Both Britain and America flatter themselves that their political systems are admired all over the world. The UK is home to the “Mother of Parliaments”. The US is the “leader of the free world”. The two countries see themselves as mature democracies; models that other countries can follow.
But recent years have shaken that Anglo-American complacency. Britain has suffered the pangs of Brexit and has had four prime ministers in as many years. The US saw Congress storm on January 6, 2021 in what was essentially a coup attempt by an outgoing president.
The problems of democracy have deep roots in both countries. But they are also closely linked to two individuals: Donald Trump and Boris Johnson.
Trump and Johnson have championed a similar style of politics. Both have built a cult of personality, convincing their most devoted followers that they are men of destiny. Both are nostalgic nationalists, who have pledged to restore the greatness of their country. Both claim to be representatives of the people against a selfish elite.
Seeing themselves as unique, indispensable figures, Johnson and Trump felt free to violate the laws and conventions that normally bind political leaders. When challenged or called to account, both have claimed to be victims of a deep state conspiracy.
This is a style of politics known all over the world. The charismatic strongman leader – paranoid, power-hungry, inexplicable and surrounded by sycophants – is an unfortunately well-known figure. Just look at the ranting speeches of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who claims conspiracies everywhere against him.
For Erdoğan, the law is a weapon that can be used against his political opponents rather than something he must obey himself. The same goes for Vladimir Putin in Russia. In both Turkey and Russia, the president’s political opponents often end up in jail, while the leaders themselves are never held accountable, despite allegations of corruption and abuse of power swirling around them.
It is these issues of rule of law and accountability that are at the center of the latest episodes of Trump and Johnson’s soap operas.
The former US president has just been charged with mishandling classified documents. The former British prime minister has just resigned from the House of Commons after a committee accused him of lying to parliament about breaking the law during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Trump and Johnson’s responses to their current trials are strikingly similar. They have followed the same paranoid and selfish narrative, claiming that they are victims of a political conspiracy and that the system is rigged against them and their followers.
Such claims strike at the heart of the American and British images of themselves as mature democracies in which the rule of law is not a charade but a reality. The gloomy suggestion is that governance in Washington and London differs little from Moscow or Ankara.
Both Trump and Johnson are fabulists for whom the truth is simply whatever is politically or personally convenient at the time. That style of politics is becoming increasingly common and threatening. We live in an age of social media where “alternative facts” (in the words of a former Trump aide) can always be made up, if the real facts turn out to be inconvenient.
Any functioning democracy governed by law must be based on the idea that there is such a thing as truth and that it can be established in a court of law or by a parliamentary committee. Crucially, that is very different from saying that Trump or Johnson should be found guilty. They have every right to protest their innocence. If either could prove it to a court or a parliamentary committee, it would be as much a sign of democracy in action as a conviction.
The courts, political parties and the electorate all have a role to play in ensuring that the rule of law and democracy function properly. Here the outlook looks more promising in the UK than in the US.
The parliamentary committee that convicted Johnson includes a majority of members of his own party. In contrast, very few Republicans in Congress have turned against Trump, regardless of their personal misgivings. The judge who will rule on the latest indictment against Trump in Florida has been appointed by the former president. She too must behave impartially.
If the courts do their job in a clearly fair and professional manner, their verdicts are more likely to command the respect of voters. A majority of voters, like the courts, must also be able to oppose conspiracy theories and ‘alternative’ facts. That seems far from certain in the US, where Trump remains the favorite for the Republican nomination and is neck and neck with President Joe Biden in the polls ahead of an election.
The cases of Trump and Johnson will be of interest far beyond the shores of the US and UK. Treated properly, it will send an essential message to people fighting against autocracies around the world. America and Britain must show that it really is possible to have a system where political leaders are held accountable – and where the rule of law is a reality, not a myth.