Tharoor: Trump’s bigotry and Britain’s next leader

Conservative party leadership candidate Boris Johnson gestures while delivering his speech during a Conservative leadership hustings at ExCel Centre in London, Wednesday. - Photo: AP

Ishaan Tharoor

The furore over President Donald Trump’s racist tweets found its way across the pond and into the Tory leadership contest taking place in Britain. On Monday night, the two politicians vying to replace Prime Minister Theresa May – former foreign secretary Boris Johnson and Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt – were asked what they thought of Trump’s telling four minority congresswomen to “go back” to their countries of origin.

Speaking during a debate for the leadership of the Conservative Party, both agreed with a statement released by May’s office earlier in the day branding Trump’s remarks “completely unacceptable”. But they were visibly flustered when asked if they thought Trump was being “racist” and dodged the question.

Johnson said such rhetoric has no place in the present. “If you’re the leader of a great multiracial, multicultural society, you simply cannot use that kind of language about sending people back to where they come from,” he said. Yet when pressed by the moderator about the explicit racism of the remarks, Johnson refused to answer.

Hunt said Trump, who is historically unpopular among Britons for a US president, was being “totally offensive”. But he said “it’s not going to help the situation” to accuse the president of Britain’s closest ally of racism.

That “situation” is already a bit tense. There’s still acrimony over the resignation of Kim Darroch, the British ambassador in Washington who was compelled to step down last week after diplomatic cables he wrote describing Trump as “insecure” and “inept” were leaked to the news media. Trump reacted angrily to Darroch’s analysis – a view that myriad diplomats in Washington share in private – and stridently tweeted that he would no longer deal with the British ambassador.

While Hunt, Darroch’s boss, said Trump was being “disrespectful” to Darroch, Johnson, the Conservative frontrunner and possible future prime minister, offered no resistance.

“That was a body blow not just to Darroch but to every diplomat and civil servant in Britain, who have the right to expect ministers to defend them when they are attacked for doing their duty,” former foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind wrote of Johnson’s silence.

Johnson could be tapped for leadership as early as next week. His rise to power has been years in the making: A scion of wealth and privilege, Johnson launched his political career after a mixed record in journalism. His sometimes buffoonish affect and penchant for provocative bluster have drawn comparisons to Trump.

“But while Trump is a plutocrat who poses as an ordinary guy, Johnson revels in exhibiting class privilege,” Nick Cohen wrote in the right-of-centre Spectator. “His descents into obscenity and racism are done in a language that has the uninitiated reaching for their dictionaries. He uses Etonian slang and Latin quotes. He has called black Africans ‘piccaninnies’ and gay men ‘bumboys,’ then pleaded he only meant it as a joke.”

Nevertheless, as the mayor of London, Johnson lambasted Trump’s “stupefying ignorance” about life in Britain and suggested that Trump’s vilification of Muslims made him “unfit” for the White House. Then, sensing opportunity, Johnson became one of the leading Brexiteers ahead of the 2016 referendum, championing an anti-establishment, nationalist cause that Trump also came to embrace.

The Conservative frontrunner has vowed to take Britain out of the European Union by 31 Oct. – no matter the strong risk of a ‘no deal’ scenario that could lead to economic havoc and hardship across the country. Observers warn that Johnson may drag the country to a precipice. “With few qualities beyond animal energy and ruthless ambition, Boris Johnson has been remarkably successful,” wrote conservative commentator Bruce Anderson. “This appears to have convinced him that if he wants something badly enough, he will get it. He might now be about to discover that there are limits to the power of insensate egotism.”

Over all this, Trump looms large. Divorce with Europe, especially a messy and sudden one, would make Britain all the more dependent on a substantive trade deal with the United States. To this end, Washington, and Trump in particular, holds the cards. During Monday’s debate, Johnson suggested that his government could persuade the United States to raise its hygiene standards – British media are already abuzz with fear over a flood of chlorinated US chicken swamping British shops – to match those of Britain. The suggestion was widely mocked by experts, who recognise how little leverage Britain would have in negotiations.

Johnson throughout has sought to marshal a sense of Churchillian bravado, summoning the spirit of World War II resilience that inflames British nationalism to this day. But as Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman observed, he may end up looking more like “a British version of Marie Antoinette”, leading the nation to ruin with high-handed delusion.

“The real difficulty for Johnson is that the UK is profoundly divided over Brexit,” Rachman wrote. “By the time of the Blitz, Britain was more or less united in the belief that it was fighting for its survival and faced an evil and implacable enemy. But in the event of a no-deal Brexit, half the country is likely to see Johnson, not the EU, as the true villain of the story. That will be all the more the case if he has ensured a no-deal Brexit by proroguing parliament, a course of action he has refused to rule out.”

Britain is less divided over Trump. “There is little demand among British voters for politicians to suck up to the United States,” wrote the Atlantic’s Helen Lewis, noting Trump’s staggeringly low 21 percent approval rating among Britons. “Unfortunately, that is exactly what Trump demands. He sees international diplomacy as a zero-sum game, where there can be only one winner. Autocrats can gain his respect, but cooperation is for the weak.”

And potential allies may end up looking like targets.

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