

Under Britain’s parliamentary system, prime ministers are selected not by popular vote but because they are the leaders of the party that controls a majority in the House of Commons. That means Johnson would have to win back the support of luminaries in his Conservative Party before he had any chance of returning to Parliament, much less the prime minister’s office.

“We are a parliamentary as opposed to a presidential system. That means that actually there is probably less room for a thorough-going populist to capture both his or her party — and, indeed, the country — in the United Kingdom than there is in the United States,” said Tim Bale, a political science professor at Queen Mary University of London.

That’s because of the United States’ two-party system, which Trump exploited in 2016 when he entered electoral politics for the first time. The parties nominate candidates in primary elections decided by their own voters, giving an edge to the most partisan or bombastic. Trump has cemented his power by focusing on building loyalty among Republican voters, so any party member who criticizes him is vulnerable to a primary challenge.

That’s effectively split the United States in two, making almost every facet of modern life from sporting events to beer choice a referendum on whether people side with Trump and his movement.

By contrast, Britain doesn’t have primary elections and doesn’t elect prime ministers by popular vote, making it difficult for politicians to take their message to voters without first winning the support of party leaders.

Their similarities reveal their nations’ differences

Astonishingly, both Trump and Johnson are native New Yorkers; Johnson’s parents were studying in the United States when he was born. Both sport trademark locks of golden hair and penchants for sometimes farcical self-promotion. And both followed parallel tracks that illuminate the differences between the United States and the United Kingdom.

Trump, son of a wealthy developer, became known for stamping his name in gold-plated lettering on his towers. When his business faltered, Trump became a reality television star on The Apprentice, a show that portrayed him as the ideal tough-minded businessman, an image he rode into the White House in 2016.

Johnson as a child announced that he wanted to be “world king” and climbed the British elite educational system, from Eton to Oxford, to get there. He worked as a columnist for British newspapers — losing one job for concocting quotes — before winning a seat in Parliament in 2001, then becoming mayor of London in 2008. Johnson cultivated a zany style, reveling in stunts that often went awry, like the time he got stuck on a zipline promoting the 2012 London Olympics.

Trump has maintained his populist image with man-of-the-people touches, such as his cameos in World Wrestling Federation bouts and his fondness for McDonald’s, which he once served in the White House. Johnson sprinkles his speeches with Latin quotations, and his favorite Italian red wine sells for 180 pounds ($230) a bottle.

Once a proud cosmopolitan New Yorker who embraced gay and abortion rights, Trump veered to the right when he ran for president, appointing the judges who overturned the Supreme Court case that guaranteed American women the right to an abortion.

His swing was initially slammed by none other than Johnson, who as London mayor took issue with Trump’s claim that radical Muslims created “no-go” areas in his city. Johnson said Trump demonstrated “a stupefying ignorance.”

The following year, though, Johnson embraced the ballot measure to leave the European Union and the anti-immigrant sentiment that Trump had tapped into. Johnson later lamented that women in burkas looked like “letter boxes.”

Johnson became foreign secretary in 2016, then rose to prime minister by promising he’d “get Brexit done.” He kept that promise by winning an unassailable 80-seat majority in Parliament that allowed him to ram through the Brexit deal that severed virtually all ties with the EU.

But Johnson’s ability to win elections by making grandiose promises and entertaining voters didn’t translate into undying support from backbench lawmakers, who abandoned him after a series of scandals that included so-called “partygate” over the boozy celebrations in his Downing Street offices.

After Johnson attacked the committee that investigated him as a “kangaroo court,” the opposition quickly compared him to his counterpart across the Atlantic.

“He’s not fit for public office, and he’s disgraced himself and continues to act like a pound-shop Trump,” Angela Rayner, the Labour Party’s deputy leader, said Thursday.

That may make him a pariah in British politics. But among many Americans it’s a compliment to be compared to Trump, even after the former president’s lies about the 2020 election provoked the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Only a handful of Republicans have dared criticize Trump for his conduct. Even after charges were filed late last week against Trump, most of his primary rivals spent more time portraying him as a victim.

In contrast, no one in American politics would bother comparing a rival — or an ally — to Boris Johnson.

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