Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, (@fridaghitis) a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
For millions of Americans watching last week’s political drama in London, the spectacle was welcome entertainment, a respite from the bitter divisions racking the United States and a reassuring reminder that other countries also endure convoluted political theater. But it was also a wistful reminder that even if the US doesn’t have a monopoly on edge-of-your-seat political machinations, other democracies seem to handle theirs more successfully.
The cascade of resignations by British officials urging that the ethically-challenged Prime Minister Boris Johnson step down ultimately produced the desired result. After an endless series of scandals, and following stubborn vows that he would not give up, Johnson at last announced his resignation on Thursday.
It looks like democracy prevailed in the United Kingdom. It was a bit of a shambolic circus, to be sure, consistent with Johnson’s premiership and much of his life (not to mention his hair). But, in the end, the process worked, and Britain stepped back from the brink.
The man that former President Donald Trump claimed people called “Britain Trump,” ultimately resigned in disgrace for lying, for breaking the rules and for trying to get away with it one more time.
It’s true that Johnson and Trump had more in common than their chaotic coifs. Johnson’s misdeeds had a familiar ring to American ears, but they weren’t in the same league as inciting a violent insurrection (which Trump has denied responsibility for) and trying to overturn his country’s democracy.
Viewed from the other side of the Atlantic, the British mayhem was simultaneously satisfying and unsettling. Americans, whose democracy barely survived four years of Trump, reflexively drew a comparison between the transgressions that led to Britain’s Conservative Party and much of the UK turning its back on Johnson and the far more damning and dangerous actions of the former US president, who remains to this day the most powerful figure in the Republican Party and looks all but certain to seek the presidency again.
By Trumpian standards, however, Johnson’s lies and misdeeds while prime minister hardly qualify for the evening news.
It is a tribute to British democracy that Tory leaders decided “enough is enough,” after Johnson was caught lying. The unlikely final straw, the one that fractured the spine of the proverbially overloaded camel, landed after he appointed Chris Pincher to a leadership position after he had been accused of sexual misconduct. (In a resignation letter to Johnson, Pincher did not admit the allegations directly, writing, “last night I drank far too much” and “embarrassed myself and other people.”)
Other allegations of Pincher’s past conduct then reemerged in light of his resignation. For some baffling reason, Johnson kept changing his story about why he appointed Pincher. Instead of admitting a mistake and moving on, he claimed he hadn’t known about specific allegations.
Imagine this under Trump. It would barely rank in the top 1,000 scandals.
For Johnson, it piled on top of other high-profile controversies. Most prominently, there was “Partygate,” the months’ long series of prevarications about Johnson’s multiple parties at Downing Street while the country was under strict Covid-19 lockdown. The lies were undone by photographs of the prime minister and his festive houseguests, booze in hand, even after Johnson had feigned innocence, claiming he “believed implicitly that this was a work event.”
He became the first British prime minister fined for breaking the law and apologized to parliament “unreservedly.” But he stayed in office and kept toying with the truth.
Johnson’s behavior and his disregard for the truth – which helped him get to office – were shocking by normal standards. By the standards of Trump, who was clocked uttering a mind-boggling 30,573 lies and misleading claims while president, and has not stopped since leaving office, it was a feeble effort.
In the end, Johnson was, is, an entitled, charismatic politician, who has felt the rules were made for others, and had no compunction about fabricating stories to get his way. He got away with it almost every time. But he wasn’t a darkly malignant figure of the caliber that threatened US democracy. He was more of the small-bore variety, the kind that gradually erodes norms and values – a long-term threat more than an immediate menace.
When he resigned as party leader, a starkly uncontrite Johnson blamed not himself but the “herd instinct.” If that was herd instinct, it was a most welcome one, a revival of respect for decency; a belated recognition that leaders with hollow ethical cores are dangerous to democracies.
It wasn’t just Americans who automatically thought about Trump when they heard Johnson was finally being held to account. Across Europe, many drew the analogy. Guy Verhofstadt, a longtime prime minister of Belgium and now prominent member of the European Parliament, tweeted, “Boris Johnson’s reign ends in disgrace, just like his friend Donald Trump. The end of an era of transatlantic populism? Let’s hope so.”
But Americans aren’t so sure Trump’s reign has definitively ended. The majority wish Trump would go away. But he won’t. Not after two impeachments, not after allegedly leading a failed attempted coup, not after an election he lost decisively but still insists he won.
Although it wasn’t easy and they waited too long, British Conservative leaders faced an easier time turning on their boss than American Republicans would. In Britain, they stood by him and mostly tolerated Johnson’s transgressions. In the US, countless elected Republicans have done far more than tolerate Trump’s lies. They have embraced them, amplified them, cast their lot with the lies and the liar.
Still, last week’s events in London reveal an opening, allowing a glimmer of hope that those who have promoted, defended or quietly tolerated Trump will one day decide they, too, have reached their limit. And that enough of them will say it aloud so they can force that most undemocratic of players off the stage and move on to healing a divided and exhausted country – and its much-battered democracy.