By Cai Markham
Boris Johnson’s recent assertion that the UK will “explode” out of the EU’s “manacles” like the Incredible Hulk, confirms the government’s embrace of White House style delusion. To international mockery, Britain’s prime minister declared that “the madder Hulk gets, the stronger Hulk gets”.
This comment exemplifies Johnson’s similarity to Trump in two ways. The first is their willingness to make oversimplified statements that will appeal to a narrow base of supporters, but do not reflect the political reality whatsoever. Hard-core Brexiteers adored the analogy, and the ever reliable Telegraph newspaper declared that Johnson’s “secret plan” (so secret that it seems no one can confirm that it exists) to “escape” delaying Brexit “may well lie in the Incredible Hulk”. Never mind that the prime minister didn’t offer a causal mechanism by which increased anger and frustration on Britain’s part would make it easier to achieve a deal. He simply said it – to the dismay of EU leaders but to the approval of those Britons who will accept any story in which the UK is the valiant underdog grappling with the oppressive and vindictive European Union.
Behaviour like this has been so abundant in the Trump presidency that at any time you could find an example of it from the past few days. On Wednesday, Trump declared that his newest stretch of border wall was “virtually impenetrable”, and that he knew this because he claimed to have had “champion” climbers test it. No one can find any of these champion climbers, and the consensus is that no well-recognised rock-climber has taken part in such a test. Admittedly, Johnson is not a pathological liar in the way that Trump clearly is, but the border wall itself shares so many parallels with much of the current government’s rhetoric around Brexit. It is now utterly symbolic, just like leaving the European Union by October 31st no matter the cost. It doesn’t matter that the wall is not an effective border control strategy, because constructing it would nonetheless be a victory over the ‘liberal elites’, and the same goes for the push for a no-deal Brexit.
The second glaring similarity between Trump and Johnson is their inability to shed habits from their previous careers. Trump’s background in business was a huge draw for some voters when he initially ran for president, with him promising to apply his deal-making prowess to achieve all manner of favourable outcomes for the US. The belief that stronger negotiators is all that is necessary to achieve beneficial international arrangements is also present among much of the British public in regard to talks with the EU. The president demonstrated the flaw in this approach when discussing the United States’ security treaty with Japan a few months ago. Trump observed, “If Japan is attacked, we will fight World War III.” Then he added: “But if we’re attacked, Japan doesn’t have to help us at all. They can watch it on a Sony television.” The application of crude business logic to an international agreement that was largely dictated by the United States and that has served as a foundation for US foreign policy in Asia shows a shocking lack of understanding of diplomacy and international relations.
Similarly, Johnson’s Incredible Hulk comment is obviously a submission to his sensationalist journalistic impulses. In his years at the Telegraph and Spectator, he wrote of Africans with “watermelon smiles”, and was sacked by The Times for quote fabrication. He is used to thinking up flashy non-sequiturs and giving pronouncements with no substance. In his final column for the Telegraph, Boris mused that “If they could use hand-knitted computer code to make a frictionless re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere in 1969, we can solve the problem of frictionless trade at the Northern Irish border”. The lack of proposed alternatives to the Irish backstop shows just how ridiculous and illogical this statement is. It is a poor reflection of Johnson’s character that he can’t refrain from making these vacuous quips even as he leads the government at the most important time in modern British political history. Boris may not be as dim-witted or impulsive as Trump, but the two parallel a number of each-others shortcomings at the same time as British and American politics do the same.