One of the most striking things about Boris Johnson, who became UK prime minister last 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. He was an instantly recognizable character from the comic tradition in English letters: a pantomime toff.”
In other words, the likable decadent straight out of Evelyn Waugh and P.G. Wodehouse. But Johnson is also instantly recognizable to those who, unlike Young, despise the stereotypical toff, coming off as arrogant, airheaded and unreliable.
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 habitual liar and double-crosser, the macho a thug who only understand 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, who at times looked like an American import and who may have permanently broken Labour, the party that brought him to power, by abandoning its leftist roots.
Barack Obama, Trump’s predecessor, pulled the US out of the global financial crisis and its international image out of the tailspin caused by George W. Bush’s military adventures and backsliding on civil liberties. His eight scandal-free years at the White House and the way he treated people when he was president will keep many in the US pining for him for a long time to come. And yet he doesn’t fit any kind of US stereotype; black, wonkish, born and raised in Hawaii outside of any church, he was a rare bird throughout his career.
Mikhail Gorbachev, the man who did the impossible: Liberalizing Russia after 70 years of communism, then reluctantly overseeing the collapse of the Soviet empire. The transformation he brought about remains momentous, despite Putin’s efforts to revive the past. He, too, was a stereotype-defying figure. His obvious lack of interest in the oppressive kind of power, his easy gregariousness, his dyslexic torrents of unscripted speech and his highly untypical worship of his intellectual wife made him a maverick in the eyes of the Russian elite and the Russian public alike. Many fail to understand to this day how he managed to get to the top and stay there for more than six years.
And in Germany, while some might argue that Merkel’s long rule has been transformative enough, it doesn’t rise to the high bar set by her mentor, Helmut Kohl, who unified the country 45 years after the last world war split it in two; he was also one of the masterminds behind the modern European Union. Margaret Thatcher famously, and unflatteringly, called him “so German” after he pulled one of his classic jokes on her, trying to feed her pig’s stomach. But Kohl didn’t quite fit many of the national stereotypes, especially those that apply to the country’s meritocratic elite. A known glutton with an ever-growing belly, he often irritated his intense, perfectionist fellow citizens; the first in his family to go to university, he was also known for a dislike of careful preparation -- a German who rarely did his homework.
Great leadership, off course, doesn’t lend itself to clear rules and patterns. Somehow I doubt, though, that in these precarious times conforming to national stereotypes is the right answer to very unusual challenges. Only a truly unusual leader could pull the UK out of its Brexit nosedive, the US out of its exceptionalism trap, Russia out of its slide into irrelevance and Germany out of its provincial complacency. As it is, we have to make do with the cliches.
Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist. -- Ed.