In recent years a few leaders have risen to the top by virtue of their fame or personality. Characters like Boris Johnson and Donald Trump have been carried on a wave of popularity to the highest office. Both now face allegations of rule-breaking which leads me to ask what has made these two very similar men uniquely scandalous, compared with the politicians that came before them.
In my view, the answer is that it is in their character, and it has been from the start of their careers. If you think about what qualities you would expect a good leader to have, the answers are likely to be things like honesty, informed decision-making, communication and being able to accept accountability. No doubt there are other things you can think of as well, but ask yourself, have Trump or Johnson ever really shown they possess these qualities in any meaningful capacity?
That is perhaps the most disturbing thing. Words that best describe them are words like egotistical and charismatic. Both are certainly divisive but perhaps their most dangerous traits are their combination of being entertaining and dishonest. They have lived their lives before leadership in the same way, showing none of the characteristics we would expect good leaders to have.
People with charisma can be dangerous
I feel very strongly that people who are entertaining and charismatic can be extremely dangerous when it comes to politics. We naturally like such people and therefore it’s easy for us to fall into the trap of electing them for that reason. They can make us feel good and they take advantage of that fact.
I admit that when I was a teenager (only four or five years ago) I enjoyed Johnson’s antics. I saw him interviewed on Top Gear, appear on Have I got News for You and even on the Jonathon Ross show. He came across as very light-hearted and jovial.
I was amazed and somewhat baffled that a politician could appear to be such an entertainer and even make me laugh as much as professional comedians. Usually, our politicians seem very serious and stern, but Johnson was a refreshing change and it’s easy to see why that made him a highly popular leadership candidate.
Any scandals he was involved with enhanced our view of him; his ability to laugh off his own mistakes and take any shots sent at him in good fun lessened the severity of them in my mind and I felt all the better for laughing at his follies. It never occurred to me that a man like this, while entertaining to have around, would ever be a real contender for the highest office in the country.
“When they show you who they are, believe them”
The late Maya Angelou once said, “When people show you who they are, believe them the first time.” In an interview with Eddie Mair, Johnson was the subject of a BBC documentary about his life during which he was challenged on several personal transgressions he made in various roles. He tries to downplay these character issues while insisting that his prime ministership is “not going to happen”. He comes across as trying to hold himself accountable (which surely appeals to many), but he seems only to be aiming to reduce the importance of his mistakes in the watchers’ eyes.
I’m sure many Americans felt the same about Donald Trump. They saw him as an entertainer with shows like The Apprentice. There was even an appearance on the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) platform.
Unlike Johnson, Trump hardly ever tries to own up to any mistake. There is always someone else to blame and Trump’s amassed followers will follow him in his blame of whatever state, system or individual he chooses. This is an incredibly dangerous man who can use raw confidence and charisma to create an almost religious-like zealotry in his supporters that is unwavering, even though it risks undermining democracy.
Not all bad
This is not to say that all politicians who are entertaining are necessarily bad. People in politics have been entertainers in the past (for example the late Glenda Jackson) but once they reach the highest office, they show a proper level of respect for the role they have been selected to fill. No one demonstrates this as much as President Zelensky, once a comedian and actor himself, who has filled the head of state role in Ukraine with an incredible level of dignity and respect.
The difference is that we can see that dignity in Zelensky; I’m not sure if anyone can say that we’ve seen it in Johnson or Trump. Neither wants to engage seriously and thoughtfully with the issues in their respective countries or with any meaningful criticism of their policy decisions. They would much rather resort to petty insults or takedowns of their opposite numbers; they are both far more focused on making themselves look good than they are with leading the country.
Some may argue that all politicians are focused on looking good and I would agree. However, I think the difference is that people like Johnson and Trump want to look good for themselves alone. I don’t get the impression that they truly care about their country, their party or even their ideas. I think they only care about their rhetoric and how it comes across.
With some politicians there is a bedrock of ideas they truly believe in, even if they aren’t necessarily always upfront about them. David Cameron, George Osborne or Jeremy Corbyn all had policy ideas they believed in.
While many people will have tremendous issues with the policies of all three men, and most likely they also were prepared to take liberties with the truth, I don’t think anyone would say they have the same character as Johnson or Trump. There is a difference between the usual liberty-taking truths of politicians versus the bare-faced lies and delusion that come from men like Johnson and Trump.
Accentuating the positive is not enough
When the time came for the Conservative Party to choose their leader, Johnson seemed the obvious choice. He could represent party values while also having that individual flair that past leaders might have been lacking. The public threw their weight behind him because they enjoyed his personality.
Now, four years later, we must all realise we voted for a man with a complete disregard for the political process who is happy to lie, cheat and manipulate to get what he wants.
Johnson has never shown any qualities that we should associate with good leadership. If there is one thing we can all learn from his election, it’s that when we go to the ballot box, we must consider not just the parties we are voting for but a leader who can be trusted with the job of managing the entire country.