Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the Rise of Radical Incompetence

Boris Johnson in Southampton, England in June. Mr. Johnson resigned his post as Britain’s foreign secretary in protest against the latest plans for Brexit. Credit Matt Cardy/Getty Images
Boris Johnson in Southampton, England in June. Mr. Johnson resigned his post as Britain’s foreign secretary in protest against the latest plans for Brexit. Credit Matt Cardy/Getty Images

“I am increasingly admiring of Donald Trump. I have become more and more convinced that there is method in his madness.” These comments, subsequently leaked, were made last month by Boris Johnson, who was then Britain’s foreign secretary. Never one to discount praise, Mr. Trump reportedly expressed an interest in meeting his “friend” Mr. Johnson during his visit to London this week, noting that Mr. Johnson has been “very, very nice to me, very supportive.”

When Mr. Johnson offered those remarks praising the American president, he was discussing the topic that shapes everything in British politics right now: Brexit. The dilemma that is pulling Prime Minister Theresa May’s government apart, and may yet topple her, is whether Britain opts for a “soft” Brexit, in which it leaves the European Union but retains many of its rules, or a “hard” Brexit, which throws caution to the wind and releases Britain to start all its trading negotiations afresh. In Mr. Johnson’s view, it seems, Mr. Trump would have no hesitation in choosing the latter. One thing the two men share is a recklessness that looks like courage in the eyes of their supporters, but which also sabotages the work of policymaking and diplomacy.

Mrs. May’s most recent attempt to escape the “hard” versus “soft” dilemma involves establishing a “common rule book” shared by London and Brussels. This looks far too “soft” for the liking of fervent Euroskeptics in her party. Within 48 hours of the plan’s being revealed, Mr. Johnson had resigned. Before him, so had David Davis, another prominent Brexiteer in Mrs. May’s cabinet who had been put in charge of negotiating with the European Union. In characteristically florid terms, Mr. Johnson’s resignation letter expressed fears that “we are headed for the status of a colony.”

Like so many political metaphors, the distinction between “hard” and “soft” is misleading. Any Brexiteer wanting to perform machismo will reach for the “hard” option. But as has become increasingly plain over the past two years, and especially over recent weeks, nobody has any idea what “hard” Brexit actually means in policy terms. It is not so much hard as abstract. “Soft” Brexit might sound weak or halfhearted, but it is also the only policy proposal that might actually work.

What appear on the surface to be policy disputes over Britain’s relationship with Brussels are actually fundamental conflicts regarding the very nature of political power. In this, the arguments underway inside Britain’s Conservative Party speak of a deeper rift within liberal democracies today, which shows no sign of healing. In conceptual terms, this is a conflict between those who are sympathetic to government and those striving to reassert sovereignty.

When we speak of government, we refer to the various technical and bureaucratic means by which policies and plans are delivered. Government involves officials, data-gathering, regulating and evaluating. As a governmental issue, Brexit involves prosaic problems such as how to get trucks through ports. Sovereignty, on the other hand, is always an abstract notion of where power ultimately lies, albeit an abstraction that modern states depend on if they’re to command obedience. As a sovereign issue, Brexit involves bravado appeals to “the people” and “the nation.” These are two incommensurable ideas of what power consists of, although any effective state must have both at its disposal.

One way to understand the rise of reactionary populism today is as the revenge of sovereignty on government. This is not simply a backlash after decades of globalization, but against the form of political power that facilitated it, which is technocratic, multilateral and increasingly divorced from local identities.

A common thread linking “hard” Brexiteers to nationalists across the globe is that they resent the very idea of governing as a complex, modern, fact-based set of activities that requires technical expertise and permanent officials. Soon after entering the White House as President Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon expressed hope that the newly appointed cabinet would achieve the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” In Europe, the European Commission — which has copious governmental capacity, but scant sovereignty — is an obvious target for nationalists such as Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary.

The more extreme fringes of British conservatism have now reached the point that American conservatives first arrived at during the Clinton administration: They are seeking to undermine the very possibility of workable government. For hard-liners such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, it is an article of faith that Britain’s Treasury Department, the Bank of England and Downing Street itself are now conspiring to deny Britain its sovereignty. It is thought that Mr. Davis’s real grudge was with the unelected official, Olly Robbins, who had usurped him in his influence over the Brexit process. The problem was that Mr. Robbins is willing and able to do the laborious and intellectually demanding policy work that Brexit will require, while Mr. Davis is famously not.

What happens if sections of the news media, the political classes and the public insist that only sovereignty matters and that the complexities of governing are a lie invented by liberal elites? For one thing, it gives rise to celebrity populists, personified by Mr. Trump, whose inability to engage patiently or intelligently with policy issues makes it possible to sustain the fantasy that governing is simple. What Mr. Johnson terms the “method” in Mr. Trump’s “madness” is a refusal to listen to inconvenient evidence, of the sort provided by officials and experts.

But another byproduct of the anti-government attitude is a constant wave of exits. Britain leaves the European Union, Mr. Johnson resigns from the cabinet. The Trump White House has been defined by the constant churn of sackings and resignations. With astonishing hypocrisy, wealthy Brexiteers such as Mr. Rees-Mogg, John Redwood, Lord Lawson and Lord Ashcroft have all been discovered either preparing to move their own assets into European Union jurisdictions or advising clients on how to do so. No doubt when Britain does finally leave the European Union in March 2019, they will distance themselves from reality once more, allowing the sense of victimhood and the dream of “sovereignty” to live another day. Meanwhile, someone has to keep governing.

William Davies is a sociologist and political economist at Goldsmiths, University of London, and the author of the forthcoming Nervous States: How Feeling Took Over the World.

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