Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: After two consecutive devastating losses at the ballot box, a political party begins to devour itself, its core voters disgusted with the perceived detachment and insufficient ideological purity of its elites.
Then a man comes onto the scene seeking the party’s leadership. Viewed initially as a quixotic and marginal (even comical) figure, he quickly seizes the hearts and minds of his party’s most disgruntled voters with his blunt manner, who hail him for his “authenticity” and outsider status.
The establishment’s guffaws of disdain turn into squeals of panic as the outsider candidate not only fails to implode as expected — despite his obvious “unelectability” — but instead becomes even more popular with every outrageous policy statement, to the point where polls show him to be far and away the leading choice in a fractured field to win his party’s vote.
The punch line, of course, is that I refer not only to Donald Trump’s ongoing rampage through the GOP’s pre-primary season (and to some extent, the Bernie Sanders surge in the Democratic field), but also to the chaos currently overtaking the United Kingdom, where old-school socialist Jeremy Corbyn looks poised to be elected as the Labor Party’s next leader.
In fact, Labor’s position seems a good deal more precarious than the Republican Party’s: For all the buzz about Trump’s candidacy, few, if any, pundits expect him to win a single primary, much less the GOP nomination.
But Corbyn is for real: The most recent YouGov polling puts him at a 53 percent majority of the Labor Party vote, a full 32 percent ahead of his nearest rival, and ballots are set to go out at the end of the month.
And Corbyn’s politics are indeed nationally toxic in the United Kingdom, an ironic political inversion of Trump’s screechings about Mexican rapists and Megyn Kelly’s monthly cycle.
Corbyn is a true believer in the discredited hard-socialist (to the left even of Sanders’ brand of socialism) policies that relegated Labor to a footnote during the Thatcher era: His economic policy is a variation on “soak the rich,” he’s called for the nationalization of railways and industry, wants to reintroduce the infamous “Clause IV” (calling for collectivization of the means of production, in hearty old Marxist style) into the Labor Party platform, has hinted at seeking closer relations with Putin’s Russia and even refuses to condemn IRA terrorism.
Whatever the popularity of these policies among Labor’s activist base, they are deal-breakers nationally. Prime Minister Tony Blair (the only man to win a national majority for Labor in the last 40 years) took to the pages of The Guardian with a sad plea to his fractious party: “Even if you hate me, please don’t take Labor over the cliff-edge.”
Blair’s warning against political suicide seems likely to fall upon deaf ears, if for no other reason than that he is, indeed, roundly loathed as a sellout “Tory in disguise” by the very elements of Labor that are rallying to Corbyn.
And it’s here that the most interesting parallel between Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump comes to the fore: their supporters. Corbyn is an avowed leftist whose convictions (regardless of their sanity) aren’t in doubt. Donald Trump is a blustering rodeo clown play-acting at politics. And yet if you were to close your eyes and simply listen to the supporters of both men explain their attraction as candidates, you’d hear the same refrains. “He’s authentic.” “He’s telling it like it is.” “The establishment has failed us.” “BUT HE FIGHTS.” Policy positions, in fact, rarely enter into the discussion.
And that explains so very much about the current state of politics in both nations. Trump and Corbyn are important not in themselves, but rather for what they represent: the curdled disillusionment that so many feel toward our politics. It’s among the faithful of the “out-parties,” the losers of national elections, where that disgust has quickly transformed into internal party rebellion.
In both cases, disaffected voters have chosen their avatar less for what he says than for how he says it: Support for Trump and Corbyn is meant less as a declaration of policy allegiance than a kick in the face of otiose, constantly hedging politicians who play it safe.
The problem is that such “authenticity” matters a lot less to the general-election voter than to the ideologically committed party member. And it looks like Labor is going to receive a much swifter, and more brutal, education than the GOP in why it’s folly to place your trust in such things.