The Observer view on how the left can thwart Johnson and Trump | Observer editorial

Rightwing populism is a threat to democracy on both sides of the Atlantic, but ‘politics as usual’ won’t stop it

Much has been made in recent days of the supposed similarities between Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. On a personal level, it is said, both men are boastful braggarts, frequently untruthful and skilled at self-promotion, which is pretty much all they care about. In terms of policy, both are rightwing populists wedded to a recklessly destructive form of regressive, pseudo-nostalgic nationalism.

Both Johnson and Trump inspire strong feelings, especially in their detractors. Max Hastings, who was Johnson’s boss at the Daily Telegraph, recently described him as a weak, cowardly character more akin to Alan Partridge than to his hero, Winston Churchill. “Almost the only people who think Johnson a nice guy are those who do not know him,” Hastings wrote.

Trump fares even worse. The usually unemotional US columnist Thomas Friedman called him a “racist, divisive, climate-change-denying, woman-abusing jerk”. After Trump belittled a local black congressman, Elijah Cummings, the Baltimore Sun denounced him as “the most dishonest man to ever occupy the Oval Office”.

Much less has been said about the similarities between the choices and dilemmas facing those at the opposing, liberal-progressive end of the political spectrum in the US and Britain. In both countries, the left, broadly defined, faces an all but existential challenge. The most pressing issue for Democrats as next year’s election approaches is how to beat Trump. In Britain, the pre-eminent question is how to halt Brexit.

Most liberal-progressive politicians and supporters on either side of the Atlantic understand that unless and until Trump is defeated, and Brexit stopped, their respective countries cannot move forward. Recent debates between candidates for the Democratic nomination, for example, were dominated by the spectre of a Trump second term. More than any policy issue, what matters most is identifying the person who can defeat him.

It’s early days, but polls suggest Joe Biden, Barack Obama’s former vice-president, is clear favourite. Despite unconvincing debate performances and doubts about his age (he is 76), Biden is touted as the sort of reassuring, experienced, moderate pragmatist who could attract middle America’s pivotal swing voters.

Yet that way of thinking is fiercely resisted on the party’s left, where a younger, energised generation of reformers, some from minority and multicultural backgrounds, is championing a more radical agenda on touchstone issues such as universal healthcare and migration. Insurgent candidates such as Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke are jostling the more experienced Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. All want to break the mould, not repair it.

Joe Biden watches as Kamala Harris speaks during a Democratic primary debate on 31 July 2019.
Joe Biden watches as Kamala Harris speaks during a Democratic primary debate on 31 July 2019. Photograph: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

As a possible general election nears, Britain’s unambiguously anti-Brexit parties – and Labour – face similar dilemmas. If stopping Johnson’s slide into no-deal catastrophe means forming nationwide electoral pacts, a successful tactic for the Liberal Democrats in last Thursday’s Brecon and Radnorshire byelection, then must such temporary compromises be accepted for the greater good? Or is it better to maintain ideological purity and a distinct policy platform, as some in Labour may prefer, thereby increasing the Brexit risk?

Trump is doubtless hoping Democrats pick a left-leaning candidate he can marginalise as a “socialist” (for Republicans, that’s a dirty word) hostile to American values. He has already begun, aiming his racist, misogynistic venom at the so-called “squad” – four reformist congresswomen of colour whom he told to “go back” where they came from. His attack on Cummings in Baltimore was another ugly signal to white America.

Trump’s attempt to brand as unpatriotic extremists those progressives who seek to create a fairer, inclusive and more equal society is a familiar one in Britain. Johnson, trapped by his own hardline Brexit rhetoric and hounded from the right by Nigel Farage, is not above adopting a version of Trump’s divisive politics of identity and grievance if he thinks it will help him survive.

How does the liberal-progressive left respond to the menace of immoral, unscrupulous rightwing populism, personified by Trump and the Johnson cabinet? How to neutralise this poison seeping through our societies? The answer cannot be a panicky, Biden-like scramble to the fabled centre-ground if that means abandoning the reform agenda. But nor is it a resort to populism of the left.

The results of last May’s local elections and the European parliamentary elections clearly showed that voters are fed up with party politics as usual. They want honest, practical leaders ready to shake things up and address vital issues of income inequality, healthcare, education, infrastructure and the climate crisis. Old tribal loyalties are dissolving. Radical new non-partisan thinking is required.

Rightwing populism in Britain and the US threatens lives and livelihoods; elsewhere, it can threaten the very idea of democracy. To defeat it, and resist the global rise of authoritarianism, liberals and progressives of all stripes must join forces around a programme of reform. In Britain, that means considering parliamentary and electoral coalitions of the willing, focused in the first instance on dispelling the Brexit nightmare.


Observer editorial

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