From the archive: Trump and Corbyn: What they mean for the political class

Michael Harris /   July 29, 2015 at 9:30 PM 3,668 views


Hear me out.

I realise that Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn couldn’t be more different if you created an equation designed to spit out two polar opposite politicians. Trump is a business mogul and natural bloviator with few apparent convictions beyond his own greatness. Corbyn is a dyed-in-the-wool democratic socialist who, whatever you might think of his politics, is certainly consistent; indeed, the complaint from his critics is that his politics haven’t moved on from the 1970s. In personality, style, politics, tone, background and experience they couldn’t be more distinct. They are political antipodes.

But then consider this:

They are both standing for the leadership of major political parties that have failed to win nationwide general elections since 2004/5 – before the financial crash and the Great Recession for which both parties were apportioned considerable part of the blame by the public (the Republicans have certainly been more successful than Labour in other elections, notably the mid-terms in 2010 and 2014, and at state level, but doubts remain as to whether they can appeal broadly enough to win a presidential election).

Both of their candidatures – one for the Republican nomination for President, the other for the leadership of the Labour Party – were regarded as ‘jokes’ when they started by the mainstream media and the political classes in both countries. Age (which is to say ageism), and not just their politics or political skills, has also been part of this – Corbyn is 66 and Trump is 69.

In the case of Trump, commentators didn’t think he was actually running – he’d threatened to in previous election cycles – until he clearly was. Some still question his ‘real motives’, or that his campaign is just about self-indulgence. In the case of Corbyn, he was regarded as the token leftwing candidate (last time it was Diane Abbott), there to register that there was still a vestigial Labour bit of the Labour Party. The media still suggests that he doesn’t even really want to be leader, and marvels at the rumour that it was just his ‘turn’ to stand.

Both Trump and Corbyn have been routinely under-estimated by other ‘professional’ politicians. Trump was regarded merely as a loudmouth reality TV star and hairdo. A number of Labour MPs, though disagreeing with Corbyn, nominated him just so that there would be a ‘broader debate’ in the Labour leadership campaign (mission accomplished). Both are repeat-offender ‘troublemakers’ for their parties, and neither seem to care. Both are running campaigns that refuse to conform with conventional wisdom, making a lot of very well-paid political consultants and commentators look rather foolish right now.

As a result, these commentators have waited less-than-patiently for both of their campaigns to fall apart and the ‘bubble’ to burst, explicitly treating them both as ungainly ‘interruptions’ to normal service. Early polls suggesting they were gathering considerable support were dismissed as ‘flukes’, and when something was clearly going on, their support was dismissed as merely a ‘protest’ – interesting and worth examining, but only as a diversion until their respective electorates really woke up and took the whole business a bit more seriously.

This has continued in various forms. Their supporters have been dismissed as ‘crazies’ and ‘lunatics’ (the propensity of critics to use such offensive terms is a subject for another day). Only when their support has seemed to not only sustain but grow have other explanations have to be offered: that they appeal to the simplistic, the haters/romantics, the ignorant and uninformed. In the same fashion, and reflecting the closeness in perceptions between the political and media classes, the other candidates haven’t known how to respond to them: ignore, marginalise, dismiss, caricature, or full-on engagement and criticism? They still don’t know how to respond, and time is getting on.

Both have found support and followers where the mainstream media and political classes didn’t think it existed. And yet still the commentators talk about their ‘natural ceiling’ of support, seemingly having forgotten the accuracy of their previous predictions.

How to explain their popularity then? Neither are great orators in conventional terms. But in very different ways both have a clear, direct political message and offer to their respective electors. Trump’ ill-fitting baseball cap reads ‘Make America Great Again’, and he relentlessly repeats the message at every opportunity. His point is clear: only a straight-talking successful businessman from outside Washington’s political class can cut through the crap and deal with Mexicans, the Chinese, ISIS, anyone really, in the way they really need to be ‘dealt with’. For Corbyn, the argument is that we don’t need to accept austerity, that we can own the railways and the energy companies, bring the banks to heel, defend public services and scrap Trident. Both of these messages, though diametrically opposed, in effect communicate the same thing: we can do more – we can do better – than we have been told by the established political class.

Their respective messages are then helped by the unconventional nature of their campaigns – Trump’s by circumventing the usual stumping around the early primary states and instead playing the ‘media primary’, Corbyn by doing the opposite in refusing the play the media game and gathering a grassroots momentum through town hall meetings. Either way, both candidates have tapped into the public’s obvious antipathy to PR’d politicians with their carefully calibrated messages. In short, they seem unscripted and authentic, and people like that even if they don’t necessarily agree with everything the candidates say or the way they say it.

Both can also be seen as legacies of their parties’ recent histories. Even right-wing commentators have been forced to acknowledge that Trump is the logical outcome of the drift of Republican politics over the past decade in particular – increasingly strident, bellicose, oppositional, exclusionary and reactionary. But commentators here have also been forced to try to explain the Corbyn phenomenon, including by suggesting that the left was ‘indulged’ as a result of Miliband’s distancing from new Labour. This does however make for a strange explanation: that the left is so unthinkingly belligerent that it never listens to ‘moderate reason’, but at the same time so sensitively aware of what Labour’s leaders say or don’t say that it affects their behaviour. The simpler and more obvious explanation is that there is a sizeable section of the Labour Party that doesn’t want to get fooled again, as they see it, by the Blairite tendency. The same goes for many conservative voters and the Republican establishment.

What the rise of both Trump and Corbyn suggests is 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. It makes sense then that the more the public is told what to do by a political class and media they increasing distrust, the more they want to do the opposite. In both cases, the political and media elite has been humiliated, and it’s for them – not Trump or Corbyn’s supporters – to learn the lessons and take the voters a bit more seriously in the future.

Finally, whatever happens, and even if Trump or Corbyn fail to win their respective campaigns, both should leave a mark on their parties, namely that they need to find ways to include rather than merely mock and dismiss a significant section of their core voters. Indeed, it’s not impossible to imagine both of their campaigns leading to new parties.

Meanwhile, both Trump and Corbyn continue to top the polls, and neither has anything to lose…

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