When a Blimp is a Bad Idea
WHEN A BLIMP IS A BAD IDEA.
Prior to his recent visit to the UK, US President Donald Trump said (amongst other things) that he was planning to visit his “friend”, Boris Johnson, during his time here. “Boris Johnson’s a friend of mine, he’s been very nice to me, very supportive and maybe I’ll speak to him when I get over there. I like Boris Johnson, I’ve always liked him.”
Of course. After all, Johnson and Trump are essentially UK and US versions of the same person. Let’s start with the obvious - the blond hair. Johnson appears to use the shampoo of his namesake; the results are fluffy, sprouting freely in all directions. Trump’s, coiffed and whippy like a frothy milkshake, gives an instantly recognisable silhouette. Johnson gives affable, bumbling; a distended, twice-removed cousin of Hugh Grant. Trump gives hairdryers, men’s hair loss, and the American Dream. Because Trump knows his hair is the butt of so many jokes - and not just because he spends so much time on Twitter. His entire output is built on celebrity; and the hairstyle, the words, the weird photo shoots, every single movement, is channelled in this way. Trump presents as a cartoon, and so too Johnson.
But what does this achieve? Both men hold strategies which exist for effect within the media realm. These can be comical; Johnson dangling from a zip wire holding Union Jack flags, for example, or Trump’s “fake news awards”. These are knowing plays on their perceived images, which contribute to their respective cartoon characters - Johnson remains bungling and likeable, Trump remains ranting and raving. This is a tool which not only maintains an overall positive, “whatever next” presence in the media, but also keeps us watching, keeps us guessing, so that they can pursue more sinister agendas.
Although Johnson only wishes that he had the steam-train nerve of Trump. An example which is probably the clearest in most people’s minds is the EU referendum, which manifested from a rivalry between Johnson and then-Prime Minister David Cameron. Johnson’s aim was to present as the “voice of the people”, the everyman. He knew the working classes would be on his side; the rise of Conservatism, and more hostile political strains (UKIP, Britain First) surely meant he’d won their vote. But who would even dream of voting to Leave? It seemed preposterous. Ideologically, Johnson was was neither Leave nor Remain - the only thing he wanted was to win the position of “underdog”; for losing out on the referendum meant a newfound prophetical position, which would prove useful for future leadership bids. The rest, as they say, is history. But in one of the most cynical moves, Johnson was the most vocal representative of the “£350million for the NHS” bus - even enduring after the statistic had been disproven. This was a deliberate emotional tug at the heart of the working classes, a stalwart from times where Labour values had palpable function. Johnson knew what this would represent, a call-to-arms for an imaginary “good times” to return again.
Johnson’s cartoon is the old-school English gent. Even his use of language (casual racism, swear words) delivered in his Etonian gobble, reduces him to harmless. “Classic Boris,” we say. However, this belies a dangerous Imperialism - recently he described the potential for the UK to take on the status of a “colony” as a result of mishandled Brexit negotiations. Naturally this is emotional firewood for the ultra-Leavers, whose vote in the referendum was influenced by a wish for the preservation of British sovereignty. Unimaginable!
This is something done to more refined effect by fellow Etonian Jacob-Rees Mogg, MP for North-East Somerset, whose tall, “Honourable Member for the 18th century” character sees itself reflected in memes and Have I Got News For You appearances (as an appealing translation of his sinister, ultra-traditional Catholic stance). As similar with Johnson and Trump, this gives his character stronger presence in popular minds - positivity in the mathematical sense.
And so back to Trump, who adopts the language of the layman. Whether or not he is capable of anything else is unclear, because it works for him so well. During the US Presidential Election campaigns, Trump’s rally in New Hampshire featured widely for his speculation on what he deemed a Mexican attack plane.
“Mexico… and I respect Mexico, I respect their leaders. What they’ve done to us is incredible. Their leaders are so much smarter, so much sharper. And it’s incredible. In fact - ” and this was the point at which he pointed to a plane passing over above them, “ - that could be a Mexican plane up there. They’re getting ready to attack.” From the crowd comes a simultaneous gasp and laugh - a reaction which he seems to evoke the most. What he’s saying about Mexico up until that point is vague and without nuance. The “attack” line is the kicker, the punchline. But is it a joke? For everything that Trump doesn’t say, he makes up for tenfold with soundbites.
And still somehow his stance seems without blame - formed from “fake news”, as he would say. Of course, what he does reveal could certainly be concluded as misogynist, racist, ableist and homophobic (in the very least). Fortunately for him, this appeals to his demographic; again, the working class (this time of America; white, mostly Christian, Southern) who see Trump as a heroic time-traveller, guiding them back to when gay people couldn’t get married, when women stayed at home and didn’t fancy “equality”, and when foreigners stayed in their own countries (or the ghettos they were assigned to). While this “good time” is once again imaginary, this is inherently what “Make America Great Again” symbolises.
But we can take the press coverage surrounded the recent ICE scandal, in which the Trump administration organised the separation of families seeking asylum in the US through illegal crossing of the Mexico border. As the backlash grew, Trump eventually backed down on the policy, claiming that it was the images of distressed children which had changed his mind (although the order reversal does not relate to families who have already been separated). He demonstrated a similar response to images of the Assad-regime chemical attack on Syrian civilians in April 2017, having previously stated that the US military would not be intervening, but now emotionally describing how an attack on innocent children in particular “crosses many, many lines”.
You could say that Trump, as a true racist, does not consider the humanity at stake in such events. Until he sees images of babies and children in cages, crying themselves to sleep, or lying unconscious and toe-to-toe in overstretched hospitals, it is easy for him to dehumanise the non-white non-American and carry out his agenda. How easily his resolve crumbles.
Yet as he reversed the separation policy, his wife Melania Trump paid a surprise visit to the detention centre where the immigrant children remained. But the overriding impression left was not by this gesture (which either way remained emptily that - a gesture), but by the Zara jacket she wore, which on the reverse beared the slogan, “I really don’t care. Do U?”
On Twitter, President Trump claimed that this was a swipe at the “fake news media”. This seems unconvincing. Melania's spokesperson claimed that the slogan was not in relation to anything. But the job had been done - the event had been undercut, and attention had been reclaimed; distracting from the humanitarian rights issue at hand, to more catchy issues such as speculation on the Trump marriage, Melania’s fashion choices, and of course, her increasing memeability.
Trump and Johnson’s key similarity resides in their ability to showcase, to play on rapidly decreasing attention-spans. They recognise each other’s capabilities, presented with angelic blond-hair charm. Johnson has even suggested that Trump having a role in Brexit negotiations would be a good idea. "There is method in his madness."
But as I say, Johnson only wishes he had the pure chutzpah of his American twin - leaving his political moves to outright contradiction and lying, limited by his softer, more affable character and as a member of the press. Although he is beginning to emulate Trump; in his recent resignation as Foreign Secretary, he released photos posing at his desk, signing his resignation letter with a wistful, poe-faced expression. Considering this came hastily after David Davis’ resignation as Brexit secretary (without accompanying Hello! Magazine style photoshoot), it is clear that Johnson is utilising the event for his own motives; a gleeful remonstration which follows in he and his best friend Trump’s favourite playtime activity - humiliating and undermining Theresa May.
And so: the blimp. Yes, Trump is a man-baby. Yes, he is full of hot air. Yes, he is bright orange. But these are his presentations. Regardless of whether this was an appropriate way to have treated a world leader, the very fact that this was within the realms of possibility speaks volumes. Trump has successful remained accessible, a celebrity. To have greeted him at the Houses of Parliament gates with his sky-high, larger-than-life cartoon character was merely that: a greeting, not a protest. A recognition of his cartoon. These are the things which will echo in popular media and virality far more than his real atrocities. The hot air deems him harmless.