As I was traveling by train through the northern English city of Manchester last week, a group of six women in their fifties and sixties boarded, "refreshed," as we say, from an afternoon in the city's bars. The topic of their conversation was Donald Trump. Two were openly contemptuous of him, but the others, while not exactly defending him, were admiring of the fact that he "speaks his mind." One was especially insistent that Trump had not told four Democratic congresswomen of color to "go back" (which presumably would have been just a bit too racist,) but merely to "leave."
Manchester is a left-wing, EU-supporting city, yet even here one encounters the standard and contradictory defenses of the right-wing populist. He didn't say what we all saw him say, he didn't mean it, and—besides—agree or not, you have to enjoy the spectacle of him daring to say it. As the women disembarked, one decided to scandalize her friends further by declaring that Trump, anyway, is sexy.
Britain's new prime minister, Boris Johnson, doesn't have a hope in hell of getting any traction in Labour-voting, Remain-backing Manchester. Yet the encounter put me in mind of the fact that even as Johnson is compared unflatteringly to Trump across the world's press, both men's liberal and left detractors are failing to grasp the reasons that conventional criticisms don't work with politicians of their kind.
It is a common complaint that populists get away with what they do by cynically promising to "give the people what they want." But this underestimates the extent to which people aren't particularly clear on what it is they want (ask any psychoanalyst, or, indeed, any Tinder user.) In our personal lives, we are either haunted by not getting what we want, or disturbed to find that, when we do, it is never quite right or quite what we imagined.
Populists like Trump and Johnson, by contrast, appear to enjoy themselves indiscriminately. They pile up sexual indiscretions, relish politically incorrect language, and earn obscene amounts from seeming to do very little at all. They collude to have a journalist beaten up (Johnson,) or offer to pay the legal fees of supporters who might rough up protesters for them (Trump.) Trump's un-presidential diet of junk food, his alleged days in bed in front of the television, his sexual comparisons of his own daughter to the porn star Stormy Daniels: none of this was disqualifying, because whereas the rest us are quite puzzled about what we want, Trump seems to have no trouble enjoying himself whatsoever.
The populism scholar Daphne Halikiopoulou has argued that radical right parties often work by recognizing generalized and inarticulate feelings of anger or dissatisfaction, and offering their policies as catch-all solutions. These parties do not respond to pre-existing desires within the electorate, but teach them new ones. In the case of Trump and Johnson, we could add that such figures do not simply "give the people what they want." It is more that their unstatesmanlike actions are performances of wanting, obtaining and most importantly, enjoying on the people's behalf.
Trump and Johnson have their differences. While the contradiction between Trump's wealth and his man-of-the-people act is obscured by a vulgarity that mortifies America's country clubs, Johnson is the embodiment of the foibles of the upper-class establishment itself. Trump denounces "fake news," while Johnson in his journalist days was responsible for plenty of fake news of his own, fabricating and manufacturing myths about the European Union.
Johnson inherits a far more challenging political situation than Trump. Trump's populism found its ideal opponent in the establishment figure of Hillary Clinton. Johnson, meanwhile, faces a Labour Party leader in Jeremy Corbyn, who has already occupied Trump's position as the anti-establishment opponent of a "rigged" system, and who has a more reciprocally antagonistic relationship with the mainstream media than Johnson can ever hope to confect.
Yet Johnson's opponents in Britain appear to be making the same errors in trying to undermine him as Trump's have in the US. Last summer, Johnson wrote a newspaper column comparing Muslim women who cover their faces to "letter-boxes." The result was days of criticism for the racism of the comments, demands for an apology which did not arrive, followed by hand-wringing about how racist the remarks actually were.
Instead of focussing on the racism, it would have been more effective to highlight the cynicism. Anyone could see that the column was designed to provoke controversy of precisely the kind it received, to bolster Johnson's support among right-wingers and his credentials as a candidate who "speaks his mind." Coming weeks after Johnson was rumored to have met with Steve Bannon himself, the episode had all the markers of Trump's outrageous comments (such as insulting John McCain) which he also benefited from refusing to apologize for.
Another approach has been to focus on Johnson's sexual scandals, and a few weeks ago, a violent argument with his much younger current partner. But we know that the release of a recording of Trump describing himself carrying out sexual assaults did nothing to prevent him winning the votes of a majority of white women. As the legal scholar Heidi Matthews has argued, #MeToo has been conspicuously weak as a political tool. Allegations against Brett Kavanaugh and Joe Biden had no effect on their political trajectories, and it seems that allegations are only believed by voters when they are made against politicians they dislike anyway.
Populist politicians should be criticized for their inconsistencies, lies, corruption, sexism, and racist language. But they can't be beaten that way. Johnson's critics must learn from American liberals' mistakes and attack him less for his offensiveness than for his fakeness and cynicism. Better, they should appreciate that a politics of offering people enjoyment with impunity—even if only for vicarious consumption—can't be beaten by centrist calls for moderation, sensibility and "being realistic." The new left politics of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn understands that right-wing populism is better resisted by politicians willing to offer newer kinds yet of shared enjoyment and plenty; not merely by begrudging the right-wingers theirs.
James A. Smith teaches at Royal Holloway, University of London. His book Other People's Politics: Populism to Corbynism is published later this month from Zer0 Books. He can be found tweeting on @NuPopulism.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own.