We have all heard the phrase, “like rats deserting a sinking ship”. It signifies that when a cause is failing, the least committed members of it leave very quickly to protect themselves, leaving others behind to face the consequences.
We do not often hear that “the sinking ship is deserting the rat.” But that is what we are seeing right now. One ship is the US Republican Party, and the other the UK Conservative Party. It is therefore blindingly obvious who the rats are, which is why their ships are deserting them—and why now!
Rats versus Goats
Political parties always look for scapegoats. It is always someone else’s fault if things go wrong, not theirs or their supporters.
If they have to face the fact that they mucked up themselves, one or two individuals are identified as “rogue operators” and the rest disassociate themselves from these to try and limit damage to the organisation. Think of the vilification still being heaped on Richard Nixon, by those who were happy to profit from his crimes in various ways until he was caught.
But this process occurs when the party, the ship, thinks it can remain in power. By throwing out the king rat before the rest jump, it thinks it can save itself.
It rarely happens that the ship is happy to scuttle itself and leave the rat in place, in the hope that the rat will drown without the ship and the ship can rise again from the bottom of the ocean. But that is what we are seeing now – wilful sabotage of great political parties, because that is the only way that they can be saved from their rats.
Many Republicans and Conservatives are now quite happy to vote against, undermine and destroy their own ships because they are rapidly being left with no other option. They have to get out and build another ship because the rats have taken over the old one so completely that it has become impossible to sail. Throwing the rats out is no longer an option, because the ship cannot get rid of the smell they leave behind.
Rats versus Elephants
It has always been known that a lot of Republicans, including some senior figures, do not agree with the presidency of Donald J. Trump. Not only do we know this, we should all be grateful that we know this.
The US system of primaries means that party divisions are examined in public, in elections, until the candidate most suitable to most party members emerges, at least in theory be held in secret, and then become subject of secret deals, are aired in public in the US, so the US electorate has a much better idea of where politicians actually stand than those of most countries.
Nevertheless, the primary system generally results in losing candidates declaring their support for the winner and their platform, or keeping silent. It is unusual to find a leading member of the same party criticising its candidate, whatever their private opinions are, and even more so when the candidate is a sitting president.
There is now quite a litany of prominent Republicans who have taken their distaste for Trump so far that they intend to vote for his opponent in November. George W. Bush, the previous Republican president, is widely believed to have voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. John McCain didn’t vote for Trump either, or Jeb Bush, or Mitt Romney, if you believe reports.
Since then we have had a stream of lies, stunts, scandals and mishandlings which have further eaten away at Trump’s internal supporter base. It is not so much that Republicans disapprove of what Trump has done, but that they feel targeted by it.
Trump won the 2016 Republican nomination, and subsequent presidential election, on an “us and them” platform. But the “swamp” he promised to drain wasn’t simply a Democratic one, but contained the whole political establishment. A prominent part of it has always been occupied by more traditional Republicans, and often are ones who don’t agree with Trump.
Initially it was Trump himself who largely made this distinction to garner support from voters who felt disenfranchised. But as time has gone on, “Trumpism” has become a thing, a term of abuse used by members of his own party.
A “Reaganism” was either an unintentional reference to the Third World War or a grandfatherly reassurance, such as that heard after the Challenger disaster. A “Bushism” was a mangling of the English language such as “They misunderestimated me”.
“Trumpism” is a whole raft of policies and positions which the US State Department defines as “racism” or “fascism” when they are applied in countries the US doesn’t like. He calls Covid-19 either the “Chinese virus” or “foreign virus,” institutes travel bans on black and brown people fleeing the very governments he is objecting to, violates the Constitution daily and wilfully discriminates whenever he can to draw distinctions between “good” and “bad” people, which equate precisely with whether he thinks those people will vote for him or not.
Many Republicans feel that Trumpism is alien to them, a disfiguring of what their party and they as individuals stand for. Former General Colin Powell, who is probably more popular than any politician and served as Secretary of State under George W. Bush, has announced he will be voting for Democratic nominee-presumptive Joe Biden in November.
Two former House Speakers a former Defense Secretary and a former White House Chief of Staff have also joined an anti-Trump faction. This is now so significant that Biden’s campaign is considering establishing a specific “Republicans for Biden” group nearer to polling day.
What will turning on Trump achieve? It is unlikely that these dissident Republicans will regain control of their party. Those who do stay loyal, out of conviction or reluctance, will not welcome traitors, as they would see them, to leadership positions once the dust has settled.
Dissident Republicans are not seeking to save their party but to destroy it – by leaving it purely in the hands of the Trumpists and then making it unelectable. Then they will have the basis of a new organisation, perhaps calling itself the Republican Party and perhaps not, which will unashamaedly reject its current President and candidate to reflect the views of those who feel wounded by his appropriations of their values.
The US has changed its party system before – though there has always been a binary choice at the highest level, the Federalists of George Washington and Whigs of Abraham Lincoln are long gone. The Federalist colour was black. The Republican ship is now, almost unthinkably, quite happy to desert its rat in order to remove the blackness covering it and reveal its natural red, or red white and blue, again, even if this means building a new ship out of the battered driftwood of its planks.
Rats versus Snakes
The UK Conservative Party has some claim to being the largest and most successful political party in the democratic world. With Theresa May, who regarded herself as “liberal” as leader, it came fifth in the 2019 European Parliament elections, by far its worst performance ever in a national election. Yet Boris Johnson led it to an unexpected and mould-breaking victory in the parliamentary election a few months later, and led the UK out of the EU, the issue which had hurt Theresa May’s premiership the most.
The victory was mould-breaking because the Conservatives actually fell back in their traditional areas of support, the better off suburbs and rural areas. BoJo the Clown owes his large majority to capturing many traditional Labour seats, some of which had never elected a Conservative before, but contain large numbers of Brexiteers spooked by the “intellectual elitist radicalism” of former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Johnson makes the same pitch as Trump – people versus politicians. He has also conducted ruthless purges of his own party, whose traditions long predate his own unfortunate arrival in its midst.
Soon after taking over as Prime Minister he removed the party whip from 21 of his own MPs, whilst running a minority government, because they would not back him over Brexit. Many of these then left parliament at the subsequent election, enabling BoJo to fill his new Cabinet with what one of his own senior party members calls “the nodding dogs,” who will support him come what may on the most controversial issues.
So far BoJo has largely got away with recasting the Conservatives as the anti-political party. But like Trump, he has delivered a blustering and inadequate performance when confronted with the Covid-19 crisis, and indeed many other things.
Even then he has retained much support, partly due to opposition weakness. Now however that very majority, obtained by wooing non-Conservatives, is turning into the biggest threat to the Conservative ship.
Like Trump, BoJo first tried to make out that Covid-19 wasn’t real, another establishment conspiracy. With death rates mounting, and scientists contradicting his claims that he was being guided by their advice, he belatedly adopted a lockdown strategy, at a time when the British economy was already reeling from Brexit.
Nevertheless, people in serious danger of losing their livelihoods and homes, and more danger of losing their lives than in any other country largely did as he told them to. They stayed at home, not able to visit sick relatives or attend weddings and funerals if that meant travelling more than a few miles away.
Then they were treated to the sight of Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s unelected spin doctor considered the true architect of these rules, driving over 200 miles with his family to find childcare when he should have been in isolation and then making another trip of 30 miles to “check his eyesight” and see if he was fit to drive back to London. All in direct contravention of the rules imposed on the rest of the population.
This was explained away by both BoJo and Cummings himself as “what any father would have done.” Thousands of others would, had they been allowed to, but felt obliged to obey the rules. Naturally and rightly, they expected Cummings, as a government insider, to do the same.
Ministers have been ordered to defend Cummings, and either resigned or been forced out if they don’t, even when they are ardent Brexiteers
Every current minister owes their job, and their parliamentary seat, to being a Johnson loyalist, and had to agree to support him, rather than the party as a whole or its principles, when they stood for election in 2019. But now BoJo is pushing his own acolytes into the opposite intra-party camp, over an unelected adviser, both he and they have nowhere to go.
Traditional Tories have given up on saving their party. Most have either left parliament or resigned altogether.
Johnson loyalists owe their seats and survival solely to him. But with Johnson rapidly becoming more toxic than Covid-19 and chlorinated chicken, they will have to find a new ship, unassociated with this rat, to come out of this self-inflicted national tragedy in one piece.
UK parties don’t change much either – the same big two have held those positions since 1918. But Johnson has so successfully remade the Conservatives in his own image that most of his own supporters will have to become something else to have any future, and can only do this and retain credibility by scuttling their existing ship, deliberately, and constructing a new, ratless one.
Rats versus Humanity
There are always those who disagree with the leaders of their chosen political party. Generally they try and win internal arguments. If they can no longer support their leader, they either opt out or vote for, or join, another one.
It is very rare that we see a situation where members of a party feel they are better off destroying it and starting a new one. It happened to the United Australia Party, once the main party of the centre right in Australia, and the Progressive Conservatives in Canada in more recent times.
But in these instances the whole party had become moribund, too many rats having already left. They were not run by rats, for rats, and left with no other members but rats who were unable to connect with people any more.
It was always inevitable that populism would fail when led by billionaires and Old Etonians. The only question is what comes after it. Thanks to Covid-19, the whole world is now being faced with this question. But very few will want to the “new normal”, whatever else it may be, to be run by rats rather than people determined to forget they have ever seen a rat.
People need to start smelling a rat too!
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.