Boris Johnson had barely completed telling the nation about new English lockdown preparations on Saturday evening when the BBC, accurately studying the temper of its primetime viewers, cut live to Strictly Come Dancing.
It’s simple to think about Johnson on the opposite aspect of that switchover. There’s a parallel universe the place “Boris” is likely one of the sequin-clad celebrities ready in an Elstree studio for the jaunty music to strike up whereas somebody with pure gravitas delivers the intense message from Downing Road. On this situation, Johnson’s political profession fizzled out after a second time period as mayor of London however his fame stayed alight. He was an apparent match for Strictly. (The judges deride his shambolic dances and baggy look, however he appeals over their heads to the voting public, who maintain returning him to the dancefloor – for fun: a welcome distraction from the pandemic.)
And in that hypothetical world, Donald Trump nonetheless hosts The Apprentice, as a result of liberal democracy has not been taken hostage by marauding vaudevillians.
I’ve witnessed Johnson holding forth over lunch with a dozen friends and declaiming to huge auditoriums. It’s the identical act in any venue. He adjusts his beliefs to no matter he thinks the viewers needs to listen to, however not the raconteur model, sustained by laughter and applause. Few issues disturb his poise greater than a stone-faced reception. If his phrases grasp within the air too lengthy, there’s a hazard they are going to be examined, remembered, taken severely. He was not an amazing parliamentary speaker earlier than the pandemic, however he actually bombs within the Commons chamber now that it’s thinly populated and hushed by social distancing.
Trump makes use of a fraction of Johnson’s vocabulary, and his supply is much less laboured, however he additionally makes use of cadences extra acquainted from standup comedy than conventional oration. He’s grasp of the faux-conversational ramble that invitations intimacy, the little observations and non-sequiturs, the unnatural pauses that construct stress earlier than a punchline drops.
When the destiny of US democracy hangs within the steadiness, Trump’s rhetorical method won’t be probably the most urgent concern. However that showbiz patter has been a key to unlocking the character of his presidency. He has the persona of a tyrant, however not the premeditated programme of a dictator. His thirst for energy has all the time been deep, however it’s the impulsive craving of a person hooked on consideration for its personal sake, with out the mechanical drive to rearrange society and trend different folks’s destinies within the mould of a Hitler or Stalin. Trump is a extra theatrical breed of despot, who bullies folks and abuses his workplace as a result of he believes they exist to gratify his wants and fulfill his fan membership.
The hurt to the American republic is profound already. The incarceration of children, the approval of white-supremacist militias, the dehumanisation of opponents – it’s the stuff of incipient fascism. However the slide into the abyss has been slowed by incoherence, childish inattention and impatience. A extra systematically ideological and intelligently targeted saboteur within the White Home might have performed even worse.
Different nationalist demagogues have used the coronavirus pandemic to increase their management of society and suffocate dissent. It’s the apparent transfer. There’s a nationwide emergency that requires some suspension of civil liberties and strange regulation of residents’ personal enterprise. The authoritarian alternatives haven’t been wasted on Vladimir Putin in Russia and Viktor Orbán in Hungary. Trump might have exploited the virus to construct an equipment of political repression. As a substitute he opted for denial and petty frustration, belittling the pandemic as a result of it was a much bigger story than his personal presidency. He couldn’t bump it out of the headlines with an aggressive tweet. Barack Obama referred to as it proper when he mocked the president for being “jealous of Covid’s media coverage”.
Johnson’s strategy has been far more rational. He’s higher at hiding resentment of the way in which his job has turned out to be much less enjoyable than anticipated. However the disappointment is there – the dismay of the comic inadvertently booked to talk at a memorial service with no becoming repertoire, no fluency in comfort.
The prime minister believes within the utility of lockdowns (in contrast to Trump), however he shares his American counterpart’s disregard for his or her use as instruments of coercion. Backbench Tories are fast to focus on how the letter of Covid rules is totalitarian, however none really thinks Johnson intends to use them in that spirit. The fixed assertions of reluctance and remorse – the pained apology for meddling in personal freedoms – are about the one honest notes he strikes in these televised addresses.
Johnson is in any case too lazy for fascism, which requires an obsession with order. His most popular flavour of management is finest conveyed in a line from an previous interview, when he described the “quite bizarre sense of energy” he acquired as Brussels correspondent for the Telegraph, making mischief with confected tales of meddlesome European bureaucracy: “I used to be simply chucking these rocks over the backyard wall,” he mentioned. “I’d take heed to this superb crash from the greenhouse subsequent door, over in England.”
Now Johnson is keeper of the greenhouse. That doesn’t cease him chucking rocks, however the impact is extra self-defeating. He doesn’t have “bizarre”, distant, unaccountable energy. He has the extraordinary sort that comes with elected workplace, the place reputation isn’t an finish in itself, however a short lived licence to get issues performed on behalf of different folks.
Johnson is a extra standard politician than Trump, however he additionally reached the highest by trampling via the boundary between superstar and statecraft. His model was constructed by turns as a panellist on Have I Received Information For You greater than on his record at City Hall. Each males benefited from a transatlantic tradition of democratic complacency. They carved their approach via the ranks of stale, cavilling bores as a result of most politicians had been dangerous for scores and leisure was information. Now we’re caught in an odd intermediate zone the place real-life occasions have the febrile, climactic high quality of a box-set season finale.
The pandemic exhibits why that fence between leisure and politics must be restored. Covid can’t be performed for laughs. Managing a public well being disaster entails metrics of success apart from applause. It requires politicians who can meet a problem with out self-pity at being compelled to do the powerful a part of the job. Democracy is unsafe within the arms of selfish males who have no idea which solution to flip in a disaster as a result of they dare not face away from a cheering mob.
• Rafael Behr is a Guardian columnist