Talking Points

Why scandal might topple Boris Johnson but couldn't touch Trump

Here's a question American liberals would like answered: If Boris Johnson can go down, why can't Donald Trump?

Johnson, the British prime minister, appears to be on the cusp of losing his office. Nearly two-thirds of Britons think he should resign after revelations that Johnson and his staff attended parties at 10 Downing Street while the nation was under a pandemic lockdown. The Metropolitan Police are now investigating whether any laws were broken. It all seems so petty compared to the myriad scandals that hounded Trump's presidency, yet the former president has — so far — mostly managed to wriggle free of formal accountability.

That's really frustrating, especially in light of Britain now modeling how things could have gone.

But the United States was never going to take the path Britain is now on for three major reasons: culture, impact, and hypocrisy. 

Culture: Britons have cultivated a lore surrounding "stiff upper lip" notions of duty and shared sacrifice. Queen Elizabeth joined the British Army as a young princess during World War II and learned how to fix trucks. During the pandemic, she sat alone in the church for her husband's funeral, obeying the country's COVID rules even in her grief. Millions of her subjects did likewise. Meanwhile, Johnson's staff held a "bring your own booze" get-together during COVID's darkest days. The prime minister didn't just fail in his duty —  he did so in a way that violated his country's best traditions. 

Impact: Trump arguably did something similar to Johnson's transgression by unleashing the lies that ultimately culminated in the Jan. 6 insurrection. But that offense didn't touch people's lives quite so directly as Johnson's. Americans often profess a love of democracy and the Constitution, but those concepts are more abstract than the experience of being forced to hunker down in your home or risk arrest. Trump corruptly enriched himself, lied, and openly cheated — but the many Americans who don't doomscroll Twitter every day could avoid taking notice. It was impossible for Britons, by contrast, to ignore the lockdowns. Their anger at Johnson's hypocrisy is more intense because it's so personal. (For a closer American analogy, look to California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who faced a recall election last year for much the same reason.)

Hypocrisy: Johnson is being hoisted on his hypocrisy. Britons are understandably angry that the man who ordered them to stop seeing friends and family couldn't abide by the same rules. But if hypocrisy is the "tribute vice pays to virtue," then Donald Trump has never been much of a hypocrite. He has always been a cad and a rapscallion — and proud of it. Americans put him in the White House anyway. Trump has evaded scandal after scandal for many reasons, but one of them is that he has benefited from the soft bigotry of low expectations. Johnson is something of a bad boy himself, but he isn't as lucky as Trump; Britons, it seems, actually had expectations of him.