Asharq Al-awsat English Middle-east and International News and Opinion from Asharq Al-awsat Newspaper

Today’s World Leaders Are Walking Cliches

Today’s World Leaders Are Walking Cliches

Monday, 29 July, 2019 - 05:30
One of the most striking things about Boris Johnson, who became UK prime minister this week, is how precisely he fits the stereotype of the eccentric upper-class Brit. With his elevation, Britain joins several other major nations led by people who embody their national stereotypes, and not the best of them at that; it could be argued, however, that it’s leaders defying such cliches who take their countries forward.

In a paean to Johnson published on Quillette, his onetime Oxford schoolmate Toby Young recalled meeting the future prime minister: “It was as if I’d finally encountered the ‘real’ Oxford, the Platonic ideal. While the rest of us were works-in-progress, vainly trying on different personae, Boris was the finished article.

In a similar way, Donald Trump fits an American, even a specifically New York stereotype: “the brash, vulgar-yet-successful businessman that so many imagine they might someday become,” as Anne Applebaum put it in a Washington Post column.

Obviously, there’s a flip side to that stereotype, too. I once asked Milton Glaser, the designer of the “I heart NY” logo, if he considered Trump a New York symbol. “His is a certain kind of personality that thrives in New York, which is narcissistic and self-absorbed, very aggressive, determined to exploit every opportunity, take advantage of every situation, and profoundly uninterested in other people,”  replied Glaser, who once designed a vodka bottle for Trump. “Everybody is there to be taken, at their expense and to his benefit.”

Then there’s Vladimir Putin, who at times appears consciously to play to the cliche of the close-fisted, calculating KGB man – and at other times to the Russian macho mythology, fishing and riding horses naked to the waist, romping with his dog in the snow. Both these stereotypes have their negative sides, too: The KGB man is a double-crosser, who only understands superior force.

Angela Merkel, for her part, is the epitome of German moderation, caution and precision. (The flip side? Humorlessness, lack of charisma, an aversion to leading.)

Significant numbers of Britons, Americans, Russians and Germans (this is not a complete list, of course) appear to buy the stereotypes whole, with the positives and the negatives. It’s as if they’re comfortable with a cartoon image of their supposed national character at the top. The mechanism behind this is perhaps the same one that makes us instinctively trust a pizzeria where waiters speak with an Italian accent. Who better to defend the national interest than a typical [fill in the nationality blank]?

The opposite may be true, though. It’s worth recalling the same countries’ most recent transformative leaders; they didn’t fit any national stereotype at all.

Tony Blair has few fans in today’s UK, but he did bring the country into the 21st century, establishing it as a creative hub and --- after two decades of fustiness – a fashionable place again. He also contributed significantly to making the UK a country of immigration, a country that, for a while, wasn’t institutionally hostile to foreigners. Regardless of what has followed, this was nevertheless a lasting change. The man who brought it about was a surprising character for the UK’s top echelons of power, a middle-class upstart and former rebellious youth who didn’t really fit any of the traditional political, social or behavioral molds.

Bloomberg View

Other opinion articles

Editor Picks