How to Hold a Charismatic Charlatan to Account

Boris Johnson’s party ditched its dysfunctional leader, yet the GOP remains in thrall to the much more dangerous Donald Trump.

An illustration showing the figure of Boris Johnson superimposed on a profile of Donald Trump.
Carl Court / Getty; The Atlantic

About the author: David Frum is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

The head of government is caught in a series of scandals. The scandals are not necessarily so important in themselves. Many of them involve purely personal misconduct. But if exposed, they would shock public opinion and threaten the leader’s hold on power. So he lies and lies and lies again. He mobilizes his cabinet and staff to lie for him. And when the truth does finally catch up with him, he tries to brazen things out. The people voted for him. He has a mandate. He won’t go willingly—and he threatens his colleagues that if they try to force him out, he will pull down his administration and his party with him.

The British media are very fond of comparisons between outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson and ex-President Donald Trump. But the political convulsion that toppled Johnson looks a lot more like the uproar that led to the impeachment of Bill Clinton in the late ’90s than anything in Trump’s record.

Johnson ignored ethics rules and even the law of the land. He disregarded the British value of shared sacrifice in times of hardship by attending parties prohibited by anti-COVID health orders. He was routinely unreliable and untruthful. But Johnson did not attack the constitutional structure of his country.

Johnson will leave office for much the same reason, and in much the same way, as his predecessors Theresa May, David Cameron, and Tony Blair left it: because he lost the confidence of his party. The Conservatives won an 80-seat majority in the general election of December 2019. Johnson claimed that majority as his own personal accomplishment. His resignation in July 2022 confirms the norm of British democracy: Any mandate conferred by the voters belongs to the majority party in Parliament, not to the party leader.

Britain faces many troubles post-Johnson: the accumulating economic harm wrought by the decision to quit the European Union; the threat of Scottish withdrawal from the United Kingdom; the challenge of maintaining peace and an open border between EU-member Ireland in the south and non-EU Ulster in the north. It faces those problems with its system of government in essentially the same working order as it was before Johnson gained the prime ministership.

This outlook is very different for the United States post-Trump. Like Johnson, Trump used every available legal means to hold power as long as he could. Unlike Johnson, Trump then turned to illegal means. He forbade his administration to cooperate in the transition to its elected successor. He pressured state governments to violate their own laws and void their election, replacing their democratically chosen presidential electors with stooges selected by state Republican parties.

When all else failed, Trump fomented a violent attack on the Capitol to interrupt the last formality of the presidential election. Trump hoped that he could intimidate his vice president into violating the law to overturn the election. And if the vice president failed to comply, Trump seemed willing either to put the vice president to flight or even to allow his supporters to kill him—presumably so that some replacement could overturn the election certification in the vice president’s place.

That was terrible, but what has happened since is, if possible, worse. In the immediate aftermath of Trump’s attempted putsch, many leaders in Trump’s party voiced condemnation—though even then, most refused to hold him to account by the constitutional means available: impeachment and removal. In the months since January 6, 2021, Republican leaders have declined to enforce any accountability. Instead they have gradually submitted to his demand that their party protect him from the law and pretend to believe his excuses for his plot to seize the presidency by violence: that there was something defective about the election he lost by 8 million votes—even as his party in fact gained seats in the House and Senate.

Few Republican leaders actually believe Trump’s crazy claims. Many are making behind-the-scenes efforts to sabotage his renomination in 2024. But they won’t stand up and be counted—and if he beats them in party primaries, they have declared in advance that they will submit to his leadership and try their best to return him to the presidency he tried to steal after the 2020 election.

That’s a crisis of democracy.

The British face nothing like it. As severe as their national problems are, their institutions proved more than robust in the face of Johnson’s transgressions. Johnson, for his part, never fundamentally tested the British constitutional system: All he wanted from office was a good time and an easy job.

On this side of the Atlantic, things look much darker. The United States had mechanisms to deal with Trump’s attempted coup. He could have been removed from office that very night by the mechanism of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment. He could have been convicted and disqualified from ever holding office again by conviction in an impeachment trial.

Unlike Johnson’s party, Trump’s party protected him to the end from accountability for his crimes against the Constitution. With rare exceptions, his party protects him still. The only president in U.S. history to attempt a violent seizure of power remains the front-runner for his party’s nomination in 2024.

The British today can expect a return to the normal problems of governance, albeit aggravated by the self-harm of Brexit but otherwise with their parliamentary democracy intact. For Americans post-Trump, democracy itself remains the question on every election ballot.