Political comebacks are becoming the norm, not the exception
Boris Johnson may not be the UK’s next Prime Minister, but he could easily become the Tory choice after the party’s likely drubbing whenever the next general election happens. Or perhaps earlier, if the party disintegrates ahead of schedule once again.
Johnson’s return, although now delayed, will reflect a growing political tendency around the world to keep bringing back the old warhorses of bygone eras. Even in Israel, former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, 73, seems primed to return to the office he held for a record-breaking 15 years.
The most important retreads, however, are in the US, where the two likely presidential contenders are President Biden, who will be well over 80 at the time of the election, and Donald Trump, who is already 76 years old. Neither one of these figures are particularly popular — their approval ratings tend to be in the low 40s or below — but they have nonetheless captured much of their party apparatus.
The reasons for this phenomena are complex, but reflect a torpor in our political culture which, like Hollywood, feels more secure with reruns than original ideas. Well-known politicians, even ones like Donald Trump, benefit from constant news coverage that newcomers can only fantasise about. The big money people often follow the media and notoriety, and usually back candidates with significant name recognition.
President Biden, the ultimate political retread, epitomises this trend. He was virtually nobody’s favourite candidate in 2020 yet the oligarchs who dominate Democratic politics feared the rise of the openly socialist Bernie Sanders and his slightly less dogmatic rival Elizabeth Warren. In the end, party grandees and big money interests took the less risky option and picked the cognitively deficient ancient mariner from Delaware as the party candidate.
In the general election, Biden was a somewhat calmer alternative to the toxic Donald Trump. His campaign was simple: hide in the basement, say little or nothing of substance, and let Trump suck up the news cycle. But now, it look as though we are going to have a repeat. Trump still inspires huge amounts of support among the GOP base, and he can count on 30-40% of the vote. What we could witness, ultimately, is a rerun where both candidates are disliked by a strong majority of Americans.
Trump is a master of self-promotion and seeks to reduce everyone else to a footnote, something the Democrat-friendly media is sure to emphasise. This is not a good strategy in the midterms, in which the media will make Trump the issue rather than the clearly incompetent man occupying the White House, as Barack Obama has pointed out. On the other hand, when on the ballot Trump may serve as the best means for the Democrats, bearing the burden of an unraveling economy, to keep control of the White House.
Of course, not all retreads are from the Anglosphere. Xi Jinping, already 69, has essentially appointed himself dictator for life. In Brazil, Lula is likely to be re-elected — after serving in prison for corruption. Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin remains in office at the age of 70 and may stay there unless he is purged from within. It turns out that old politicians are hard to get rid of, whatever their politics, except by death.