Covid knocked the stuffing out of Johnson. Will it do the same to Trump? | Zoe Williams | Opinion

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What happens to the appeal of the strongman politician when he ends up in hospital? If his offer is that he is somehow above the certainties of science, and that he can overcome regular human weakness by power of mind, how does that weather contact with reality?

This is contested: the US pollster John Zogby found a distinct bounce for President Trump since his Covid diagnosis on Friday, with the numbers between him and Joe Biden narrowing to 47:49. “[Trump’s] performance,” Zogby notes, “is actually one point higher than his vote percentage in 2016.” Trump seems to have energised his base, in this reading, boosted especially among over-65s and evangelical Christians. A Yahoo/YouGov poll, however, recorded different results, Biden on 48% and Trump on 40%, as the all-important “independent” voters blamed the president for his own infection – his failure to socially distance or wear a mask.

Boris Johnson’s polling was similarly inconclusive during the period that he was in hospital: certainly, not long after being diagnosed with Covid, his personal approval rating had surged to 66%. Yet YouGov identifies the turnaround moment for his government as four days before his diagnosis, 23 March, and attributes it not to sympathy for Johnson but to relief that the Conservatives were finally taking a hard line on the lockdown.

The issue is clouded by emotionality, on all sides. Those of us who don’t respond well to strongmen tend to misinterpret their appeal. We look at their magical thinking, their scorn for experts, their blithe assurances that everything will be fine so long as they remain in charge, and think that when reality catches up with them, the bubble will burst.

In fact, we’ve taken it all too literally. There is certainly a Trump-supporting hardcore – anti-vaxxers, evangelicals, creationists, bleach-drinkers – who are implacably hostile to experts, and who do take him at face value. They will find some way to square their views with the new reality, that a leader who despises fallibility is himself fallible, probably by way of a conspiracy theory or a cunning plan. But there are also supporters, both of Trump and of Johnson, who enjoyed the spectacle of their confidence more as an atmosphere than a fact: who didn’t think either man was superhuman, but simply liked the cut of their jib, and who were (in the UK) and probably will be (in the US) inclined towards sympathy.

Opponents, meanwhile, have some of our certainties punctured: when a “personality” politician is in rude health, we can trenchantly criticise his incompetence, dishonesty, callousness or hypocrisy. As soon as he’s ill, all of this has to be tempered by the rider, “obviously I don’t actually want him to die”. This then becomes a wedge issue between those who think a person who denies a virus with catastrophic results for others does, in fact, deserve to perish from it; and those who think it’s against human decency to wish death upon anyone, and corrosive to any meaningful value system to even try to evaluate the electoral impact of a leader’s ill health. The last thing the left needs is another wedge issue.

So it’s no wonder that this picture in the US is quite clouded; especially so close to the election, the incapacity of the president (whatever its extent, which is itself contested) introduces elements of empathy and ambivalence that do not fit neatly into the narratives of either side.

Yet Johnson’s trajectory is clearer: whether seen through the lens of the “oven-ready” Brexit or his “levelling up” promise, he won his majority in 2019 on a schtick of “everything’s going to be all right”, which was essentially a confidence trick. He embodied confidence, voters had confidence in him, his confidence grew, and so on; the relationship between the trickster and the tricked is symbiotic and dynamic.

Even before he caught Covid, the stark warnings of his scientific advisers had dented his optimism, but all the way through spring and early summer, his supporters and even some of his opponents remained resolutely fair-minded; indeed, according to some Michael Ashcroft polling at the weekend, there’s still a significant body of opinion across the political spectrum that believes his government is doing “a reasonable job under extremely difficult circumstances”.

That initial sympathy – a dice with death and then a new baby, plus a country to run in the middle of a pandemic – still holds. But what has changed is the prime minister’s own confidence. Both diehard critics and former supporters mutter about his lack of mojo, of elan, of fizz; they speculate that he isn’t fully recovered, while supportive front pages describing him as “fit as a butcher’s dog” have a beseeching quality.

Johnson’s own ability to project certainty has faltered; his passionate injunctions are contradictory. It is increasingly hard to distinguish what Johnson has said (“live fearlessly but with common sense”) from a Matt Lucas parody (“If you must bake in a tent, bake in a tent. But please don’t bake in a tent”). He has never been on top of detail, but he is suddenly apologising for it. His new tentativeness creeps into public perceptions, so that even as people are saying they admire his tough choices, the words that surface in relation to his leadership are “incompetent” and “out of his depth”.

The question isn’t really about health any more; it’s about the nebulous quality of whether or not the stuffing has been knocked out of him. This is the most dangerous moment for a strongman who turns out to be human after all: not when the crowd takes a fresh look at his new clothes, but when the emperor himself realises that he’s naked.

Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist

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Source: The Guardian
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