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Trump and Johnson are no laughing matter

Both men have used their eccentricities and celebrity as a buffer against any serious scrutiny from the media

Any other politician who got stuck on a zip wire would have been humiliated — but not Boris Johnson. He has made a career out of outlandish stunts like this.

THERE’S an early episode of the dystopian Netflix series Black Mirror called ‘The Waldo Moment’ which is about a foul-mouthed and abusive computer-animated bear whose TV show creators think it would be a great lark to have him run for Parliament in a by-election.

But what started out as publicity stunt, a joke, rapidly becomes more popular with voters than the official Labour and Conservative campaigns and the episode ends a few years later with Britain run as a police state with Waldo the bear in power as a kind of Big Brother figure.

The episode was made in 2013, well before Donald Trump had decided to run for the White House and when Boris Johnson was still bumbling around as Mayor of London.

But it more or less accurately predicted the moment we have now arrived at with Trump ensconced in the Oval Office and Johnson with the keys to 10 Downing Street.

In both cases, two men who have been considered as a circus act have exploited that media blindness to attain high office.

The first time I heard of Boris Johnson was some time in the mid-to-late ’90s when a friend described his regular appearances on the weekly panel show Have I Got News For You (adapted to Australia as Good News Week). At the time, Johnson was a the editor of the conservative weekly The Spectator and a wannabe politician.

It was on HIGNFY that Johnson perfected the contrived persona of the bumbling toff that is the foundation stone of his popularity to this day. Even then, people focused less on the things he said than on the way he said them, so that no matter how offensive or outrageous his views, he was always forgiven because . . . well . . . “that’s Boris!”

By the time Johnson ran for his first serious political office, Mayor of London in 2008, he was already a household name. In cosmopolitan, left-leaning London, people voted for the Conservative candidate not because of the policies he espoused or the party he represented but because he was a celebrity with an endearing Wodehousian personality

As Simon Fletcher, a former Labour strategist who spent many years closely observing Johnson, has written:

“Many good people inadvertently participate in the creation of Boris Johnson’s political persona, laughing along with one tousle-haired stunt and gaffe after another, believing that these things are damaging to him. They are not. Johnson thrives on being a figure of fun because people like fun. His antics shield him from the reality of his Tory politics and his multiple failures as a political administrator. Far from ‘buffoon’ being a term that causes him trouble, it is an asset, a smile-inducing diversionary construct.”

And that has been the story of Johnson’s career ever since. Johnson was not the first to realise the power of television created notoriety in this celebrity-obsessed age, but he has been able to harness it better than most.

In a mostly undistinguished career as an MP and a Cabinet Minister, Johnson has played the part of a politician as imagined by Monty Python, a shambolic caricature stumbling from one disaster to the next (“My friends, as I have discovered myself, there are no disasters, only opportunities,” he has been quoted as saying. “And, indeed, opportunities for fresh disasters.”)

Of course, it’s all an act, as fake as the use of his middle-name Boris rather than Alex, the name he was known as until his mid-20s. But Boris stood out more, and made a second name virtually irrelevant. In reality, the buffoonish everyman on his bicycle with his mussed up hair is a ruthless Eton and Oxford educated aristocrat. It is no surprise that for a man who has a slippery relationship with the truth, just about everything in his life is a lie.

But Johnson has very effectively used this act both to build his profile as a populist politician, and as a buffer against any serious scrutiny from the media. When he has come under examination, Johnson has always been willing to elevate the outrageous or the oddball to draw away attention — a tactic known as “dropping a dead cat on the table” which he deployed most effectively during the Tory leadership vote.

So rather than be held to the standards of truthfulness and integrity that other serious politicians are forced by the media to meet, Johnson has always had an easy ride because he is treated as a celebrity and . . . well . . . “that’s Boris!” If he ever did decide to get serious, the media would quickly lose interest because, after all, where is the fun in that? But Johnson is too clever for that.

In a similar way, Donald Trump got to the White House because the US media never took him seriously until it was too late.

In Trump’s case, his celebrity was carefully manufactured over several decades, including his time on the reality television show, The Apprentice.

Where Johnson deliberately contrived to look comically shambolic and disorganised, Trump’s shtick has been to be consciously controversial and outrageous — so bombastic that he avoided scrutiny from the media because they treated him as a curio rather than a real candidate for high office.

In office, Trump deploys his tweets in a similar way to Johnson uses his comedic personality: as a distraction. His braggadocio serves to keep him in the news cycle, deny his opponents of any oxygen themselves, and defuses critiques of his incompetence and corruption. Trump has conditioned the US political media to behave like Pavlov’s dog: they need their regular fix of Trump to keep readers and viewers coming back to their publications and broadcast channels.

Trump had been mercilessly satirised for decades by everyone from Gary Trudeau to Matt Groening to Sesame Street, so who could take the prospect of a President Trump seriously?

Even now he is in the White House, Trump’s presidency is so infantile and accident prone, that it is far too easy to dismiss it as a never ending joke. How can you take seriously someone who takes his talking points from Fox News, tweets impulsively and is so out of touch with reality? Satire was never this good.

But this complacency has real consequences, as tens of millions of Americans have discovered, and the British are about to find out.

There are other historical precedents for the Johnson and Trump, such as Ronald Reagan, a second rate Hollywood actor who managed to leverage his minor fame into a political career.

Winston Churchill was another eccentric character and a celebrity in his day who Johnson often draws on for inspiration, but as Johnson’s former Daily Telegraph editor Max Hastings recently wrote “he [Johnson] supposes himself to be Winston Churchill, while in reality being closer to Alan Partridge.”

Australia is not immune from this phenomenon either. Bob Katter, George Christensen, and Barnaby Joyce have all made a career out of deliberate buffonery to avoid serious media scrutiny.

Indeed, the political media is totally ill-equipped to deal with politicians like Trump and Johnson. Political journalists are trained to be balanced and non-judgemental, and are far more comfortable with politicians who respect the institutions and play by the rules.

But when confronted with a celebrity politician like Trump or Johnson, political journalists don’t know how to treat them. Unbound by the traditional conventions, Trump and Johnson will happily lie and dissemble, confident that the political media won’t call them out on it. Quite the opposite, the political media will amplify the lies, all in the name of “objectivity”.

The result is that our politics is diminished — the wild and outrageous are rewarded while the serious and thoughtful are deterred from entering politics in the first place.

This allows politicians to literally get away with murder in the name of entertainment.

There will be many more politicians to come like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. The approach clearly works.

So we can laugh all we want at the ridiculous antics of the President of the United States and the Prime Minister of Great Britain. But ultimately, the joke’s on us.

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