Notes From the Margins…

Johnson and Trump: That’s Entertainment

  • August 27, 2019
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If there’s one thing that Boris Johnson and Donald Trump have in common, it’s their propensity for lying.  Where politicians like Blair and Bush lied and massaged facts to realise specific agendas, both these politicians at least recognised that truth existed and that it was important for politicians to make it seem as though it mattered.

Johnson and Trump don’t care.  They lie about everything, big and small.  They lie almost as often as they open their mouths.   Both men have prospered not in spite of their propensity for lying, but because of it.  Johnson’s early career as a journalist was due almost entirely to his willingness to feed his readers with the same kind of lies about the European Union that were later mobilised to support the Leave campaign.

Lies have since been crucial to his political campaigning, from the £350 NHS promises during the Leave campaign to the more recent nonsense about kippers on the Isle of Man, Melton Mowbray pork pies or the brazen denialism in his insistence that No Deal will not damage the country.

Trump, as everyone knows, lies for as long as he is awake on any given day, and may well lie even when he dreams.  Even more than Johnson, he tells the most breathtaking whoppers without a trace of embarrassment or regret.  He has contaminated his administration with a pervasive dishonesty that makes Bush or Richard Nixon appear to be paragons of moral probity, while continually gaslighting and wrongfooting his opponents and critics by accusing the ‘mainstream media’ of ‘fake news’.

In effect, both men are prototypes of a new kind of populist politician and a new kind of political lying, in which truth and facts are no longer even basic requirements in political life, and being caught out lying no longer matters.

Why has this happened?  How have they been able to get away with it?   Part of the answer is that the journalists and media outlets that are supposed to challenge them don’t do it. This is sometimes because journalists aren’t able to gain access to the politicians they wish to interrogate – as Dorothy Byrne argued in her MacTaggart lecture.   But I would like to offer another explanation: that journalists too often simply refrain from holding even the most barefaced liars to account and don’t call them out for lying when they are lying, and not only because of collusion, timidity, or the potential loss of access.

Many years ago the late writer and educationalist Neil Postman argued in his terrific polemic Amusing Ourselves to Death that television was undermining politics, culture and intellectual rigour, by turning everything into a form of entertainment.



The result, he argued, was a continual desire for distraction, in which anything that was not instantly ‘amusing’ could be ignored or discounted.  In making this argument, Postman compared Orwell’s dystopian predictions in 1984 to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World:

Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy

For Postman, the latter was closer to his own era because

As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions”. In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

Postman’s book was written in 1985,  before the Internet and social media offered an even wider range of potential ‘distractions’, but I have often thought of him these last few years.  I thought of him today when I came across the following tweets, from ITV’s Paul Brand:

For Brand, therefore, the fact that Johnson’s performative press conferences were more ‘engaging’ than Theresa May’s dire stage-managed rituals was more worthy of comment than the question of whether his willingness to ‘engage’ with the truth might amount to a willingness to tell the truth.

The problem is that Johnson’s ‘distraction techniques’, for the most part do ‘baffle us’ – or at least they seem to baffle many of the journalists who seek to get a grip on Johnson’s Harpo Marx shambolic cheekie chappie posh cabbage doll shtick.  The very fact that Johnson, unlike any other British politician, is known as ‘Boris’ – a name that his own friends don’t even use – is a testament to how successful he has been in ‘baffling’ even those who supposedly interrogate him

I have seen respected journalists grinning and giggling in their conversations with Johnson for no apparent reason except that Johnson was grinning and giggling too, and that Johnson -presumably – was an amusing guy.  So it is no surprise to find Paul Brand enjoying his press conferences, regardless of whether they actually produced truthful answers.

Personally I don’t find Johnson amusing at all, and Trump even less so.  These are dishonest, dangerous men, and I want to see them rigorously scrutinised on every possible occasion.  I don’t want Johnson to be ‘engaging.’ I want to know why he lies so often.  I want to know why so many hedge fund managers have supported his rise to power and what they hope to gain from it.  I want to know why Steve Bannon once wrote his speeches.  I want to know why he insists that No Deal will not damage the country when even government reports insist that it will be.

There are a lot more questions that could be put to him, and to Trump.  But it is alarmingly clear that their supporters don’t want to ask them, and don’t actually care about the lies they tell.

And equally alarmingly, when confronted with nonsensical observations such as Brand’s, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that too many people aren’t bothered about the lying either, as long as politicians like this continue to entertain us.

To some extent the brazenness and the absurdity of the lies they tell have become part of their entertainment value  Kippers, pork pies, Trump’s crazed and ludicrous rantings – all this nonsense makes us shake our heads and laugh or giggle as the next absurd claim comes and goes, only to be forgotten by the next ridiculous pronouncement.

It’s all good knockabout fun – if you like your dystopia marinated in gallows humour.  But politics is not supposed to amuse us, and societies that think it should may in more trouble than they think.  As Postman once argued ‘If politics is like show business, then the idea is not to pursue excellence, clarity or honesty but to appear as if you are, which is another matter altogether.’

It is.  And the unlikely triumph of liars like Johnson and Trump is another indication of how far we have moved from any conception of excellence, clarity or honesty to embrace the worst that our societies have to offer.

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  1. Mike

    27th Aug 2019 - 4:30 pm

    Hi Matt, somewhat gloomily I have to report that the implications of the entertainment bug in 21st century politics (and everything else) was the main message in my first blog entry almost 3 years ago. I was referring to a competition winning essay in the economist published in 2003. Things have not gotten any better…

    • Matt

      27th Aug 2019 - 7:00 pm

      So it seems! That’s a terrific quote from your blog Mike.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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