In the last two years of Donald Trump’s term as US president, his attorney general was William P. Barr, who had the rare experience of having served in the same post 25 years earlier, under a very different president, the establishment Republican George H.W. Bush. The US attorney general is both a cabinet member (an adviser on policies of justice and law enforcement) and an impartial, non-partisan, chief prosecutor. That’s already a difficult tightrope to walk, without having Trump tweet – as he often did – that he urged his AG to get his enemies.

In his recent memoirs, One Damn Thing After Another, Barr assures us that Trump never actually interfered in his prosecutorial work. The one time Trump did phone to discuss a case, Barr hung up on him and Trump let it go. The tweets, however, were complicating Barr’s life and he had repeatedly asked Trump to cut back.

Then came a meeting with Trump, which from Barr’s perspective had gone well. Perhaps too well, from Trump’s point of view. As the meeting concluded, Trump told the group he was about to post a tweet:

“He smiled playfully. ‘Do you know what the secret is of a really good tweet,’ he asked, looking at each of us one by one. We all looked blank. ‘Just the right amount of crazy,” he said.

‘Oh, great,’ I said as I stood up.”

This episode is revealing. It doesn’t just tell us what it was like to work for Trump. It gives us a peek into Trump’s self-awareness. He knew how to dominate attention by unleashing chaos into public discourse.

But did he know how to control the chaos? Or even understand it? It’s a question that insists on being answered these days, not just as we learn more about Trump’s last days in office, after he lost the presidential election, but also as the Conservative Party in the UK comes to terms with the chaotic legacy of Boris Johnson.

Trump and Johnson are often paired together for understandable reasons. Johnson is credited with the winning of the Brexit referendum in 2016 and, later that year, Trump became president against all odds.

Both are credited with a public persona that could, improbably, reach very different kinds of voters, personally loyal to them rather than to the political parties they led. Both are associated with chaotic government, that tore up the rule books, especially of their own personal behaviour.

And both have been said to resemble the autocrats of a different kind of state – of Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

But those comparisons just don’t add up. All five men are populists. We can agree to call all of them dangerous for democracy. However, who would think of calling Orban, Erdogan or Putin chaotic?

Chaos is what they impose on others. They themselves work systemically with cold reason. Even those who claim that, today, Putin has lost his cold ability to calculate, acknowledge that means he’s no longer quite himself.

Donald Trump and Boris Johnson operate in systems where to think you can get things done by resolve alone is a fantasy- Ranier Fsadni

It’s significant that we can speak of Putinism, Erdoganism and Orbanism. The three men have lent their name to a method of domination – the steady takeover of state media, the police, the economic establishment and other institutions.

But there is no Johnsonism – apart from Boris being Boris. The chaos associated with Johnson is what he found himself mired in: U-turns, corruption, lies, security breaches that met with steady resistance from the various establishments, treasury, foreign office, media that opposed him.

There is such a thing as Trumpism. However, it is not reflected in a takeover of the establishments but, rather, the opposite. Cutting deals with autocrats both predated and post-dated him. Driving a heavy bargain over trade deals likewise, as any European involved in negotiating with the US will tell you.

As for the January 6 riot, if it really turns out to have been a planned insurrection, it was so chaotic that even our own parliament could have withstood it. None of this takes away from the gross irresponsibility of Trump in the events; it should disqualify him from holding public office again. But, if it was an attempted coup, who can imagine Erdogan or Putin ever planning one so comically inadequate?

The lasting legacy of Trump will be in the justice system, from his three supreme court appointments to many judges all through the lower courts. But this is a legacy intrinsically tied to using the establishment, rather than defying it.

The three supreme court justices were the choices of the conservative judicial establishment. All three clerked for conservative supreme court justices and were associated with top law schools. Two of them had worked for the Republican establishment.

None would have been appointed without the machinations of Mitch McConnell, the ultimate senate insider, who also made sure that Trump – who never managed to fill all his White House vacancies – nonetheless filled a record of court vacancies.

And, in the end, Trump never controlled the media. He was booted off Twitter. And, while Fox News was often mocked as Trump TV, it was Fox that began to deliver the bad news on election night.

None of this is an apologia for either Trump or Johnson. It’s simply pointing out real differences in the populisms around us.

We can speak credibly of the iron resolve of Putin or Erdogan because of their real ability to impose their will – to purge, to kill or simply to cancel. They stand for an order, even if it spells chaos for others.

Trump and Johnson operate in systems where to think you can get things done by resolve alone is a fantasy. They pull levers that don’t respond; they pressure people who face no personal risk in resigning. They can still be dangerous for the system but it’s a different kind of danger, arising from disorder.

Do we have either of these populisms in Malta? Offhand, I’d say we have both. The ghosts of iron resolve haunt the Nationalist Party; the cold hidden hand has taken over Labour. Alas, we have neither the right amount of calculation or crazy.

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