British politics features a strategy called deadcatting. The brainchild of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s former electoral adviser Lynton Crosby, it goes like this: If you’re at a dinner party and you make a terrible mistake — say something awful, commit an unpardonable act or get caught in a lie — your dinner companions may gaze at you in horror. They may demand an apology or seek redress. This is where the deceased feline comes in. You simply produce a dead cat from your bag, whacking it onto the table with a thud. Immediately, everyone reacts. Cries of disgust. Alarm. Furor. Chaos. People are arguing about what to do with the thing — cleaning up, throwing up, screaming, pointing. “Everyone will shout, ‘Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!’” explained Johnson. “In other words, they will be talking about the dead cat — the thing you want them to talk about — and they will not be talking about the issue that has been causing you so much grief.”
We British know Johnson as the consummate dead-cat dealer. It has become as much a signature tic as the supercilious grin or the word-salad mumble. But like those affectations, its sole purpose is to give him cover. Listen to his interviews, watch him in Parliament: Asked any question, he is as likely to reach for the dead cat as he is to even attempt to engage with the substance of the inquiry. In January, under pressure after illegal parties at 10 Downing Street were exposed, Johnson baselessly accused the opposition party leader of enabling the pedophilia of the infamous Jimmy Savile; in early April, facing grim inflation figures, he announced plans to sell off the beloved public broadcaster Channel 4. On Thursday, his misdeeds increasingly in the spotlight and facing calls to resign, he announced a proposed deal with Rwanda, a Commonwealth country, in which Britain would send tens of thousands of migrants there for processing and possible resettlement. Cue, in every case, predictable outrage. Cue, every time, the focus shifting.
As with so much else, Johnson shares his deadcatting proficiency with former president Donald Trump, but this past week, Johnson faced something Trump has never faced: accountability. Johnson became the first sitting British prime minister determined to have broken the law. Specifically, a police investigation found that he violated his own government’s lockdown rules during the height of the pandemic by hosting boozy parties at the prime minister’s residence. He has been fined and faces increasing pressure to resign. Could it be that the dead cat has an expiration date?
At the heart of the deadcatting impulse for both Johnson and Trump is a belief in the magical power of their own words. Johnson’s past is a diary of lying and being found out. He was fired from his first newspaper job for fabricating stories. In his next reporting job, he plotted to have a fellow journalist attacked. His Brexit campaign is remembered chiefly for the mendacity of its claims, from Turkey’s membership in the European Union being imminent (it isn’t) to more money being available to the National Health Service as a bonus of leaving the E.U. (it wasn’t). But dead cats make headlines, and the ex-columnist prime minister loves headlines as much as Trump loves ratings. Calm statecraft? Good governance? Never mind them, look at this dead cat.
The trouble is, when it is deployed with regularity, the dead cat becomes routine. It loses its value to shock. It becomes inflationary. The stunts must get bigger, the rhetoric more incendiary, or they fail. Entropy demands that more and more energy be expended. Consider how Johnson first claimed that there had been no parties. Then, if there were parties, all guidance was followed and no laws were broken. Then, he had been at a boozy lockdown party (“Bring your own booze!” said his invitation), but he had not known it was a party.
This is a man who believes that his words are magical tools for making things go away. He is Macbeth, happily interpreting the witches’ prophecy that he will rule “until Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane shall come against him” to mean he’ll be “world king” forever (as his youthful ambitions have long been described), only to watch with queasy dread as his enemies cut down that very wood and march toward him under its cover to set fire to his castle. Johnson’s own words — tossed out to distract and deflect — now haunt him. He faces rising pressure to step down not just because he broke the laws he made but because of his dead cat compulsion.
This, too, is Trump and his family. Trump’s televised performances are more like those of an illusionist than any politician; he is a seller of spectacular misdirections — bigger and bigger lies, even — in the chase for ratings. He seems to defy political gravity. Trump and Johnson are not strongmen at all but carny politicians who occasionally talk about themselves in the third person. In Britain, Johnson’s spell is woven from upper-class privilege. Eton; Latin witticisms. In the United States, Trump’s is more Vegas — all golden toilets, casinos and riches that may themselves be illusory. Catch the show at Mar-a-Lago. You’ll find him in residence seven days a week. Try the veal.
But this reliance on self-dramatization is their shared tragedy. Neither seems to care, even to know, whether what they are saying is true or their achievements real; only that the audience in that moment believes. Deploy the dead cat, and the audience gasps, or applauds, or chants “Lock her up,” or is disoriented enough to let a potentially tricky line of interview questioning drop.
It is a grim paradox that Johnson’s latest dead cat is the same war in Europe he laughed off in front of a parliamentary select committee last year, telling the panel with a smirk that tanks and battles were no longer the way things were done. “Look over there!” he now says, pointing at Ukraine. He cannot possibly be expected to resign when somewhere else is at war. Isn’t he on the front line, his surrogates cry, tweeting a photo of him visiting an air base in Oxfordshire in February before he did, in fact, travel to Kyiv last weekend to stroll with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. It is also perhaps fitting that Russian President Vladimir Putin, a fellow media manipulator, has shown by his actions in Ukraine how mendacity can be inflationary. A Ponzi scheme, it feeds off its own growth, off its continued amplification. Once you commit to staying in power by selling bigger and bigger spectacles, trading in bigger and bigger lies, you push belief to a breaking point.
Putin may have a sense of his own end game, but like all compulsive self-dramatists, Trump and Johnson never seem to think about what comes next. It’s performance, then applause, credits and fade. Their seeming lack of empathy renders them incapable of imagining that the audience might not vanish at that moment. We remain. And long after the party ends, we are still here. And so are all those dead cats, and the records. Justice may be slow in coming, but we have time. As the Hemingway character said of his bankruptcy in “The Sun Also Rises,” it came in two ways, “gradually and then suddenly.”