From the archive: Trump and Corbyn – On how to be an ‘outsider’

Michael Harris /   December 5, 2015 at 11:26 AM 3,037 views


Back in July I wrote a post on Trump and Corbyn: What they mean for the political class’. It’s something of a contrivance to compare two such polar opposite figures as Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn, I’ll admit, but I suggested there were some striking parallels between the two:

  • Both were standing for the leadership of major political parties that had failed to win nationwide general elections since 2004/5 – before the financial crash and the Great Recession for which both parties were apportioned considerable blame by the public.
  • Both were regarded as jokes by the mainstream media and political classes (age was also part of this). In the case of Trump, commentators didn’t think he was actually running until he clearly was, and continued to question his ‘real motives’ until more recently. In the case of Corbyn, he was the token leftwing candidate, there to register that there still was a left in the Labour Party.
  • Both were routinely under-estimated by other ‘professional’ politicians; both were repeat-offender ‘troublemakers’ for their parties (neither seemed to care), and both ran campaigns that refused to conform with conventional wisdom, which were regularly expected to fall apart, and which didn’t (in the case of Trump, hasn’t yet).
  • This has continued in various forms. Their supporters have been dismissed as ‘crazies’ and ‘lunatics’ (both have found support where the mainstream media and political classes didn’t think it existed). Only when their support seemed to not only sustain but grow were other explanations offered: that they appeal to the simplistic, the ignorant and the angry/romantics.

Both Trump and Corbyn also tapped into the public’s obvious antipathy to PR’d politicians with their carefully calibrated messages; they seemed authentic. But plenty of politicians, particularly on the presumed ‘political fringes’, can seem authentic. With Trump and Corbyn, both in their very different ways had a clear, direct political message – from Trump’s call to ‘Make America Great Again’ to Corbyn’s argument that we don’t need to accept austerity and that Labour could return to its ‘true values’.

In this way, I also suggested that both could be seen as legacies of their parties’ recent histories. Even right-wing commentators were forced to acknowledge that Trump was the logical outcome of the drift of Republican politics over the past decade in particular – increasingly strident, bellicose, oppositional, exclusionary and reactionary. In the case of Corbyn, commentators suggested that the left was ‘indulged’ under Ed Miliband’s retreat from new Labour. Smarter commentators woke up to the fact that there was a sizeable section of the Labour Party that didn’t want to get fooled again, from their perspective, by the Blairite tendency (to continue the parallel, the same has gone for many conservative voters and their distrust of the ‘Republican establishment’).

The point was that the rise of both Trump and Corbyn suggested that people don’t much like being told who it is ‘acceptable’ to vote for, which views are ‘repugnant’ or ‘old-fashioned’, and which candidates in a democracy can and cannot win before a single vote is even cast. I suggested that, whatever happens, both Trump and Corbyn would leave a mark on their parties, and that it wasn’t impossible to imagine that both of their campaigns would lead to new parties (a possibility that remains).

With apologies for the lengthy recap, what’s happened to them since?

Corbyn has of course become leader of the Labour Party, and Trump of course continues to lead the Republican Party primary. Both are still being discounted to some degree: the reality is dawning in some quarters that Trump could be the Republican nominee (although the assumption remains that he will fade), and that Corbyn will at some point be pushed out by his own MPs. But in both cases, their opponents still can’t see a clear roadmap to usurping them.

Beyond that their fortunes have diverged, and here’s where the parallels break down.

Trump has continued to dial-up the Trump into new areas of racism, sexism and now disablism. This only seems to have added to the sense, for some voters at least, that he is prepared to ‘talk straight’, whatever other people (or the media) think. As has been noted often, for any other candidate such outbursts would have ended a campaign; for Trump such outbursts are the campaign in that they seem to cement his appeal to a broad swathe of predominantly white non-college educated dejected potential voters who want to see someone – anyone – shake-up a corrupt political system and get something done.

Corbyn meanwhile has had a pretty torrid time, in part I’d suggest because he often hasn’t continued to talk straight and has failed to appeal much beyond the supporters who gave him the Labour leadership. Yes, Corbyn has faced an overwhelmingly hostile mainstream media, but he’s also played into it with a succession of missteps and vagaries which have required further ‘clarification’. Trump has also faced a hostile media, but in contrast he leans into it for his own ends to reinforce his ‘outsiderdom’. Corbyn just seems like he’s on the outside, if you appreciate the distinction.

Why is this? Corbyn has been increasingly revealed as not sharing many of the intuitive views and positions of the mass of ‘ordinary voters’, while Trump has increasingly revealed that many ordinary voters do share his views, much to the horror of the political class and mainstream media. Which is why Trump is forging a new blue-collar (working class) coalition which is not just limited to right-wing voters but stretches to quite a few independents, while Corbyn is not.

Does Labour’s clear victory in the Oldham West and Royton by-election disprove this? I don’t think so. Without wanting to repeat the media’s mistake in anticipating doom in Oldham and then dismissing the result when their predictions were proved wrong, I’m not convinced it confirms that Labour under his leadership is suddenly electable to the extent that it needs to be to stand a realistic chance at the next election. But it certainly means that any moves against Corbyn will be deferred, at the same time that real questions about how Labour can appeal to the people it is supposed to represent surely remain.

The point isn’t that Corbyn would do better to stoke and echo racist and exclusionary views. The point is that he hasn’t found a way to speak to the mass of dejected (potential) voters, to convince them he’s on their side, that he gets why they’re dejected and angry, and that he’s the man to shake-up the system on their behalf (I’ve suggested that this is fundamentally because of the left’s stupid-intellectualism).

How to do this? What Trump reveals, uncomfortable though the comparison may be, is that politics is as much if not more about the clear and defiant projection of personality as it is about policies and positions.

Especially if you’re an outsider.

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