There’s a foul stench in the room, so you open the window to air it out. A couple of days later, the worst of the smell is gone, but something deeply unpleasant still lingers. Where is it coming from? Will it be in the room forever?
In the last weeks of the November 2020 presidential campaign, I spent time watching Facebook groups supportive of then-president Donald Trump. In the last few weeks, as another reign unwound, I’ve been doing the same with groups supportive of now-zombie prime minister Boris Johnson. The men, and their self-inflicted downfalls, are similar. The conversations among their fans were similar – and troubling – too.
“Something larger is going on here,” wrote one Johnson fan over the weekend. “There are so many people who are left-wing – BBC, ITV, civil service etc. We rarely get a balanced view (GB News is the closest we have). Friends in America said Trump did many more good things for them than MSM ever reported. Why?”
Posts in the Johnson group followed a pattern familiar from 20 months earlier. The initial confidence based on conspiracy theory (secret polls show Trump is going to win a landslide / Keir Starmer has been fined by Durham Police and has taken out an injunction to prevent it being reported). The disbelief and venting at the close circle of perceived betrayers (Pence is a traitor / Sunak-Javid-Zahawi are traitors). The dreams of vindication and restoration (Trump and QAnon planned it like this from the start / Johnson has a plan, which might involve a snap election, joining the leadership race himself or becoming leader of Nigel Farage’s Reform Party). The rage against an amorphous group of enemies (the swamp / the blob). The fury on both sides of the Atlantic against “bullying” by the mainstream media or MSM. It is a roulette of crazy landing repeatedly on three of the five stages of grief – denial, anger and bargaining – while never quite hitting depression or acceptance.
Who else but Trump and Johnson could have provoked these outbursts, this lack of reason? These are extreme reactions that could only have been engendered by extreme politicians for whom the content of policy comes second to the cult of personality.
When he seemed safe, the pro-Johnson groups could be an enjoyably surreal experience – you suspect not even this prize narcissist fancies himself as “naive and vulnerable” or “a caring, slightly flawed genius”. But in the last few days, something darker has been at work. There seems to be little interest so far in the Tory leadership election and more in how Johnson may be retained or revenged.
“Time for those that believe in the rule of law and the democratic process of this country to stand up and reclaim Great Britain,” read one post over the last weekend. Another said: “Making the media accountable for their words/lies is the only path. I believe that publication of their addresses and then have (sic) those addresses visited by truth-seeking citizens would see a sharp decrease in the lying… I have been taught to stand up to bullies like the press and the best way to do that is with a fist in the mouth.”
Though his followers may claim to eschew the MSM, Trump had a willing enabler there in Fox News, where his fantasies of a rigged election were aired hourly right up to January 6. That is why it has been so dismaying to read Britain’s best-selling newspaper The Daily Mail, with its huge digital reach, in the first days of the post-Johnson purgatory.
In several different pieces, Mail writers have declared that the PM was seen off by “a bunch of TV pundits and bureaucrats deranged by Brexit hatred”, aka “the London liberal establishment and Brexit-hating blob”. Now, backed by “the Boris Bashing Corporation, Sly News (sic), ITV News, Channel 4 News and so many others” it will “conspire for the UK to get back in bed with the European Union”.
The Mail‘s language is Trumpian. Rather than the internal processes of a party who knows a liability when it sees one, we have apparently been watching a “coup d’etat by embittered Remoaners”… “the combined forces of unashamedly biased media executives and journalists and the smug, liberal warriors who make up the twitterati have succeeded in effectively leading a coup”. Where the people who actually pulled the trigger – a couple of hundred hard right-wing politicians starting to fret about where their next expense accounts might be coming from – come into this is anyone’s guess.
On a good day, the Mail‘s shrill, dogwhistle sneering at those who don’t know (or worse, refuse to accept) their place, represents the very worst of Britain. Yet the title seems now to be re-entering one of its unhinged “Enemies Of The People” phases in which it veers towards the dangerous. A narrative that says power has been stolen from Boris Johnson by an entrenched, secretive cabal of those philosophically opposed to him is both disingenuous and damaging. If future Commons and public inquiries consider mountains of evidence and then damn Johnson, how many minds will it change among his supporters? About the same number of Trump supporters who are changing theirs even as the damning testimony at the January 6 committee hearings mounts up.
These are symptoms of something nasty stirring in Britain. Will it all be forgotten in time, once Johnson is back to lying in newspaper columns rather than at the dispatch box and the newly ennobled Paul Dacre is lying in the Lords rather the Mail?
Or, is the lingering smell here for good?