Powerful puppets manipulated by a dark enemy - or nutty fruitcakes?

Powerful puppets manipulated by a dark enemy - or nutty fruitcakes?
Prime Minister Boris Johnson (left) meets US President Donald Trump at the 74th Session of the UN General Assembly, at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, USA. Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Are US President Donald Trump and British prime minister Boris Johnson just not coping with mental health challenges? Or is it really the case that they are Manchurian Candidates, asks Fergus FInlay

ARE we in the grip of men with serious mental health issues? Men who, to a greater or lesser extent, have an influence on our future? Men who lack sufficient judgement and critical faculties to be trusted with important decisions? Men who are the puppets of even more sinister forces?

There’s an irony in these questions. Last week young people all over the world were galvanised by a passionate and angry speech by Greta Thunberg at the UN. She has told us that she is a 16-year old with Asperger’s syndrome. That means she is on the autistic spectrum, with great strengths and difficult challenges.

It’s clear that she has used the strengths that Asperger’s has given her to overcome many of the challenges that are part of the condition. So she is a brilliant communicator when perhaps she shouldn’t be. She has the capacity to inspire, when some of her peers are withdrawn. But she openly acknowledges the fact that she has had to deal with Asperger’s. As she says herself, it could have been a disability. Instead she has made it into a superpower.

The two men I have in mind have never acknowledged any personal issue in the way Greta Thunberg has. But in the same hall where she made her speech, and at almost the same time, one of those men sneered openly at her, and the other made a speech that was rambling and incoherent to the point where you wondered when men in white coats would arrive with a hypodermic syringe to calm him down.

We’ve all seen the sneering reaction Greta’s speech got from people of power and influence. People incapable of dealing with the truth she was telling chose to attack or denigrate her personally instead. The so-called leader of the free world mocked her openly in a tweet, saying she was “a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see!”.

I’m sorry to put it this way, but only a pig would send out a tweet like that. But what are we to expect of a man who, when it was suggested that Greta Thunberg could be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, said that if they gave out the prize fairly, he himself would be the likely winner?

We’ve come to recognise Donald Trump as a classic narcissist, defined on the website of the world-famous Mayo Clinic as a condition “in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others”. The website goes on to say that “behind this mask of extreme confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism”.

One of America’s most influential newspapers, The Washington Post, this weekend ran a story under the headline “Staring down impeachment, Trump sees himself as a victim of historic proportions”. It said that Trump is “determined to cast himself as a singular victim in a warped reality”. In his own account, he’s a hard-working and honourable decent old skin whose conduct has been “perfect”.

And yet, according to one of his own tweets over the weekend, “There has been no President in the history of our Country who has been treated so badly as I have.”


Bit of a slam-dunk, that. He sort of proves the diagnosis every time he applies his thumbs to his phone. The narcissist in trouble exhibits a persecution complex like no-one else can.

But what are we to conclude about the behaviour of the other man, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, prime minister of the United Kingdom and First Lord of the Treasury?

Last week, while he was in New York, the Supreme Court in London issued a momentous and historic ruling, which in effect found Johnson guilty of usurping the British constitution.

A few hours later, Johnson took to the podium of the United Nations, and among other things, asked his audience if they knew what artificial intelligence would mean. “Will it,” he asked, be “helpful robots washing and caring for an ageing population? Or pink-eyed terminators sent back from the future to cull the human race?”

And while the audience was wondering what to make of that, he went on to ask what will synthetic biology stand for. Will it be about “restoring our livers and our eyes with miracle regeneration of the tissues, like some fantastic hangover cure? Or will it bring terrifying limbless chickens to our tables?”

These weren’t throwaway remarks, made in the context of an otherwise important speech. Boris Johnson, in his very first address as prime minister to the UN General Assembly, against a background of world poverty and injustice, terrible wars, and the ever-deepening climate emergency, went on and on about some mad, unregulated vision of technology ruling the world.

The speech issued by his office was 2,098 words long. With the exception of the first 68 words (yes, I counted them), the entire thing was mad as a hatter. Your mattress will monitor your nightmares, he told them. Your fridge will beep for more cheese.

Powerful puppets manipulated by a dark enemy - or nutty fruitcakes?

And then, having told them all about a dark future when computers would have taken over the world (you kept expecting to see Arnold Schwarzenegger hovering nearby) he suddenly announced that he didn’t believe a word from anyone who was anti-science, and invited all the leaders of the world to a summit meeting about all this to be held in London next year (where, he said, it doesn’t rain 94% of the time). This was the speech of a man utterly disconnected from reality, made at a time when the country he leads is more divided than at any time in his lifetime, and against a background where he has been largely responsible for fomenting that division. What does that sort of speech tell you about him?

Or is it the case that these two men are not, either of them, coping with mental health challenges? Is it really the case that they are Manchurian Candidates?

The Manchurian Candidate remains my favourite thriller. It’s a novel about how brain-washing is used to place chosen candidates in positions of immense power with a view to manipulating them in the interests of a dark enemy — in the case of the book (surprise surprise) the enemy was Russia.

The similarities have been there, and often commented on, since Donald Trump first emerged. But with Johnson beside him, and Britain heading towards even greater polarisation than the US, you have to wonder whose interests are being served. Because neither of these men, in the reckless and dangerous divide and conquer tactics they employ, are serving the interests of the people who elected them.

If it’s a conspiracy, that’s deadly dangerous. The idea that anyone is pulling the strings of two of the most powerful elected leaders in the world is genuinely frightening. That’s why, although it might seem like a strange thing to say, actually we’d all be better off, wouldn’t we, if Boris and Donald were both just as nutty as fruitcakes?

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