Boris the clown: the effective performance of incompetence

As Jeffrey Alexander argues, we tend to measure the success of a political performance by its authenticity. There are three key challenges to achieving this that Johnson has so far in his political career solved particularly well by stepping in the footsteps of other populists. And the 2019 election crystallised these populist solutions.

First, a politician cannot perform a character, as an actor may, that he leaves behind him when he steps off stage. He must be seen to be at one with his persona. At the same time, he must appeal to a media environment that feeds on spectacle and soundbites and is forever watching to see whether he remains consistent in, and at ease with, every situation – from formal parliamentary debates to eating bacon sandwiches.

Populists have found a solution to this challenge: they bring what the sociologist Erving Goffman termed their otherwise private backstage character onto the front stage. Johnson’s bumbling, clownish performance of non-professionalism and communicative incompetence does just this through means of symbolic production such as hairstyle, hesitation (“erh-erh-erh”) and an ever-present self-ironic smirk. And, as Jeremy Vine recently related, this is a studied performance of incompetence. Such a persona may not fit the norms and formality of political institutions. But, like other populists, Johnson has made this discord between performative form and context his very message: the political system and establishment need shaking up! Norm breaking has become an act of rebellion against formality and political professionalisation. It exposes and delegitimises the scripted political correctness of the Janus-faced, Machiavellian elite for what it is – more insincere masquerading, hiding the truth from public view! In the same sweep, it delegitimises any social powers that might curb the populist performance of The Truth. For Johnson, this was until recently parliament. The delegitimisation of such power structures that stood in the way of the people’s will in turn gave him a mandate to remove the obstacles to better control his performative resources.

Second, an authentic performance requires the audience to psychologically identify with the performed persona so they become receptive to the political actor’s message. Johnson’s backstage persona allowed him to identify as one of the ordinary people and not a member of the establishment. Somehow rows with girlfriends, questionable favouritism in his relationship with American businesswoman Jennifer Arcuri, unknown numbers of legitimate and illegitimate children, and other divergences from the path of righteousness only reinforced the audience’s ability to project themselves onto his otherwise indeterminate and malleable persona. In any story, it is easier to identify with a flawed hero.

The typically populist binary of the good, ordinary people versus the evil, deceptive elite served to polarise and homogenise. But the good people in this divide consisted of a heterogeneous mix of conservatives, non-conservative Brexit voters and anti-Labour voters who would never agree on a left- or right-wing solution to current social problems. ‘One Nation Conservatism’ became as malleable an ideological platform as Johnson’s own character, promising everybody what they wanted, from public service spending to curbing immigration; it morphed into ‘The People’s Government’. Johnson thereby replaced an ideologically coherent utopian vision with a mythical past that we can supposedly ‘go back to’ through the gateway of Brexit. And we had better go back to the future quickly – no dither and delay! – as the impatience of populist time dictates.

Third, a successful political performance demands that the audience collectively invest their affect. Johnson could not easily appeal to hope and passion, which require a shared, forward-looking idea that unites citizens. And so instead he appealed to reactionary or backward-looking emotions – anger against a deceiving elite; fear of a scapegoated ‘other’; a nostalgic longing for a mythical Great Britain; and, as Candida Yates recently argued, pleasure in being allowed to feel resentment.

Johnson, like most populists, may not have a consistent ideology. His performance, however, enacts a level of consistency between its form and content that populists achieve particularly well. It brings his message into being through the disruption of democratic form, which becomes a pleasure that needs no longer be guilty. And so the good populist performance showcases its undermining of the structures and norms of liberal democracy as we know it and frees the performer of previous restraints. But Johnson’s ideologically blank character, of course, does not reveal to us to what ends he will direct his newfound powers.