John Oliver Explains Why Boris Johnson Is Not the Same as Donald Trump
“Given that Britain’s new leader is a clownish figure with silly hair and a passing relationship with the truth,” the comedian said, the comparison is natural. But Johnson’s playbook differs from Trump’s in one key way.
omparisons between Donald Trump and U.K. prime minister Boris Johnson are obvious and plentiful: Both are bumbling dudes with weird hair, both have said bigoted things about groups they hope to vilify; and both have visions for their respective nations that many find horrifying. On Sunday night John Olivernoted that similarity during a long take dedicated to explaining the eccentric prime minister. “Given that Britain’s new leader is a clownish figure with silly hair and a passing relationship with the truth, you may already be thinking of the person you’re almost always thinking about anyway,” Oliver said—as an inset photo of Trump appeared.
But Johnson, he argued, is in some ways more sinister—because it seems he’s learned to actively use his doddering persona as a carefully deployed shield.
Johnson, Oliver argued, frames himself as “a lovable mess weathering adversity with humor and good cheer. But the truth is there may be a great deal more calculation behind that image than first appears.” Oliver cited, for instance, reports that Johnson deliberately musses his own hair ahead of televised interviews—a move one certainly can’t imagine Donald Trump ever employing. The comedian also rolled a clip of Johnson rambling about his favorite hobby, painting crates to look like buses—a strange choice until you note, as Oliver pointed out, that Johnson’s Brexit bus has been derided for being emblazoned with a lie. Perhaps, Oliver said, Johnson made up that crazy sound bite because he was hoping to change the search results for “Boris Johnson bus.”
It’s impossible to say. But we do know this: As one reporter noted in a clip Oliver played, one former Johnson colleague compared working with him to “walking a few feet behind a horse, shoveling its shit.”
“It would be bad enough if Boris were just a liar,” Oliver continued. “But he’s also been more than willing to tap into outright bigotry to get ahead.” For example, Oliver said, Johnson has characterized immigrants as people who want to “leach off the state”; referred to “piccaninnies”; described people in the Congo as having “watermelon smiles”; called gay men “tank-topped bumboys”; and compared women in burqas to “letterboxes” and “bank robbers.” When confronted by reporters about that last comment, Johnson charmed them by bringing out tea and demurring that he wouldn’t comment—a tactic that somehow worked.
“Don’t take the tea, and do not thank him for it!” Oliver shouted at the reporters after playing the clip. “Because think about what just happened there. He referred to Muslim women as letterboxes, and in the space of 30 seconds, he had them laughing along with him. He was in trouble; he put on full Britface, and those journalists fucking fell for it.”
But that “clumsy Brit persona,” Oliver said, will only take Johnson so far—especially with Brexit negotiations looming.
“If Johnson messes up the Brexit negotiation, the pileup of shit could be considerable here, as most economists believe a no-deal Brexit would cause a deep recession,” Oliver said. “And the E.U. may be extra immune to Boris’s charms. Remember, he was a key figure in the Brexit campaign and has lied about them for decades in his newspaper columns. On top of which, he has privately referred to the French as turds and publicly compared the E.U. to Hitler. So he’s not working with a lot of goodwill at this point.”
“Think of it like this,” Oliver said. “Hugh Grant is delightful in romantic comedies. The stammering. The hesitation. The inability to relate to his immediate surroundings with any level of competence. You want to see Hugh Grant in Four Weddings and a Funeral. But no one wants to see him in United 93. Because the context would make his character a lot less charming.”