A report is expected today on the ways in which former U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson flouted the strict COVID rules his government had imposed on ordinary Britons.
The findings were bad enough that Johnson, the zany liberal Tory mayor of London turned demi-Trump on the Thames, quit his seat in Parliament altogether amid the barking of critics from his own party. He had resigned the top spot in September, but said on Friday that he was leaving Westminster entirely to better fight the “witch hunt” being conducted against him, which he said was payback by elites for his implementation of Brexit.
While BoJo was awaiting his fate, another star of Britain’s populist, nationalist 2010s, Nicola Sturgeon, longtime leader of the Scottish National Party, was getting arrested as part of the investigation into what became some $750,000 worth of donations. Her husband has also been implicated in the probe into the missing money raised for a far-fetched plan for another referendum on Scottish independence, despite the failure of the effort nearly a decade ago. Like Johnson, she had stepped down before the consequences caught up with her.
Like so many times before, the United Kingdom and the United States are playing our old game of political leapfrog. The “Third Way” Labourites and Bill Clinton’s New Democrats, George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” and David Cameron the “liberal conservative,” Scottish independence, Brexit, and Donald Trump’s “America First,” and now, their aftermaths.
As Trump gets ready to head to federal court Tuesday to face charges of filching secret documents, lying to investigators, and trying to cover up his misdeeds, we have a good moment to consider why politicians so often find themselves in legal trouble, including the populist insurgents now in the dock.
Is this because politicians are more likely to be criminals? Does Mark Twain’s adage apply? “There is no distinctly American criminal class—except Congress.”
Surely that has to be some of it. People who are attracted to power and privilege are perhaps more likely to succumb to the temptation to abuse those things. And surely also it must be a matter of access. How many of us who denounce the venality of the political class have kept our virtues intact more through a lack of opportunity than the strength of our own characters?
I am not inclined, though, toward Lord Acton’s famous dictum. “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” Acton wrote to Cambridge professor and future Anglican bishop of London, Mandell Creighton, in 1887. Acton, a reform-minded but stalwart Roman Catholic, was taking Creighton to task for the professor’s history of the scandal-plagued papacy during the Renaissance. Acton believed Creighton had been far too gentle in his assessments of the popes’ moral failings, particularly Sixtus IV and the Spanish Inquisition.
“Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority,” Acton wrote, “still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.”
He was at least half-right. All people are bad people—fallen and selfish by nature. But some individuals are more inclined to surrender to those inclinations than others. Power reveals corruption more than it corrupts. A tour of human frailty in those of every profession or vocation—and those of none at all—would show that power is not a necessary precondition for corruption.
We see it better and feel it more acutely when corruption abuses the public trust, but no rank or station is immune from such vices. If we examined closely the misdeeds of orthodontists, hay balers, insurance actuaries, or dance instructors I suspect we would find similar rates of turpitude as we do among politicians.
But whether Acton was right or wrong about the order of things, his conclusion that we should not exempt the powerful from the moral judgements we reserve for ordinary people is undeniable. Indeed, we should hold those in privileged positions to higher standards because of the betrayal which their failures constitute.
In the case of Trump and, to a lesser degree, Johnson, a notorious past was part of the package when voters hired them on. Certainly for Trump, the tabloid scandals, bankruptcies, cruelty, dishonesty, and braggadocio that had been very much part of his public character were part of how he got the big job.
Like his forebears Huey Long or Boss Tweed, and many other political insurgents here and abroad, Trump’s brawling, enthusiastically corrupt ways were styled as evidence of his willingness to fight an even more corrupt political establishment. Whether it was Standard Oil, the monied interests in Albany, or the “lying press,” the entrenched power of elites was so vast that only someone who could draw on an opposing reservoir of dirty tricks and shady funds could dislodge them.
As a consequence, the supporters of these insurgents either turn blind eyes or actively celebrate their misdeeds. If you’re trying to fight fire with fire, you don’t join the bucket brigade.
But a moral space so capacious makes these leaders lazy and indifferent. They become sloppy and often meet their ends over seemingly small matters, stolen memoranda or lockdown booze busts. Trump was probably right that his supporters would have forgiven him for shooting someone on Fifth Avenue, but over time, the scandals and controversies take their toll.
The hardcore backers may always remain, but the marginally attached, conditional supporters drift away. By the time Trump gets to a debate stage, if he ever does, the memories of not just pretty corruption but the nightmare of January 6 and his effort to steal another term will point voters away from him.
That’s not to say that Trump couldn’t win the Republican nomination again, just that the broader electorate will likely reach the conclusion that his promise of retaliatory corruption is not worth the hassle. Johnson may rail at his “witch hunt” and Sturgeon may yet beat the rap, but on both sides of the Atlantic, it has the feeling of a movement in decline.