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The Great Lie of the Right-Wing Populists

Donald Trump and Boris Johnson rely on weaknesses in the system to enact promises which aren't popular.

Stefan Rousseau/ Pool/Getty

This was not a good week for democratic institutions in the Anglosphere. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson took the extraordinary step of suspending Parliament next month, undermining efforts to prevent Britain from crashing out of the European Union on October 31. Across the Atlantic, two newspapers reported that President Donald Trump had recently floated pardon offers to government officials if they broke the law to help complete his widely opposed border-wall by Election Day.

Such is the nature of government by self-styled right-wing populists. Both men rose to power by promising things that aren’t really feasible. For Trump and his allies, it was a “big, beautiful” wall stretching the length of the southern U.S. border. For Johnson and his gang of Brexiteers, it was a British divorce from the EU in which everybody wins and nobody loses. Whenever lawmakers in either country have attempted to bring the two men back to earth, Trump and Johnson have resorted to undemocratic tactics in order to circumvent and delegitimize them. This isn’t an accident of their approach to governance; it’s the point of it.

It’s hardly new to compare Trump and Johnson. They share a bumbling public affect, a history of racist remarks, and an instantly recognizable hair color. “I don’t know the new prime minister of England,” Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden said on Thursday. “He looks like Donald Trump, I know that.” Trump recently referred to Johnson as the “Britain Trump [sic]” after the latter moved into 10 Downing Street. Johnson once said during the 2016 election that being mistaken for Trump in New York City was “one of the worst moments” he’d ever experienced; he’s since adopted a more favorable tone toward the president.

What defines both leaders is that neither of them actually have a popular mandate to govern. Trump received three million fewer votes than his opponent in the 2016 election, a fact that seems to constantly gnaw at him. Only a quirk of America’s democratic system—namely, that the Electoral College occasionally hands power to someone who doesn’t receive the most votes—brought him to the Oval Office. Over the past two years, he’s been one of the most consistently unpopular presidents in American history. Last year’s midterms saw Democrats retake the House of Representatives by a substantial margin as a direct rebuke to his presidency.

Johnson’s situation is slightly more complex. He won a seat in Parliament in last summer’s general election, where the Conservative Party also won the most seats overall in the House of Commons. But the British electorate did not vote for a Conservative government led by Boris Johnson; they voted for one led by Theresa May, who stepped down over the summer after a humiliating series of defeats in Parliament over her Brexit agreement with the European Union. Johnson then won the race to succeed her as Conservative party leader, thus making him the prime minister. What a system.

The end goal for both men is a wall. In Trump’s case, the wall is a physical barrier stretching from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico. It is unpopular, to say the least. Polls show that a majority of Americans oppose the wall either in full or as a priority. The Democratic-led House largely opposes it; the Republican-led Senate is unenthusiastic about it. But because the president constantly talked about the wall on the campaign trail, his supporters now expect him to bring it to fruition. So do the cable-news talking heads whose shows Trump constantly watches. As a result, he’s more than willing to resort to drastic measures—from shutting down the government to secure funding to urging civil servants to violate the law—to hasten its construction. It’s a matter of pride.

Brexit is also a wall of sorts—albeit a legal and psychic one—designed to separate Britain from the rest of Europe. The English Channel already provides a physical barrier between the United Kingdom and the continent, but there is one particularly thorny exception: the land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Unrestricted movement across the Irish border is a cornerstone of the peace process that ended the Troubles in 1998. Johnson can’t carve out a separate legal status for Northern Ireland without losing the support of a small Unionist party from there, whose handful of votes keep the Conservative government in power. Nor can he agree to the EU’s proposed backstop for the region without losing the support of the hard-line Brexiteer faction in his party.

There are a host of other challenges surrounding Brexit, but none loom larger than this. Should Britain exit the EU without resolving the matter, they would be forced to construct a physical border—which would, in turn, risk reigniting the Troubles. But the EU refuses to renegotiate the agreement it struck with Theresa May, which Parliament rejected multiple times for multiple reasons until her premiership collapsed. And Johnson, who was one of the main Brexit campaigners in 2016, refuses to hold a second referendum that could cut the Gordian knot. Johnson has promised solutions to the Irish question but doesn’t appear to have any at hand. If anything, his hardball tactics to stop Parliament from obstructing Britain’s departure on October 31 suggest he’ll simply force a no-deal Brexit and blame lawmakers for the fallout.

The absence of a popular mandate might seem restrictive or humbling to normal politicians. But to Trump and Johnson, it’s perversely freeing. Neither of them are really trying to build broad support for their ideas or persuade anyone else to adopt them. Both habitually forsake the hard work that makes democracy possible. Right-wing populists aren’t interested in the marketplace of ideas. They are interested in the raw exercise of power, no matter what norms or unspoken rules of democratic society stand in the way. They make the promises other politicians can’t because they act in ways other politicians won’t.

Trump repeatedly raids the treasury of discretionary powers that Congress signed over to the executive branch over the past 70 years, snatching and grabbing the tools he needs to do what lawmakers won’t otherwise allow, including declaring a national emergency to siphon off border-wall funding from the military. Johnson, who is bound by neither a written national constitution nor an American-style separation of powers, can go even further. The prime minister’s office is reportedly weighing a host of extreme measures to stop Parliament from stopping Brexit: packing the House of Lords with Brexiteer peers to vote down bills, advising Elizabeth II to veto legislation for the first time a monarch has done so since 1708, and even possibly refusing to step down if he loses a vote of no confidence.

Populists justify these undemocratic measures by claiming to act on behalf of the people, while undermining legislatures the people put in power. By “the people,” Trump and Johnson don’t actually mean the people of their respective countries, or even the electorates of them. They claim to represent something higher and more abstract—a purer form of the people, free from elites, foreigners, and other undesirables. That imagined mandate is why Trump constantly brags that he has overwhelming Republican support even while his overall numbers tank. It’s also part of the reason why he defines his political opponents in such stark us-or-them terms. Johnson and the pro-Brexit leaders play the same game, albeit more deftly.

The delegitimization of political opponents and uncooperative institutions is central to right-wing populism. Its core message is that the normal mechanisms for political change have failed, there’s an easy solution to these problems, and only these damned elites and their obsolete systems stand in the way. Give me power, the populists say, and I will do what they can’t on the people’s behalf. But the great irony in all of this is that populism isn’t actually that popular, and that only by exploiting the system’s weaknesses can they get anything done at all.