Attack of the Zombie Populists

Antidemocratic demagogues have an amazing ability to stage comebacks after suffering political death. Here’s why—and how to defeat them.

An illustration showing a Trump-like figure emerging from a grave like a zombie.
Getty; The Atlantic

When, in September, Boris Johnson left office after two-and-a-half turbulent years as prime minister, he defended his record with some jokes and a sprinkling of classical allusion. “Like Cincinnatus, I am now returning to my plough,” he said.

As many commentators were quick to point out, the reference to Cincinnatus contained a coded meaning. After this Roman consul left office, he returned to his small ancestral farm to till the fields, only to be recalled to government at a moment of great crisis. Johnson was hinting that he might himself soon enjoy a similar fate.

His prophecy nearly came to pass. For a brief spell over the weekend, Britain’s Conservative Party seriously considered the idea of calling Boris Johnson back to power.

In the end, of course, the party anointed Rishi Sunak, a former chancellor of the Exchequer who lacks both Johnson’s charisma and his irresponsibility, as its leader—and thus the country’s prime minister. Sunak’s ascension is easy to understand. After the extended chaos of the Johnson years and the short-lived debacle of Liz Truss’s premiership, Sunak was virtually the last remaining Conservative of any public standing who could credibly promise a modicum of competence and stability.

Harder to parse is why Johnson was in contention at all. How could Johnson have come so close to returning from the political wilderness less than four months after disgrace forced the  announcement of his departure from office?

The story of Johnson’s near resurrection, though remarkable, is less peculiar than it might seem. Charismatic populists have a knack for making unlikely comebacks, even if their own friends and allies have long given them up for dead. And irresponsible politicians can do very well when they have a good feel for the pulse of public opinion. For this type of demagogue, Johnson’s enduring appeal is the norm, not the exception.

The plausible, if short-lived, prospect of Johnson’s return to Downing Street should be a warning sign of what is to come in other countries. For it illustrates three underlying truths about populist leaders that will continue to shape the politics of the United Kingdom and other democracies, including the United States, for years to come.

First, populists have extraordinary staying power, showing virtual immunity from the sort of scandal, disgrace, or failure that can finish a conventional politician’s career. Second, policy counts nearly as much as style: The degree to which a populist’s program is actually popular really matters. Third, because most of the politicians who are attacking democratic institutions at the moment come from the right, conservative parties have a crucial part to play in preserving democracy.

Critics like to describe Johnson as a populist, placing him into the same category as America’s Donald Trump, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, and India’s Narendra Modi. That label has never been a perfect fit for Johnson. While he has, at times, been willing to play dangerously fast and loose with democratic rules, he never attempted to concentrate power in his own hands or to impede its peaceful transfer. A second term for Trump would presage a genuine democratic emergency; a return of Johnson would have been more likely to turn into a depressing farce.

And yet, Johnson does share some important similarities with other figures in that political constellation. Like them, his appeal has much to do with his willingness to break the ordinary rules of politics. Like them, he has a larger-than-life personality that gives him a direct connection with his supporters. Like them, he manages to suck the oxygen out of every political situation, making himself the red-hot center of debate for years on end. And like them, he shouldn’t be counted out just yet.

Populists around the world have proved to have remarkable staying power, even after they were hounded from office in ignominy. Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi left office in disgrace after being sentenced to a term in prison and ruining his country’s finances (he later successfully appealed the criminal conviction). Now he is a crucial partner in the country’s new government. Peru’s Alberto Fujimori was pushed out of office because of corruption after his right-hand man testified that the president had handed him suitcases stuffed with cash. Yet his loyal daughter Keiko remains a high-profile politician who came within a hair of winning the country’s presidency last year. In the United States, Trump seemed to lose his hold over the Republican Party after the January 6 assault on the Capitol. Now he appears poised to claim the party’s nomination for the 2024 presidential election. Orbán in Hungary, Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland, and the Marcos family in the Philippines have all shown similar durability.

The next twist to the story involves the populist’s platform. Johnson’s success is often chalked up to his personal charm. But because Johnson’s personality is larger than life, many commentators have overlooked the deft political positioning that also made him popular.

On cultural issues, Johnson was robustly center-right. He preached an unapologetic patriotism and opposed the dismantling of statues of Winston Churchill. But he also championed a nation that was comfortably inclusive, courted voters from ethnic minority groups, and presided over a notably diverse cabinet.

On economic issues, by contrast, Johnson presented himself as robustly center-left. He opposed tax cuts for the rich and promised ambitious investments in the comparatively poor regions of England’s north. During the coronavirus pandemic, his government moved quickly to distribute generous financial aid to prevent economic hardship. And though himself an unabashed product of class privilege, Johnson could speak about the less fortunate with real conviction. “If I had one insight into human beings,” he once said, “it is [that] the genius and talent and enthusiasm and imagination are evenly distributed throughout the population, but opportunity is not.”

A similar deviation from right-wing orthodoxy also helps explain how Trump managed to broaden the appeal of the Republican Party in 2016. On cultural issues, Trump was more extreme (and alarming) than his adversaries in the primaries, and much more so than Britain’s Johnson. But on economic issues, Trump initially took positions that tempted millions of Americans who did not traditionally vote for the GOP. He promised to defend blue-collar workers, to spend enormous sums on infrastructure, and to provide a universal health-insurance plan. Trump failed to deliver on these promises—but they played a crucial role in helping him secure his first term in office.

Johnson’s unusual blend of policies also helps explain why his successor proved to be so hapless. When Truss took office, she turned sharply to the right on economic policy, slashing taxes for the very wealthiest. And when her program forced the Bank of England to raise interest rates steeply, hiking mortgage payments for middle-class Britons, she quickly became far more unpopular than Johnson had ever been. Her downfall was precipitated not just by her personal weakness but by her deviation from Johnson’s more moderate economic policies.

Johnson’s ability to retain significant support offers valuable lessons for the future of democracy. But so does the fate of this comeback attempt. Why—this time, at least—did he fail in his mission?

The overriding factor was simple: Senior figures in the Conservative Party did not want him back, and they were able to take effective action to prevent his return.

As the political scientist Daniel Ziblatt demonstrated in his 2017 book, Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy, which includes a painstaking analysis of interwar Europe, the survival of democracy has often depended on those very parties. Where mainstream right-wing parties resisted the rise of authoritarian movements, as they did in the United Kingdom, they succeeded in containing the threat to democracy. Where mainstream right-wing parties thought that they could co-opt extremist groups, striking a deal with their leaders, as in Germany, the conservative establishment ended up being a handmaiden to the death of democracy.

How conservative parties choose to act, in turn, depends on two important factors: political will and practical capacity. To resist the temptation to turn in an authoritarian direction, they need to care more about preserving democratic institutions than about implementing their policy goals. And they also need to have enough control over rank-and-file members and ambitious newcomers to punish those who deviate from that commitment. Although the stakes are lower in modern Britain than they were in Ziblatt’s period of study, this framework helps explain how moderate political parties are able to close off a demagogue’s path to power.

Given the shambolic state of Britain’s Conservative Party, whether it retained the will and the capacity to stand up to a resurgent Johnson was not a given. When Johnson was prime minister, he threatened to suspend Parliament in order to push through the Brexit deal he wanted—which would have been a clear breach of democratic norms. Most of the party’s parliamentary members supported him in this attempt (which was ultimately blocked by Britain’s Supreme Court). And the party’s recent record of internecine conflict also put in doubt whether it would rally around a candidate who could keep Johnson out of office. Nevertheless, to prevent Johnson from capitalizing on his popularity among the party’s grassroots, Conservative members of Parliament closed ranks around Sunak, making him the sole candidate and thus enabling his installation as prime minister without a vote of party members.

To keep other demagogues, including Trump, out of office, their party colleagues and erstwhile allies have to choose to put democratic norms ahead of their pet policies. And they need the institutional capacity to retain control over their organizations, ensuring that politically extreme activists who do not represent the democratic majority cannot take control.

All of this, though, should worry American readers. Like other populists who have left power under ignoble circumstances, Trump retains significant public support. If he runs in 2024, he can count on the passionate supporters who make up a large portion of the Republican Party’s primary electorate. And unlike some right-wing parties, the GOP seems to have neither the will nor the capacity to stand up to its most radical members. Before Trump has even declared his candidacy, most senior members of his party are scared to criticize him.

The attack of one zombie populist has, for now, been beaten back. But the next one could break through.