It appears likely, in the coming weeks, barring some kind of divine intervention or, perhaps (only) slightly more plausibly, an act of public depravity significantly greater than any he’s accomplished before, that Boris Johnson will become prime minister of the UK.
It’s not that I’m exactly happy about this, because as hard as I try I don’t think even I can summon that much schadenfreude. But I confess to a certain grim satisfaction in watching our cousins across the pond surrender any remaining claim to moral ascendency in the political field. To be clear, the appointment of Boris Johnson to Downing Street marks no change in the direction of British politics; it’s little more than the eruption of a boil that’s been rising on the British body politic for years. It’s surprising that it hasn’t happened before now. It was always going to go this way and, very soon, it will.
Meaning, of course, that two great nations of the English-speaking world will soon be headed by two curiously similar men: both of them effortfully blond, deliberately ridiculous, and comprehensively amoral. All of this has been said before – there’s very little to add to the literature of Trump and Bojo bashing at this stage. But there’s something fascinating about the curious similarities between the two. What will it mean, exactly, when these two stand astride the Atlantic, anointed the saviors of their people? What are we to make of them, the Romulus and Remus of this dead new Rome, their pursed lips yearning lecherously toward the desiccated teats of a three-legged sow?
That was a bit much. Forgive me, I haven’t had much time to write lately, These things build up. Let’s move on.
I’ve been getting an earful lately, from Jenn, about clowning, shamanism, and trickster mythology. It’s a subject dear to her (she’s done important academic work on it) and she feels that it’s good for me. Now it’s not my area at all; I know about as much as any lay person does, understanding that lots of cultures have had various myths dealing with some sort of cosmic trouble-maker, often offering variously encoded messages about truth, death, justice and social order. And it is interesting, when you look at it, that a native American Coyote myth and a Norse story about the god Loki should share common threads. Again, I don’t pretend to know a lot about it. But if we’re willing to accept as possible the idea that something in our shared humanity does tend to make room for the recurring figure of a powerful transgressor, it becomes hard not to put that lens on Trump and Bojo.
Consider: both men are serial liars, and both are supported by a “base” that knows this. Neither man is considered particularly truthful even by his supporters. Nor does either man offer much in dignity, presence, or the solemnity of leadership. Instead they are each shambolic figures, ridiculous in dress and presentation. And each is a more-or-less open lecher, flaunting conventional behavior and elevating course libidinal need to an art form. Again, this has all been said before, and it’s getting tedious, but it’s important. Trump and Bojo are popular with their supporters not because they demonstrate personal and political strength, but because they do not. The fact that they’ve become figures of fun and mockery all over the world is precisely what endears them to their followers, who see their own humiliation reflected in the abuse heaped on their leaders. This makes the followers angry, but in the same moment they thrill to it. The followers do this because unlike themselves, these men they hail do, in fact, have power. Neither Trump nor Bojo is capable of meaningful policy, but that doesn’t matter. Both men transgress norms. They abuse and debase. Above all, they offend.
It’s not possible to overstate the importance of this last point, because generally speaking the supporters of Trump and Bojo don’t understand policy anyway (or else they do, and are possessed of a particularly nasty strain of raw cynicism; I think this is a minority perspective but we shouldn’t discount it). What they do understand is offense, and they understand that the people who are offended are people that they themselves very deeply dislike. This is enough.
We live in cultural bubbles in this country, as I’ve touched on before. We tend to know and like and spend our time with people like us. That means that if we’re affluent and educated, it’s very likely that everyone we know will be affluent and educated too. So we don’t think about certain things. For most of us, basic concepts of inductive and deductive reasoning were drilled into us so long ago and so thoroughly that they’re just basic mechanisms of cognition. We don’t often think about what it means to go through life without those mechanisms, or about the fact that millions of people do exactly this.
If it sounds like I’m just laying out some kind of elite condescension here, I probably am, but that’s not the intent. What I’m getting at is that it helps to know and love a few adults in your life who don’t have a complete high school education. It helps, because it makes tangible the fact that there are a great number of people who don’t understand how knowledge comes into being. More than this, most of these same people don’t have any idea that knowledge needs a means of coming into being at all. Knowledge is essentially mysterious. Without a process of reason, all information exists in a kind of undifferentiated field, neither true nor untrue, until it collides with some aspect of your lived experience. You can only correlate first order effects. But even there, since you can’t really examine those effects in any meaningful way, you can’t really curate or differentiate them. Your direct lived experience, and something you saw on YouTube, aren’t coherently different.
So you do what you can do, which is to react emotionally. You perceive that you lack, and you perceive that others have. And you generally understand that the people who have what you don’t are forever going red in the face over Trump’s antics, or Bojo’s. And this seems good to you. All you can do is feel, and the way Trump and Bojo makes you feel is nice. They seem to like you. And your enemies seem to hate them. It’s enough.
Does this correlate to the trickster myth? Does the trickster play on anger, emotional vanity and resentment? I need to know more – I’m out of my depth. But I’m interested in the idea. But coming back to our new rulers, I do perceive one difference between them, and it touches on exactly this. Trump works well as a trickster literally, because a trick is precisely what he’s been up to (though whether he knows this or not is anyone’s guess). The trick is straightforward. You see I, myself, am exactly what Trump’s most diehard supporters hate. I’m an affluent (even if I don’t always feel like it) technology guy. I have a certain kind of haircut. I drive a certain kind of car. I’m fit, occasionally self-satisfied, and I like wine more than beer. I read philosophy texts and have an obnoxious blog. I have excellent health insurance. In other words, I am the absolute enemy of Trump’s base (as least as far as Trump’s base are concerned – I don’t believe that any American is my enemy). And yet who benefits from nearly everything the current administration does? Why, I do. My taxes go down, my refunds go up, business is booming – I’m the guy this is all being done for. Me, the bad guy. I’m soaking it all up. Put simply, it’s a bait and switch, and I’m walking away with the bait. The red counties of rural Tennessee most decidedly are not. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not happy about that. But I can see it for what it is. I can see when someone is getting played. I don’t think it’s me.
Now Bojo, on the other hand, seems to lack Trump’s panache in this department (and when you lack Trump’s panache, well…). It’s hard to see Boris Johnson as anything but an economic suicide bomber, benefitting exactly no one. As has been amply documented, he was never, originally, interested in Brexit at all, until it became a vehicle for his own inchoate ambitions. Nor does he have even the remotest plan for that to do once in office. There’s little evidence that Bojo can see anything at all beyond the chance to grab the brass ring of the prime ministership, or that he has even the rudiments of an idea about what to do once he gets there, beyond ordering a sandwich and chasing the maid. A hard Brexit doesn’t benefit Britain’s posh elites or working classes, and there won’t be much else he can do. It’s hard to see the trick, and harder still to imagine that he’s gotten a trick together. We’ll see.
It’s a grim season all around, politically. I couldn’t be less impressed with the opposition either, whose collective, multilingual earnestness seems jaggedly at odds with the scrambled utopian visions on offer. It is, as our cousins would say, rather shabby of me to take snarky delight in their national humiliation. But comparing national humiliations is about all we have to do to pass the time nowadays. Perhaps it’ll be a bonding thing. We should try. I’ll make a standing offer of pints to my British friends, present and future, so we can talk it over.
I’ll pay, too. I know you can’t.