openDemocracyUK: Opinion

The Trumpification of the Conservative party

Johnson and Cummings are waging information war on the UK.

Callum Alexander Scott
30 May 2020, 7.00am
Boris Johnson and Donald Trump
Image: The White House

In 2013, two of the leading Conservative analysts in the United States, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, argued that the Republican Party, through its rejection of traditional party principles, had fallen well off the spectrum of traditional political positioning and had become a ‘radical insurgency – ideologically extreme, scornful of facts and compromise, and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition’. 

Yet despite this alleged radicalism, the Republican establishment had for years managed to ensure that their favoured, more palatable primary candidates succeeded in winning the nomination. The unpalatable ones – Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, and so on – were all successfully supressed. In 2016, however, the GOP failed; despite their best efforts to supress him, Donald Trump, the most offensive and distasteful candidate to the Republican establishment, rode a wave of media hysteria and public discontent to win the nomination. As we know, he would go on to win the presidency and propel the Republican party even further off the spectrum.

Fast forward to 2019, and the British Conservative Party had its Trump moment. Only, unlike the Republican Party in 2016, the Conservative Party establishment wilfully encouraged it – many of its MPs even voted tactically to ensure it. Yes, the party overwhelmingly chose to elect Boris Johnson as their leader, a man who they knew to be an offensive and incompetent liar. They did so because they figured a Trump-like celebrity leader such as Johnson had the best chance of winning a general election for them. Their gamble paid off. This was a Faustian bargain, however, because just like the Republican Party in the US, the Conservative Party in the UK has since fallen far off the spectrum of traditional political positioning. In fact, what we have seen over the past year is the gradual Trumpification of the Conservative Party. Let’s start with the obvious.

No Longer a Conservative Party

The Conservative Party is no longer a Conservative Party. As the veteran Conservative journalist Peter Oborne wrote last year, the party has become ‘an explicit repudiation of everything it means to be a Conservative’. Traditionally, the party has been a defender of Establishment institutions (church, monarchy, parliament, rule of law, and so on) and traditionalists see Conservatism as embodying a Burkean sense of public duty, alongside a general hostility to hasty reforms and adventurism. In his famous essay, On Being Conservative (1956), the influential Conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott wrote of a innate Conservative disposition that ‘understands it to be the business of government not to inflame passion and give it new objects to feed on, but to inject into the activities of already passionate men an ingredient of moderation; to restrain, to deflate, to pacify and to reconcile’. Yet over the past year the Conservative Party has done everything in its power to oppose this modest disposition.

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Traditional Conservatives have been arguing along similar lines for decades. Peter Hitchens, for example, has been arguing since the 1990s that the Conservative Party’s shift from social conservatism to social liberalism, along with its acquiescence to New Labour’s constitutional and educational reforms, and its embracing of information management, PR and spin to manage popular opinion, all amount to a deep-rooted Marxist-Gramscian project that has taken hold of British politics. In his view, the last few decades have seen the Tory party become virtually ‘indistinguishable from Blairite New Labour’. Indeed, there is much truth in this view; the Cameron-Osborne (and Clegg) era was indeed modelled on Blairite New Labour-style politicking – Cameron was, after all, the self-described ‘heir to Blair’. However, despite Hitchens’ absurd claim that the ‘Conservatives are now the main Left-wing party in the country’ (they are not Left-wing), there has been an altogether different kind of shift in the nature of the party over the past year. This shift can be traced back to the moment that Johnson and his senior advisor Domenic Cummings entered Number 10.

Since becoming Prime Minister in July 2019, Johnson, almost certainly at the behest of Cummings, has torn to shreds the political MO of his predecessors in the party. As his former employer Max Hastings predicted, he has demonstrated a complete ‘contempt for rules, precedent, order and stability’, perverting the traditions of the Conservative Party and its values even further. Consider how over the past year his party machine has attacked and abused virtually every established institution that Conservatism once stood to defend: parliament, the rule of law, the monarchy and the media. It has demonstrated a complete disregard for the concept of truth. Indeed, more than ever, it has chosen to lie; to refuse to acknowledge and apologise for past mistakes; to court racists, bigots and various other unsavoury people; and to portray anyone, even its own party members who dissent, as the enemy of the people.

What can be said of a party that attracts both extreme wealth alongside the traditional Labour-voting working-class? Or when it attracts figures like Katie Hopkins and Tommy Robinson? Or when fascist organisations like Britain First urge their supporters to join its ranks (in December, Britain First claimed around 5,000 of its members had joined the Tory party)? While the party has pledged to enact left-wing policies and postured in a liberal direction, it has simultaneously aligned itself with a growing international cohort of right-wing strongmen and dictators – Trump, Bolsonaro, Netanyahu, Duterte, General Sisi, Orban, Modi and Erdogan. 

As others have acknowledged, the Conservative Party no longer possesses a coherent ideology or set of principles – it lies, misinforms, intimidates and demonstrates a willingness to say and do anything to achieve its ends, whatever those ends may be on any given day. The result is that, over the past year, Johnson and Cummings, along with a small coterie of loyal and spineless ministers, have created a climate of chaos and ambiguity that resembles anything but traditional Conservatism. The chaos to which is referred here derives specifically from the perpetual disruption to political norms and standards, while the ambiguity stems from the elliptical ramblings of Johnson (and recently Cummings, via the Downing Street Rose Garden) and the constant lies and misinformation emanating from his office. The feeling produced is one of immense unpredictability.

Disorder and Confusion as Political Technique

It would be a mistake, however, to consider this shift in the party’s nature as accident or folly, or as the result of the bumbling idiocy of Johnson’s premiership. The shift has in fact been a conscious decision and is underpinned by a very clear logic, the origins of which may be traced back to Vladimir Putin’s ‘political technician’, Vladislav Surkov, a shadowy figure to whom Cummings has himself been linked. The logic is simple: establish a perpetual state of disorder and confusion so as to keep the opposition constantly on the back foot. In an article for the London Review of Books back in 2011, Peter Pomerantsev described it as a ‘strategy of power based on […] a ceaseless shape-shifting that is unstoppable because it’s indefinable’. It’s the strategy that has helped Putin maintain power for the past two decades and it’s the strategy that, whether employed consciously or unconsciously, helped Trump secure the presidential election in 2016. 

The goal is to ‘flood the zone with shit’, as Trump’s former strategist Steve Bannon eloquently put it. The idea being that, in an already hyper-driven news cycle, you bombard the media and citizenry with a dizzying array of narratives and counternarratives so that the sheer volume of content becomes too much for anyone to process. Even journalists can’t keep up. The result is that the truth becomes evermore exhausting to find, politicians become evermore distrusted, and people end up deferring to a perceived ‘strong’ leader who claims he will ‘get something done’. As Vox writer Sean Illing has said of the strategy, it manufactures a state of nihilism in which people become ‘so sceptical about the possibility of finding the truth that they give up the search’. 

This was no doubt the strategy Cummings recently employed to manage the crisis over his breaking of the lockdown rules. In true Trumpian fashion, a press conference was called and audiences were kept waiting for 30 minutes only to be presented with a hour-long elliptical litany of excuses for why he broke the rules. The entire spectacle left most people feeling tired, angry, hopeless, and in some cases, indifferent towards his abuse(s) of power. 

But perhaps nowhere more perfectly have such Trumpian tactics been employed than during the 2019 general election where, as Adam Ramsay argued, the Conservative Party’s policy was to make the whole experience ‘miserable, bewildering and stressful, then ask voters to make it go away’. The party literally bombarded the media and citizenry with lies and misinformation, broke their faith in politics even more, and then offered them a way out through Johnson’s strongman leadership and his vague promise to ‘get Brexit done’. The strategy is of little surprise when considering that Johnson and Cummings had been liaising with and taking advise from Trump affiliates over the past three years. ‘I am increasingly admiring of Donald Trump’, Johnson declared back in 2018. ‘I have become more and more convinced that there is method in his madness […] Imagine Trump doing Brexit’, he continued, ‘He’d go in bloody hard […] There’d be all sorts of breakdowns, all sorts of chaos. Everyone would think he’d gone mad […] It’s a very, very good thought’.

But it’s not just the chaos that Johnson and Cummings have drawn from the Trump playbook; it’s also the populist, anti-elite posturing. Just as Trump rages against the US political and media establishment – promising to ‘drain the swamp’ and screaming ‘fake news’ at journalists who challenge him – so too is Johnson and his party now engaged in a perpetual campaign of anti-Establishment posturing. Brexit was of course the perfect weapon with which to execute this posturing – to condemn anyone who challenged him as being part of a pro-Remain liberal elite that wants to undermine the ‘will of the people’. Of course, in reality, Trump and Johnson couldn’t be more Establishment if they tried – the former an Ivy League educated billionaire with lifelong ties to political, business and media elites, the latter an Etonian-Oxbridge graduate from a dynasty of so-called intellectuals, artists, political and media figures. 

Cummings himself is Oxbridge educated and married to the granddaughter of an aristocrat. These people are the Establishment – or, rather, they are a rogue faction of it that have seized premiership for their own egotistical and masturbatory pleasures, all they while posing as ‘men of the people’. But just as the Republican Party establishment have come to see Trump as an asset – a vote-winner that distracts everyone from their true intentions of serving extreme wealth, privilege and corporate power – so too has the Conservative Party accepted Johnson, and by default Cummings, as their equivalents. Lest we forget how their success has been bankrolled by hedge funds, billionaires and millionaires, climate change deniers, Russian oligarchs and various other ‘Dark Money’ sources.

Inside the Tiger?

But the question remains: how long can this façade be kept up for before their supporters across politics and the media lose faith? Already cracks are beginning to show, with usually supportive newspapers taking a more critical tone towards the recent Cummings debacle. Johnson has also found an unlikely – and particularly unrelenting – critic in Piers Morgan, whose highly visible status on morning television has no doubt left many Johnson supporters feeling conflicted about their prime minister. In many ways, Johnson and Cummings are treading water. Having just won a five-year mandate to rewrite the political, economic and social landscape of the country, they have been stymied by the biggest crisis since the Second World War. 

This was not the plan. And as the political currents change as a result of this crisis, so too might the direction of the party under Johnson and Cummings have to change. Unlikely is this to be, however. Pandora’s box is open, and we have the Conservative party establishment to thank for placing power in the hands of the least capable Johnson and the most insidious Cummings. As Mann and Ornstein quote John F. Kennedy in their 2017 book One Nation After Trump: ‘those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside’.

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