Boris Johnson had barely finished telling the nation about new English lockdown arrangements on Saturday night when the BBC, correctly reading the mood of its primetime audience, cut live to Strictly Come Dancing.
It is easy to imagine Johnson on the other side of that switchover. There is a parallel universe where “Boris” is one of the sequin-clad celebrities waiting in an Elstree studio for the jaunty music to strike up while someone with natural gravitas delivers the serious message from Downing Street. In this scenario, Johnson’s political career fizzled out after a second term as mayor of London but his fame stayed alight. He was an obvious match for Strictly. (The judges deride his shambolic dances and dishevelled appearance, but he appeals over their heads to the voting public, who keep returning him to the dancefloor – for a laugh: a welcome distraction from the pandemic.)
And in that hypothetical world, Donald Trump still hosts The Apprentice, because liberal democracy has not been taken hostage by marauding vaudevillians.
I have witnessed Johnson holding forth over lunch with a dozen guests and declaiming to vast auditoriums. It is the same act in any venue. He adjusts his beliefs to whatever he thinks the audience wants to hear, but not the raconteur style, sustained by laughter and applause. Few things disturb his poise more than a stone-faced reception. If his words hang in the air too long, there is a danger they will be examined, remembered, taken seriously. He was not a great parliamentary speaker before the pandemic, but he really bombs in the Commons chamber now that it is thinly populated and hushed by social distancing.
Trump uses a fraction of Johnson’s vocabulary, and his delivery is less laboured, but he also uses cadences more familiar from standup comedy than traditional oration. He is master of the faux-conversational ramble that invites intimacy, the little observations and non-sequiturs, the unnatural pauses that build tension before a punchline drops.
When the fate of US democracy hangs in the balance, Trump’s rhetorical technique might not be the most pressing concern. But that showbiz patter has been a key to unlocking the character of his presidency. He has the personality of a tyrant, but not the premeditated programme of a dictator. His thirst for power has always been deep, but it is the impulsive craving of a man addicted to attention for its own sake, without the mechanical drive to rearrange society and fashion other people’s destinies in the mould of a Hitler or Stalin. Trump is a more theatrical breed of despot, who bullies people and abuses his office because he believes they exist to gratify his needs and satisfy his fan club.
The harm to the American republic is profound already. The incarceration of children, the approval of white-supremacist militias, the dehumanisation of opponents – it is the stuff of incipient fascism. But the slide into the abyss has been slowed by incoherence, infantile inattention and impatience. A more systematically ideological and intelligently focused saboteur in the White House could have done even worse.
Other nationalist demagogues have used the coronavirus pandemic to expand their control of society and suffocate dissent. It is the obvious move. There is a national emergency that requires some suspension of civil liberties and unusual regulation of citizens’ private business. The authoritarian opportunities have not been wasted on Vladimir Putin in Russia and Viktor Orbán in Hungary. Trump could have exploited the virus to build an apparatus of political repression. Instead he opted for denial and petty frustration, belittling the pandemic because it was a bigger story than his own presidency. He couldn’t bump it out of the headlines with an aggressive tweet. Barack Obama called it right when he mocked the president for being “jealous of Covid’s media coverage”.
Johnson’s approach has been much more rational. He is better at hiding resentment of the way his job has turned out to be less fun than anticipated. But the disappointment is there – the dismay of the comedian inadvertently booked to speak at a memorial service with no fitting repertoire, no fluency in consolation.
The prime minister believes in the utility of lockdowns (unlike Trump), but he shares his American counterpart’s disregard for their use as tools of coercion. Backbench Tories are quick to highlight how the letter of Covid regulations is totalitarian, but none actually thinks Johnson intends to apply them in that spirit. The constant assertions of reluctance and regret – the pained apology for meddling in private freedoms – are about the only sincere notes he strikes in those televised addresses.
Johnson is in any case too lazy for fascism, which requires an obsession with order. His preferred flavour of control is best conveyed in a line from an old interview, when he described the “rather weird sense of power” he got as Brussels correspondent for the Telegraph, making mischief with confected tales of meddlesome European bureaucracy: “I was just chucking these rocks over the garden wall,” he said. “I’d listen to this amazing crash from the greenhouse next door, over in England.”
Now Johnson is keeper of the greenhouse. That doesn’t stop him chucking rocks, but the effect is more self-defeating. He does not have “weird”, remote, unaccountable power. He has the ordinary kind that comes with elected office, where popularity is not an end in itself, but a temporary licence to get things done on behalf of other people.
Johnson is a more conventional politician than Trump, but he also reached the top by trampling through the boundary between celebrity and statecraft. His brand was built by turns as a panellist on Have I Got News For You more than on his record at City Hall. Both men benefited from a transatlantic culture of democratic complacency. They carved their way through the ranks of stale, cavilling bores because most politicians were bad for ratings and entertainment was news. Now we are stuck in a strange intermediate zone where real-life events have the febrile, climactic quality of a box-set season finale.
The pandemic shows why that fence between entertainment and politics needs to be restored. Covid cannot be played for laughs. Managing a public health crisis involves metrics of success other than applause. It requires politicians who can meet a challenge without self-pity at being forced to do the tough part of the job. Democracy is unsafe in the hands of egocentric men who do not know which way to turn in a crisis because they dare not face away from a cheering mob.
• Rafael Behr is a Guardian columnist