This article is part of Election 2020: America Votes, FP’s 24/7 coverage of the US election results as they come in, with brief dispatches from correspondents and analysts from around the world. The America Votes page is free to all readers.
LONDON – United States’ cultural dominance is not always benign. The election of Donald Trump told trashy politicians around the world that they could continuously lie, tear apart conventions, smash their countries and – far from being punished by their voters – win.
Shakespeare’s Richard III Complains that he has to “dress my naked villainy” and “be a saint when I play the devil most of the time”. Trump taught leaders from Brazil to Hungary that they no longer had to pretend to be holy. No matter how basic they behaved, their base would welcome them. Nobody learned the lesson better than the Briton Boris Johnson.
With Joe Biden on his way to victory, the UK Prime Minister now looks like yesterday’s man. The zeitgeist has left him behind and he seems to be a relic of a discredited past. This cultural change will be more important than any political change in formal Anglo-American relations.
Living in the UK, it was daunting to watch how quickly Trumpian tactics became accepted as normal. Johnson suspended the supposedly sovereign UK parliament to enforce Brexit, threatened the independence of the judiciary and said he would break international law by renouncing a treaty he signed with the European Union if it did not enforce. Trump said of Johnson in 2019, “They call him Britain’s Trump and people say that’s a good thing.”
When then-US President Barack Obama warned the UK not to leave the EU in 2016, Johnson sounded like an obstetrician, suggesting that Obama was not one because of his “Part-Kenyan” heritage and “ancestral aversion to the British Empire” Friend of this country. More recently, in the face of a deadly pandemic, Johnson may not have embraced the U.S. President’s pseudoscientific trap, but his failure to deal with COVID-19 has been almost as egregious.
One can exaggerate Johnson’s affinity for Trump. In terms of foreign policy, the British Conservatives were closer to the Democrats than the Republicans. They continue to support Obama’s deal with Iran, saying they are concerned about climate change, though it is another question of whether they are ready to make the tough choices to fight it.
But since it became clear that Obama’s Vice President was likely to go to the White House, something close to panic has gripped Downing Street.
The fantasy world of the “Anglosphere” has become the never-never-land of right-wing British imagination. The story went that Britain could leave the EU and join an English-speaking bloc led by the United States, and make a pact with her true friends.
With Biden as president, Washington couldn’t even give Britain the quick trade deal that Brexit supporters claimed could compensate for the loss of the far more significant trade with the EU.
Meanwhile, Biden and the U.S. Congress’ determination to prevent Johnson from building a hard border on the island of Ireland will mean Dublin’s vote will carry more weight in Washington than in London – a reversal of 800 years of English domination of Ireland.
Britain will have given up its European alliance without making an American alliance. His isolation will be painful – and painfully obvious.