Patrick Cockburn – The Age of Weird Men: Gonzo Politicians From Berlusconi to BoJo

Western leaders who learnt to entertain their citizens in the same manner as junk media

Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso)

Cross-posted from Counterpunch

Photo by Hello I’m Nik

Students 50 years from now may be asked by their teachers to write an essay on the importance of the fall of Boris Johnson in the context of British history. Their answers may well include much finger-wagging about his track record of mendacity, buffoonery and broken promises – and some astonishment that Britain should ever have chosen such a booby to be prime minister.

These scholars of the future will have the great advantage of knowing how the story ended and what long term scars were left by “Johnsonism”, a curious coalition of plutocrats, media magnates, traditional conservatives and populist English nationalists. This combination may fragment or may live on like “Trumpism”, which survived Donald Trump’s loss of the White House, and is poised to win back Congress this year and the presidency in 2024.

People in England prefer to compare their politics to America rather than Italy, but it was Silvio Berlusconi – dominant in Italian politics from 1994 to 2011 – who first used the political skill set later adopted by Trump and Johnson. I do not mean that they consciously imitated him, but they chose the same political formula to win power. Its ingredients are not easy to identify because to use them effectively, a leader has to be a chameleon, making false and contradictory promises to different parts of his electoral support.

Weird men

For all Johnson’s appeals to British history and identity, little of what he has said or done lacks a Trumpian or Berlusconian precedent. All three leaders understood that they had to put on a 24-hour-a-day performance that would dominate the news agenda, regardless of the truth or falsehood of what they said. It did not matter if attention-grabbing lies were later exposed so long as what was said kept the speaker in the spotlight and centre stage.

Crucially, these three rather weird men all have a background in the media. Berlusconi was a media magnate, Trump was the presenter of a vastly popular television show, Johnson was a career reporter and column writer. It helped Berlusconi that he owned much of Italian television and Johnson was fervently backed by the Tory press, but they all had long expertise in how to dominate and manipulate the news so that it was all about them.

In a study in Foreign Policy magazine, titled “We’re All Living in Berlusconi’s World Now”, Tobias Jones explains how and why this process started in Italy 30 years ago. He says that “objectivity, and fidelity to the facts, seemed to dissolve in the 1990s. Gonzo journalism – subjective, deliberately dissolute and excitedly coarse – had given way to gonzo politics.”

A gonzo politician

Johnson is a gonzo politician of this modern variety. He has few other abilities as a politician other than an eye for the main chance, which led him to plug himself into the campaign for Britain to leave the EU.

But our hypothetical student of the future should note that the triumph of gonzo politics is not inevitable. Its most successful practitioners are likely to be deeply flawed personalities, adept at selling snake oil but incapable of providing stable government.

So far, Britain may have got off lightly because Johnson’s failings were so glaring that he self-destructed. Berlusconi dominated Italian politics for 17 years. Trump lost the presidency but has largely taken over the Republican Party. Johnson lasted only three years and became an election liability for the Tories.

The real test of a democracy is the ability to get rid of a toxic leader. “Throw the rascals out” may sound like a crude slogan, but this is exactly what does not happen in Moscow, Cairo or Kigali, whatever the incompetence and corruption of the regime.

A restaging of the Brexit referendum

I always thought there was less to Johnson than met the eye. His supporters presented him as a political magician who could appeal both to voters in leafy shires and in deindustrialised wastelands. Clichés about crumbling Red Walls and Blue Walls, which are simply traditional Labour and Conservative seats, punctuated political commentaries. But the 2019 general election was at bottom a restaging of the Brexit referendum, the difference being that Remain voters were split and Leave voters united. The Tories did not need Johnson to win it.

As prime minister, Johnson’s popularity was something of a myth, though much bruited by the media. “He hasn’t made the political weather simply because he has been oversold,” write Ben Worthy, a senior lecturer in politics at Birkbeck, University of London, and Mark Bennister, associate professor in politics at the University of Lincoln, in a paper.

They point out that analysis reveals that voters in Red Wall constituencies did not like Johnson any more than voters elsewhere, the only difference being that there were more Leave voters in these places.

Appetite for friction

Political fragility is inescapable for all gonzo leaders for two reasons. They need to make promises they cannot keep to maintain a coalition of different interests that have little in common. Since the grievances of billionaire tax exiles and the casualties of globalisation differ so markedly, some exterior threat is needed to divert attention from unfulfilled promises. This is done by confected conflicts with minorities, immigrants, the liberal elite, bureaucracies, foreign countries – in fact anybody that can be demonised.

This appetite for friction and confrontation is the second source of instability. In the gonzo world every division in the political terrain is mined for political advantage. Racial, regional, cultural and historic animosities run deep in the US and Trump found them easy to exacerbate. Johnson has fired up English nationalism in opposition to the EU and the other three nations of the UK.

Gonzo leaders all have something in common, but the similarities between Johnson and Berlusconi occur at every level. Both were undermined by a propensity to give scandalous parties (bunga bunga ones in the case of Berlusconi, less louche but illegal ones in the case of Johnson). Both were obsessed with building giant bridges. Berlusconi promised one across the Strait of Messina between Sicily and the mainland. Johnson wanted bridges between Northern Ireland and Scotland, England and France and, less ambitiously, across the Thames. None was ever built.

Johnson promised to level up the North of England and Berlusconi pledged the same for southern Italy. Nothing much happened in either case. Both promised a lot and failed to deliver anything, imposing a sort of practical paralysis on their country when it came to positive action. Johnson delivered Brexit but had no idea what to do with it other than exploit it as a source of friction with Britain’s neighbours.

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