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Analysis: Trump, Johnson and the messiness of democracy

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — One leads the world's most powerful country. He ricocheted across the United Nations this week, talked about putting America first, sent several annoyed tweets and suddenly found himself under an impeachment-shaped cloud.

The other leads the land where common law was born. He delivered a manic U.N. speech on technology's pitfalls and possibilities, barely mentioned the existential political morass encircling him, then dashed off for a late-night flight home to deal with a court ruling that says he broke the law.

The appealing thing about democracy is that it gives people the power to chart their own destinies. The messiest thing about it is that that the whole affair kind of has to involve, well, people. And people are very unpredictable, as was clear this week at the U.N. General Assembly when twin hurricanes named Boris and Donald blew through with the winds not exactly at their backs.

As events unfolded along the East River in Manhattan, the pair's forays into multilateral territory this week produced some advance field research into how chaotic democratic nations and their leaders can be — and how, when We, the People get to choose who'll lead us, today's stability can become tomorrow's question marks.

For many decades, the United States and Britain — a democratic republic and a functioning parliamentary democracy, respectively — were generally pillars of stability. Even the institutional chaos often happened within a certain, somewhat predictable bandwidth.

This week, Johnson rolled through Manhattan hotly pursued by accelerating Brexit complications, heavy criticism at home and a devastating court ruling that could threaten his premiership only months after he took office. Would he still be prime minister by the time he left New York? Who knew?

And Trump's barnstorm through his hometown was punctuated by a whirlwind of accusations that he used his office to pressure a fellow head of state (the new Ukrainian president, who happens to be at the U.N. this week as well) into investigating a potential Democratic election opponent.

By the time Trump was ready to head back out, the speaker of the House — another pivotal part of the messy American democratic republic — had announced she'd begin an impeachment probe. In between, Trump largely skipped a major climate conference while managing to hit Twitter long enough to take verbal aim at a 16-year-old activist and her supporters.

"Just so you understand, it's the single greatest witch hunt in American history. Probably in history," he told reporters (yet another unpredictable feature of functioning democracies) about the Ukraine investigation.

Vivid? Yes. Predictable? No. Part of the way that democracies unfold? Absolutely. Like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates, you never know what you're gonna get. In the United States, Trump is a figure as compelling and viral as he is polarizing. Love him or despise him, you gotta give him this much: You can't help but look. His promise in the first place, after all, was to upend expectations.

He has delivered. At the U.N. this week, his emphatic "America first" theme was, it's true, framed squarely in the language of the United Nations and a respect for others' sovereignty and patriotism. But Trump's pointed remarks distilled just how far he has veered from 70 years of calibrated multilateralism pursued by most Republican and Democratic administrations.

"If you want democracy, hold on to your sovereignty. And if you want peace, love your nation," he said. "Wise leaders always put the good of their own people and their own country first." At the same time, Trump has long cultivated an identity as a self-styled wildcard — a guy who might say or tweet anything at any time and could, say, decide on a dime to go where no U.S. president has gone before and step into North Korea. It's a persona that he has thrived on since long before the presidency. But in a political system deliberately designed to be messy to begin with, it's sometimes dizzying.

Same with Johnson, who cheerfully tapped into a similar seam of just-below-the-surface chaos in Britain to build his own success — and who used the contentious issue of departure from the European Union to clamber up his political ladder.

When he took the podium at the U.N. on Tuesday night, what came out at the start was a curious goulash of TED Talk, populist rally and get-off-my-lawn screed about the desolate or optimistic futures that technology might bring.

He raised his voice. He waved his arms. He used terms like "terrifying limbless chickens." Just as actors sometimes play "versions" of themselves on TV shows, this felt like a heightened version of Johnson — Boris, only more so.

And though he barely mentioned his dire political situation, save one quip about Brexit, at one point he presented an almost plaintive outcry that handed his viewers a prism into the way he sees the world.

"How do you plead with an algorithm?" he asked. "How do you get it to see the extenuating circumstances?" That's the thing about democracy, and about the leaders we might and do elect: None of it is remotely an algorithm. You can't run data through a democracy and reproduce the results identically each time. You can't be certain that the candidates you pick will rule in the same way they ran, though they might. You can't be sure about anything, really.

It's messy, sure. But it's a glorious mess, born of the fervor of people who — sometimes with politeness, sometimes with ugliness, sometimes informed and sometimes ignorant — are deciding for themselves who they want to be and how they want to do it.

And knowing — more than ever, perhaps, in these tweet-filled days — that their leaders have weaknesses and quirks and inconsistencies and insecurities and foibles just like they do. In his speech this week, Trump talked about the "desire for domination" that democracies can help prevent. "Our Founders," he said, "gave us a system designed to restrain this dangerous impulse. They chose to entrust American power to those most invested in the fate of our nation: a proud and fiercely independent people."

Ted Anthony, director of digital innovation for The Associated Press, has been writing about international affairs since 1995. Follow him on Twitter at @anthonyted.

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