What do Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Silvio Berlusconi have in common? If that sounds like the start of a dirty joke, in a way it is. But the joke is on us.
Huge egos, of course. Love money, no doubt about it. Compulsive lying, untrustworthiness, predatory relationships with women, associations with shady figures, media manipulation – in life and death, they share all this and more.
All three rely on opportunistic, far-right populist-nationalist politics, mixed with rhetoric and morbid charisma, to confuse, co-opt and confuse voters — and they often do so successfully.
Three Stooges hit the headlines again last week, but for different reasons: They hit a buffer, they finally got out of trouble, they got what was coming, they were held accountable—choose the phrase that best captures your inner gloating.
Trump has been criminally charged in federal court. Johnson ran to the hills — in his case, the Chilterns — instead of facing the Partygate music. Berlusconi, whose Italy is forever divided, believes he is immortal, and he went to meet his creator.
Attention seeking is another common trait. Dragging away in front of Miami’s beak is a subdued Trump. But at his 77th birthday celebration, he perked up as Maga fanatics, bible fanatics and followers of all stripes adored him.
Taking refuge in his luxury New Jersey golf resort, poor, persecuted Trump whimpered that he was the innocent victim of a “bunch of thugs, misfits and Marxists” by the loathsome Joe Biden . Paranoia: This is another common trait.
Trump likes to be the center of attention, likes to steal the limelight. Essentially, he’s a showman and a kid, eager for his mom (and the world) to watch. “Hey, Mom! Look what I’ve done now!” Margaret Thatcher called it “the oxygen of publicity.” Without it, he would suffocate.
Johnson is about the same. As Parliament was reminded last week, there is nothing he won’t do, no one he won’t betray, no promise he won’t break to get ahead of the curve or make headlines. Silvio Berlusconi is the same, exiting as a protagonist in an epic state funeral.
The humiliation of heroes and powerful villains, the downfall of kings and tyrants—these are old, ever-popular political and dramatic themes. Think of King Lear. Think Shah of Iran or Ceausescu of Romania. Consider Thatcher herself.
It’s a great story, which is why Trump et al. They sell newspapers, attract page views, and drive ratings. Sadly, in the cases of Trump and Johnson, dethronement may not be permanent. Both plotted glorious restorations.
A bigger problem is that paraphernalia and fictional conversations like this can seriously distract from what’s going on with real people in the real world. It’s a familiar dilemma for conscientious news editors and consumers alike.
Take war-torn Sudan, for example. While Trump rages at the injustice of it all and Johnson complains to his associates, hundreds of terrified, unaccompanied children are crossing the border into Chad — victims of a regional disaster unfolding.
Sudan made headlines a few weeks ago as the UK and other luckier nations scrambled to evacuate their nationals. It is now all but forgotten by Western governments and media, despite the escalating war.
The numbers are staggering. The United Nations estimates that 470,000 people have left Sudan since April. Some 1.4 million people are internally displaced. Nearly 25 million people are needed. Twenty-five million!
Sudan’s implosion was all too real and resonated across North Africa — where Somalia, Libya and other broken states in the Sahel were also teetering on the brink of disintegration — and beyond.
“The fighting in Sudan should give world leaders pause: It threatens to be the latest in a devastating wave of wars in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia that have ushered in a new era of unrest and conflict over the past decade, ’ the independent International Crisis Group warned recently.
“Mainly because of conflict, more people are displaced (100 million) or in need of humanitarian assistance (339 million) than at any time since World War II.”
It is also inevitable that poor countries are the biggest losers from the combined effects of the pandemic, the war in Ukraine and Western anti-inflation measures. The World Bank says the UN’s anti-poverty goals will be far off.
If only because of the expected surge in trans-Mediterranean and cross-Channel migration, and the recent horrific shipwreck in Greece, tackling the root causes of instability in Africa should certainly be a top priority for the UK.
“Losing” large swathes of the world to authoritarianism and the influence of China and Russia should be a major concern for the United States. Yet right-wing populists like Johnson and Trump seem oblivious. They live in a parochial alternative reality with solipsistic drama – and the indulgent media mostly plays along.
The damage done by these “leaders” cannot simply be measured by the number of lies, law violations and broken promises. Their bad example is being emulated around the world, causing unseen and unspeakable harm to millions whose future hope depends on responsible global leadership.
It harms countries whose paths to prosperity, democracy and human rights are uncertain and easily reversible. Dictators in Africa or Asia cheer every time Trump puts himself above the law. Every time Johnson twists the truth, dark deeds go unpunished elsewhere.
Trump, Johnson, Berlusconi and like-minded right-wing crooks hijacked the agenda, journalists wrote the headlines, and readers enjoyed it. However, here’s the real story: These people are bad news — for everyone, everywhere.