Foreigners can sometimes see a country with the greatest clarity. British politicians and journalists, who think themselves sophisticated, watched Dominic Cummings’ press conference in the Downing Street rose garden on Monday – along with countless citizens outraged by elite double standards. To my knowledge, only one viewer saw the trick Cummings was pulling. It wasn’t an opposition MP or hot-shot reporter but Jens Wiechers, a data protection consultant from Cologne.
Wiechers had the wit to do what the Cummingses of this world hate above all else: check. He found that, for all his inflated reputation, Cummings is nothing more than a sneaky little cheat.
The context of his charlatanism matters because it connects the Cummings-Johnson administration to the global attempt to delegitimise criticism. A section of the UK right is desperate to shift blame for this government’s inability to govern to “the media”. Online mobs hounded television reporters last week, as government loyalists rallied behind the banner of #scummedia.
Cummings gave them the marching orders. He wanted Tories to believe he was not a hypocrite who broke the lockdown his government instructed others to obey. Rather he was the victim of “numerous false stories in the media about my actions and statements regarding Covid”. Journalists, he continued, claimed he had opposed the lockdown and “did not care” about the mass deaths. Nothing could be further from the truth, the radical disrupter of the stodgy status quo explained. He possessed a prescience that bordered on the magical. He could prove he cared because as long ago as last year he “wrote about the possible threat of coronaviruses and the urgent need for planning”.
Viewers might have wondered why, if Cummings was warning about coronaviruses in 2019, his government had failed so abjectly to protect the British in 2020. You saw it coming, and still messed up? They might have thought twice before believing the man who gave us the outright falsehood that Brexit would deliver £350m to the NHS in the 2016 referendum campaign.
They didn’t doubt him because lies are so common in contemporary politics they blow past us like dust in the wind. No one checked, apart from Wiechers. “In retrospect, I could pretend I knew not to believe Cummings and Johnson,” he told me from Germany, where he watches British and American public life with a horrified fascination. “But I began by wondering what he had written on his blog last year.”
He found that Cummings had posted on 4 March 2019 on the dangers of the Sars coronavirus in a wider piece on pandemics. Or so he wanted us to believe. The post struck Wiechers as a lazy piece of writing filled with extracts from the work of others. The now suspicious Wiechers checked Cummings’ blog on the Wayback Machine, a digital library that tracks changes to billions of web pages. It showed Cummings had added the reference to coronaviruses between 9 April and 3 May 2020. Further research showed Cummings’ own site recorded that the post was edited at 8:55pm on 14 April precisely, the day Cummings told the public he had returned from his trip to Durham.
The man’s deviousness was breathtaking. His evidence that the media were running “false stories” against him was a false story. As striking was his ridiculous vanity: Cummings cared so neurotically about his reputation as a prophet that he forged the record so it appeared that he was warning of the “urgent need” to plan for a corona pandemic while the minds of lesser men and women were elsewhere.
The vanity is more than striking, it is essential to the right’s attempt to maintain its power. Supporters of strongmen do not want populist leaders who are “just like us”. They want to believe their heroes are smarter and better. The manufacture of the myth of exceptional talent is as important to the strongman as the ability to turn their voters against journalists, judges and any other independent group that might check them. Liberals should not laugh at Trump’s boast that he is a “very stable genius”. Trump has persuaded his core supporters to believe that he is a superman, who can master any problem and cut any deal, ever since he first ran for president.
Boris Johnson spent years showing off his superficial understanding of the classics by picking up Latin phrases from his well-thumbed dictionary of quotations and dropping them into his articles. A little learning was not a dangerous thing for him but a smart career move. It convinced conservative-inclined voters that Johnson had enjoyed the education of the old imperial ruling class and was not the lightweight he appeared to be. The fact that hardly any educated person studies Latin and Greek today made it easier for Johnson to bluff his way to the top when so few could see the vacuity behind the pose.
His administration has presided over thousands of needless deaths. It has never got on top of the virus. A terrible recession is all but upon us, and it’s likely that Tory zealotry will destroy the chance of a decent deal with the European Union that a broken country needs. Now more than ever, Johnson wants Conservatives to believe in the illusion of his talent.
Unlike Trump and Johnson, Cummings is not trying to fool the public but fool the fool who employs him – not the hardest of tasks, I grant you. He sinks to the level of the petty cheat because he must convince Johnson that he is a political mastermind.
Don’t be fooled as well. Too many liberals see Cummings as a manipulative demon with supernatural powers, when the most frightening thing about him, and Johnson, is their pathetic inability to control events. They are not evil geniuses but lazy, dogmatic and incompetent men, whose shabbiness is revealed as much by their little deceits as grand blunders. Don’t inflate them into monsters, who can never be beaten. Draw courage from their littleness.
•Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist