The parallels drawn between Donald Trump and Boris Johnson oscillate from the cartoonish to the credible. Both leaders are populists with extreme hairstyles and extreme personalities. Both use an absurdist buoyancy to dodge conventional moral codes. Adept at pinpointing public grievances, both have pledged to rebuild elitist institutions without renouncing their own privilege. And now both have been diagnosed with coronavirus. In March, Johnson was one of the first world leaders to contract the virus, which also infected many members of his inner circle. Initially it was business as usual. Displaying mild symptoms, the prime minister would isolate at Downing Street and, assisted by the “wizardry of technology,” continue his work. Ten days into his illness, Johnson was driven the short distance to St. Thomas’ Hospital. With Johnson admitted to intensive care, his aides reportedly discussed a 50% chance of survival. “I owe my life to our doctors and nurses and the health care workers,” Johnson later told The Sun. “They pulled my chestnuts out of the fire, no question.”
When Trump was flown to Walter Reed military hospital, it seemed that Johnson’s experience might provide a blueprint as to the path the president’s illness could take, and a rough guide as to its possible political impact. Indeed, just as there are parallels between Britain’s and America’s political situations—between the sentiments driving Brexit and Trump’s push to Make America Great Again—there are some echoes between the two countries’ early experiences with the virus. Both countries have suffered grave losses; both combined underpreparedness with degrees of skepticism. Trump cast the virus as no worse than the flu and mused about dangerous, unproven cures. Johnson did not stretch even close to these extremes, but he did initially downplay the virus. He shook hands with infected patients in the hospital. He resisted lockdown. Headlines touting the U.K.’s alleged herd immunity strategy raised eyebrows throughout the global scientific community. However, unlike Trump, the prime minister did not enter into overt, paroxysmal opposition with science and public health experts. When lockdown was imposed, he oversaw a shutdown that was adhered to so faithfully that the government was bemused by the national obedience to a public health message urging people to “Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives.”
The contexts in which the two leaders fell ill, then, were fundamentally different. Trump gambled on scoring and retaining votes by deflecting from the virus and its associated economic pain. Johnson ultimately backed strict measures, and tried to elevate public health over the economy. This difference is important when considering the aftermath of their illnesses—the ways in which their recoveries may play out in the political sphere. According to data from YouGov, Johnson’s illness dovetailed with a surge in public support for the government and prompted a second, smaller hike in his personal popularity. This support was likely consolidated by a speech he gave hours after being discharged from the hospital. Given Johnson’s reputation for imprecision and mistruth, it felt genuine: The prime minister’s close encounter with the virus lent him an authenticity that spanned across an electorate riven by division. Naming the health care workers who looked after him, Johnson said they were the reason his body started to get enough oxygen. “That is why we will defeat this coronavirus and defeat it together. We will win because our NHS is the beating heart of this country. It is the best of this country. It is unconquerable. It is powered by love,” he said.
Predictably, support for Johnson has since withered into frustration. Reeling from economic and emotional devastation, the U.K., like many other countries, is facing a second wave of the virus. As the government faces mounting criticism over its handling of the pandemic—which has claimed over 40,000 lives—Johnson himself is being dogged by a constant murmuring that he’s suffering from so-called long COVID and plans to step down in several months. (Johnson has heartily dismissed these claims and also declared that he’s “fit as a butcher’s dog.”) Britain has considerable challenges ahead, including an omnipresent lack of clarity around Brexit, but Johnson remains in a fairly strong position. Although Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, is touted as a credible opponent, Johnson has a large majority—and with the next election not until 2024, he has the luxury of time. Known for his ability to reinvent himself, vigorously peddle positive messaging, and eschew the rules that stick to others, Johnson has the capacity to implement policies and rebuild Britain once Brexit and the pandemic are (hopefully) over. Here, his experience with the virus could prove a useful asset. Johnson isn’t known for humility. But by acknowledging his fallibility and praising the National Health Service (a source of national pride in the U.K.), he has a channel through which to connect with the electorate, many of whose lives have been, and will be, upended by the pandemic.
The contrasting, militaristic optics of Trump’s time in the hospital and subsequent release reflect different leaders, different health care systems, and starkly different political terrain. Unlike Johnson, Trump doesn’t have the luxury of time. Ahead of the election, his approach to the virus—ridicule, deflect, use it as a vector of disunity—has been undermined by his own body. The reality is that the last stretch of the campaign, observed by American voters and the international community, will be defined by the pandemic. Predictably, Trump has opted to frame himself as a COVID-19 superwarrior, safeguarding news about his health as though it’s a state secret. This will play well with his supporters and repel his detractors; maybe it will sway some would-be voters who are grieving and coping with loss, and who might be further aggrieved by the president’s decision to halt negotiations on coronavirus relief until after the election.
Ultimately, it’s not clear whether Trump’s illness will catalyze any marked shifts in an already-polarized electorate. The only clear takeaway is that, with his fixation on invincibility, the president has shattered any vague comparative possibilities with Boris Johnson, or any other leader who has been infected with the virus or torn pages from his political playbook. Trump’s choreography means that he stands alone. His return to the White House on Monday was accompanied by a gaudy video of his helicopter ride; the theatrical removal of his mask on the balcony. “Don’t let it dominate you. Don’t be afraid of it,” he said in a posted video. “Nobody that’s a leader would not do what I did. I know there’s a risk, there’s a danger, but that’s okay.”
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