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The U.K. And The U.S. Could Both Be Led By Blunt-Spoken Populists


This week, Britain's Conservative Party is expected to choose Boris Johnson as its leader, and because the Conservatives are the ruling party, that would also make him the next British prime minister. Johnson is a larger-than-life populist who's campaigned on controlling immigration, much like the current president of the United States. Here's NPR's London correspondent Frank Langfitt.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: In 2016, the U.S. and the U.K. were poised for political earthquakes. Key voters were frustrated with establishment politics, suffering from the negative effects of globalization and worried that foreigners would change their communities. Boris Johnson and Donald Trump responded. Trump famously promised to build a wall to keep out undocumented immigrants.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists.

LANGFITT: In Britain, Boris Johnson was leading the Brexit campaign, vowing to take back control of immigration by leaving the European Union. In a debate at the time, London Mayor Sadiq Khan criticized Johnson for campaign leaflets suggesting Turkey would join the EU and become a back door for Syrian refugees to enter the U.K.


SADIQ KHAN: That's scaremongering, Boris. You should be ashamed.

LANGFITT: Johnson's defense?


BORIS JOHNSON: It's government policy. As far as I - as far as I know, last time I looked it, the government wants to accelerate Turkish membership.

LANGFITT: Which, in fact, isn't even on the horizon. Johnson has also emphasized his discomfort with the changing face of Britain, writing that women in burkas look like mailboxes or bank robbers. Paul Whiteley is a professor of government at the University of Essex. He says Johnson's message was clear.

PAUL WHITELEY: The other, in very broad terms, is a threat. And in some respects, it is. It's not just propaganda. It resonates because there is a fear in poor communities that the few jobs they have will be taken away by immigrants, but also a cultural change into something that's unrecognizable and alien.

LANGFITT: Both Johnson and Trump have pledged to return their countries to a mythical better age. Trump often speaks fondly of what he calls the old days.


TRUMP: We're going to bring back made in the USA, and we're going to have a lot of jobs come back. We're going to have a lot of jobs.


TRUMP: We're saying Merry Christmas again.


LANGFITT: Many Brexiteers see the good old days as World War II, when the U.K. stood up to the Nazis, or the age of British Empire. Johnson describes Brexit as an opportunity for Britain to forge an independent future unshackled from the European Union.


JOHNSON: I think Winston Churchill was absolutely right when he said that the empires of the future will be empires of the mind. And in expressing our values abroad, I believe that global Britain is a soft-power superpower.

LANGFITT: Brian Klaas is an assistant professor in global politics at University College London.

BRIAN KLAAS: Trump and Boris have tapped into a nostalgia for a time when there was a whiter Britain and a whiter United States. In Britain, there's an added layer of nostalgia for the idea that we are, in this country, not as powerful as we once were. So the idea that the U.K. will be independent and powerful and, once again, as a very, very potent one.

LANGFITT: As both leaders seek to transform their countries, they also have targeted what they describe as the enemies of change. For President Trump, it's the Beltway establishment.


TRUMP: We are going to drain the swamp in Washington, D.C.


LANGFITT: And for Johnson, it's the Eurocrats in Brussels, who he says started with an economic integration project and now want to build a super-state.


JOHNSON: It is not we who have changed. It is the EU that has changed out of all recognition. And to keep insisting that the EU is about economics is like saying that the Italian mafia is interested in olive oil and real estate.

LANGFITT: Robin Niblett is director of Chatham House, the famed London think tank. He says many politicians in the West failed to address the human costs of globalization, creating opportunities for populists like Johnson, Trump and others to rise to power.

ROBIN NIBLETT: It took us 20 years to get into this crisis of displacement and dissatisfaction bubbling to the surface. It's going to take at least 20 years to get out of it.

LANGFITT: Trump faces an election in 2020, and Johnson still has to solve the giant riddle that forced out his two predecessors, Brexit. But the populist forces that propel both men are likely to endure. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.