What could be more insecure than a 55-year-old bragging about Latin, or a literal president tweeting his enemies on the bog?
If the Tory leadership election unfolds as widely expected, the UK will basically be ruled by a Fathers4Injustice activist. Boris Johnson is the kind of guy who’d don Spider-Man pyjamas and scale a building in order to see less of his kids. Sorry, fewer. Even so, he remains a remarkably typical hero of our political times. “There are two kinds of women,” Harry explains at one point in When Harry Met Sally. “High maintenance and low maintenance.” “Which one am I?” Sally asks. “You’re the worst kind,” he says. “You’re high maintenance, but you think you’re low maintenance.”
After a week in which paddle-less Britain has found itself once more caught in dangerous transatlantic currents, it’s clear that there are two kinds of political men. Strong men and weak men. Which one is our most likely next prime minister? I’m afraid Boris Johnson is the worst kind: he’s a weak man who thinks he’s a strong man. See also selective antiracist Jeremy Corbyn, whose unshakeable conviction that he hasn’t been wrong in several decades has left him stubbornly incapable of being the bigger person. See also gratefully submissive Donald Trump fanboy Nigel Farage, who has spent much of the past three years hanging wanly around Washington on the off-chance of a half-hour 6pm burger with the alpha male to his beta. And see also Donald Trump himself, the leader of the free world, who spent about 48 hours this week tweeting like some homicidal 11-year-old Justin Bieber fan about the leaked comments of the British ambassador. Who, apparently, we now let him pick. More on toxic insecurity’s poster boy shortly.
Back on these shores, the ITV debate between Johnson and his so-called rival Jeremy Hunt was like watching an am-dram version of Amadeus, with Hunt apparently keen to come off as the Salieri to Johnson’s Mozart. It comes as zero consolation that Johnson may, even in the hours before his triumph, already be writing his own funeral music. On this evidence, rather a lot of the country will be in the coffin with him before he’s finished.
Poor old Salieri. Almost all of Hunt’s wistfully exasperated attempts to get Johnson to answer a question – any question – could have been replaced with the howl “I speak for all the mediocrities in the world”. Whatever skills Hunt possesses are entirely out of style.
It was reportedly after watching Johnson refuse to defend him that US ambassador Kim Darroch made the decision to resign. He had little choice, especially given the way the political winds are blowing. The weak strongmen are inheriting the earth. Johnson has spent weeks claiming he’s the only one strong enough to get the better of the European Union, yet his first public test saw him cravenly submit to the disgraceful whims of Trump. In the circs, it feels a little unfair to class this move as “pussying out”. What would you call it instead? Penising out? Yes, I believe we saw Boris Johnson totally penis out to Donald Trump.
During the 2016 presidential election campaign, the Atlantic asked eminent primatologist Jane Goodall to assess Trump. “In many ways the performances of Donald Trump remind me of male chimpanzees and their dominance rituals,” she judged. “In order to impress rivals, males seeking to rise in the dominance hierarchy perform spectacular displays: stamping, slapping the ground, dragging branches, throwing rocks. The more vigorous and imaginative the display, the faster the individual is likely to rise in the hierarchy, and the longer he is likely to maintain that position.” Rather than passing, this political mood has intensified. It is impossible to watch how Farage or Johnson relate to Trump, or each other, or to their own underlings, without imagining the entire evolutionary regression voiced by David Attenborough.
Great leaders show, rather than tell, their skills. Yet Johnson never lets up with telling people that he is not “defeatist”, that he will “put some lead in the collective pencil”, that “energy” is needed, that what the EU really fears is a big strong man like him. Mm. I hear they talk of little else in the 27 European capitals. “O Fates, please spare us the dreaded ‘positive energy’ of a guy internationally ridiculed as the worst foreign secretary in memory; and the unplayable charm of a surprisingly indifferent orator who knows the Latin for ‘can we just take out the backstop?’”
And Johnson does know Latin, as he never misses a chance to remind us. No one could accuse him of wearing his learning lightly – or, indeed, wearing any of it lightly. Witness his excruciating promise to reach out to something he pointedly referred to as “Oppidan Britain”. To which the increasingly despairing response has to be: YES YES! I KNOW WHAT SCHOOL YOU WENT TO! I KNOW WHAT HOUSE YOU WERE IN! I KNOW YOU GOT A SECOND CLASS CLASSICS DEGREE! I KNOW THIS SOMEHOW ENDS WITH YOU CONSIGNING OUR ENTIRE COUNTRY TO THE CATACOMBS THEN BEATING US TO DEATH WITH YOUR RELATIVELY MIDDLEBROW ACHIEVEMENTS! But mate: you are 55 – FIFTY-FIVE – years old. How, how can you possibly still be wanking on about any of this, in public, as though it was still the best thing you’ve ever done? Can it really be because it was? [Spoiler: yes.]
It feels doubly shameful that this gilded overpromotee should have failed to defend Darroch, a scholarship boy who grew up in a council house, but who appears to have drawn rather less self-admiring attention to his own background than Johnson insists upon doing every time his carers let him out. He may use longer words, but Johnson’s sledgehammer self-admiration does not differ materially from the US president’s diurnal reminders that he is a strong, good-looking and very stable genius.
In many ways, there can be no greater therapist’s case study than Trump. If – like many of us at times in our lives – you are one of those people who thinks they’d feel better about themselves if they only got that promotion/ earned more money/ were more successful in whichever way, then will you just look at this guy. LOOK AT HIM. He’s the actual president of the actual United States of America, and he still spends half his time tweeting on the bog, horrifyingly weakly, about people who should be so far below his sight line as to not even remotely register. What a reminder that it’s really not about how you do externally. Unless you take care of your shit, it’s still there inside, gnawing you to bits, and it never goes away. For all his unrivalled power and immense wealth, Donald Trump is by far and away the most insecure person most of us have ever seen.
And it looks like we’re getting our own, small-pond version of him inside of a fortnight. If only alleged strongman Boris Johnson had found some way of taking care of his shit. Instead, we’ll be picking up the tab. Still, I’m sure every Briton will be honoured by the chance to play their small part in the larger story of this one defective, arrogant man. Or, to put it in classical terms we can all understand, the guy who really puts the anus into Coriolanus.
• Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist