The truth and lies of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson

Were it not for Trump, Johnson might have been held to account for his long history of habitual lies

Barack Obama's view of Britain is soured by the former US president's part-Kenyan ancestry. African states would gain from the return of white colonial rule. Muslim women wearing the full veil, or niqab, resemble nothing so much as letterboxes or bank robbers. Africans can be described as piccaninnies; they have "watermelon" smiles. Europe will soon be swamped by Turkish migrants – disproportionately terrorists and criminals.

No one is any longer surprised by Donald Trump's nativism. His presidency has carried into the mainstream an ugly political discourse once confined to the far-flung fringes of the extreme right. The sentiments above, however, are not Trump's. They belong to Britain's Boris Johnson. There was a time when to have expressed or endorsed such views would have instantly disqualified a British politician from high office. Instead Johnson is favourite to win the Conservative leadership race and succeed Theresa May as prime minister.

Johnson’s campaign launch this week coincided with Trump’s state visit to London. Tossing aside the conventions against forays into the domestic politics of allies, the president publicly backed the Tory party’s leading Brexiteer. Johnson once said some disobliging things about Trump. That was then. The single thread of consistency running through his career has been a readiness to change tack in the cause of personal advancement.

The two men are self-declared champions of national sovereignty. Trump's America First foreign policy is calculated to break free of US entanglement with international treaties and institutions. The president has repudiated multilateral trade deals with Europe and Asia, has unsigned the Paris climate change accord and rejected the international nuclear pact with Iran. He has questioned the utility of Nato and the network of US alliances in East Asia.


Hosting a state banquet for the president, Queen Elizabeth was moved to offer Trump a gentle history lesson. "After the shared sacrifices of the second World War, Britain and the United States worked with other allies to build an assembly of international institutions, to ensure that the horrors of conflict would never be repeated," she told the guests. "While the world has changed, we are forever mindful of the original purpose of these structures: nations working together to safeguard a hard-won peace." Sad to say, I somehow doubt Trump was listening.

Narrower focus

Johnson’s English nationalism has a narrower focus. As far as one can tell he is still on the other side of the argument from Trump on climate change, Iran and Nato. But nothing counts above his pledge to the Tory faithful to reassert the sovereignty of parliament by leaving the EU. If he wins, Johnson promises, Britain will quit the EU on October 31st come what may.

He says he can get a good deal from the EU27 simply by threatening to walk away from negotiations. This is as fanciful a notion as his previous promise that Britain could have its cake and eat it. The EU27 have nothing to offer him. And parliament is ready to block a no-deal Brexit. Most likely Britain will get a further extension of the article 50 deadline – unless French president Emmanuel Macron succeeds in engineering its expulsion from the Union.

Like Trump, Johnson has a lofty disdain for anything so trivial as facts. Anything they disagree with is "fake news". Johnson may yet be hauled before a court to explain the Brexiteers' claim during the 2016 referendum campaign that Britain sends £350 million to Brussels every week. The figure was palpably false. I doubt he is bothered by the fuss. All that matters is that he gets the keys to Downing Street.

Johnson's friends say his views about Africans and Muslims have been misunderstood or misrepresented. I am not sure how. The vilification of Turkish migrants was front and centre of the Brexit campaign Johnson led in 2016. Of Africa he has lamented that colonialism and "the white man" are sometimes blamed for its troubles. "The continent may be a blot," he wrote, "but it is not a blot upon our conscience. The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge any more." All this seems pretty clear to me.

Were it not for Trump, Johnson might have been held to account for the long and well-documented history of habitual lies. But Britain’s Tories are now going the way of America’s Republicans. In the choice of party leader good character and a moral code have been relegated in favour of the pinched English nationalism of hardline Brexiteers.

Trump may be everything his critics charge, but he won in 2016 so most Republicans will back him again in 2020. Mr Johnson is a proven charlatan but the opinion polls say he is the Tory leadership candidate most likely to beat Labour's Jeremy Corbyn in a general election. Thus Tory MPs who privately admit that they absolutely loathe Johnson – that they see in him a politician consumed by same narcissism that drives Trump – are now signing up to back him.

To my mind, this is how liberal democracy eventually dies. Throw away shared values, truth and a modicum of mutual respect and the architecture of a free, open society comes crashing down. There have always been snake-oil salesmen such as Trump and Johnson. The danger comes when the rest of us simply shrug our shoulders. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019

Philip Stephens is a Financial Times columnist