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What have Corbyn and Trump got in common? Anything? And a couple of other big questions (and answers) about two party political revolutions

January 28, 2018   4 mins

The authors of our recent profiles of the continuing Never Trump resistance and also of the Never Corbyn gang answer three questions about the phenomena at the heart of two enormous political upheavals…

QUESTION ONE: What’s the general view of rank-and-file party supporters to the Nevers? Will they be forgiven or will they be the last people that the parties will turn to?

Michael Brendan Dougherty: “Trump’s overall approval rating is abysmal, hovering just below 40%. This is all the more stunning when juxtaposed against a booming economy, and newspaper headlines about companies like Apple repatriating their capital to the United States, and an unemployment rate comparable to the go-go 1990s. Still, among rank and file members of his own party, Trump’s popularity is higher than was President Obama’s or Clinton’s at this time in their respective presidencies. Rank and file members seem to sympathise with Republicans who feel knocked off guard by Trump’s tweeting, but overall patience for NeverTrumpism may be running out as people rush to declare his first year in office an enormous success – despite an initial impression of disorganisation and constant controversy in the media.”

James Bloodworth: “Since the June election many of what you might call the waverers – MPs and commentators who had either opposed Jeremy Corbyn from the start or had spoken out against him when Labour was sitting low in the polls – have swung firmly behind the Labour leader. This has produced something resembling the zeal of the recently converted, with fierce competition online to see who can be the most zealous is pushing the line emanating from the leader’s office. This – together with the understandable hubris on the part of those who backed Jeremy Corbyn unwaveringly from the very beginning – has produced a climate on the left that is fairly inhospitable to Corbyn-sceptics. Oddly enough, the left has gradually adopted the very yardstick which in the past was used to measure the desirability of ‘third-way’ politicians: is the leader electable or not? Corbyn has apparently proved himself electable last year (despite not actually being elected) therefore any principled opposition to his leadership is given short shrift. It’s a fascinating role reversal the more you think about it.”

QUESTION TWO: Have the staunchest Nevers used their wilderness times to understand why they’re where they are and even begun to develop a real alternative set of ideas for ‘afterwards’?

Michael Brendan Dougherty: “NeverTrumpers agreed on Trump’s unfitness for office, but it turns out they agree on little else. Establishment Republicans still believe the party’s social conservatism – as well as a hostile tone on immigration – will doom the party’s prospects among younger voters. Others like David Frum have long believed that if responsible Republicans refused to address popular discontent with loose immigration laws and lax enforcement of them, irresponsible men would be called upon to do what they would not. There is only some minimal agreement that “mistakes were made” during the George W Bush years and recognition that Trump was able to distance himself from Bush’s legacy in a way other Republicans could not. Right now, many Republicans seem to be coping with the Trump presidency hour by hour, the post-Trump era is too far off in the horizon.”

James Bloodworth: “If it doesn’t sound too fence-sitting I think some have and some haven’t. It is rather similar to Brexit in this respect: you have the diehard Remainers who wish to mount some sort of coup to reverse the result, and then you have more thoughtful commentators who are genuinely aghast but want to burrow into why things have transpired as they have. With respect to Labour it is easy to mock the so-called soft left for its pusillanimous acquiescence in the Corbyn project, but they do at least grasp that it is important to understand why so many people (so many young people especially) are fed up with the status quo.

In contrast, some of the staunchest Nevers have made errors similar to the most vitriolic liberal critics of Donald Trump. A culture of performative denunciation has replaced solid analysis or a proper material critique of why things are happening as they are – i.e. why politics is so tumultuous at the present time. I can’t remember where it comes from but the phrase ‘the ecstasy of sanctimony’ springs to mind. There is a strand of liberalism which finds it satisfactory to frame political questions in strictly moral language, and to excommunicate irredeemably ‘bad’ people from the community of the good. So just as supporters of Donald Trump were branded ‘deplorables’ by American liberals – conjuring up an irresolvable division of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ people – so supporters of Jeremy Corbyn have been written off as ‘deranged’, ‘mad’ etc. by a section of the right of the Labour Party. When the debate is personalised like this it betrays a lack of ideas. There would be little point to politics at all if everything could be explained with resort to the supposed morality/sanity of one’s opponents.”


QUESTION THREE: Other than being outsiders and tuned into social media, have the two got anything else in common?

Michael Brendan Dougherty: “Trump and Corbyn do have some things in common. In fact, perhaps the most important fact about their respective successes is shared. Each of them was willing to break with the post-Cold War political orthodoxy of ever-freer movement in goods, capital, and labor. That meant each of them were able to speak to voters who felt like globalisation was leaving them behind. Both of them were willing to be abused in the media and by their party conferes for doing so, lending each of them a sense of lonely integrity in the current political landscape. They each put themselves on the side of democracy against a liberal-consensus that was taking issues away from voter input. By making themselves enemies of the normal political class, a group widely believed to be self-dealing and self-interested, Trump and Corbyn have been able to convince voters to overlook their respective sins, whether it was Trump’s misogyny, or Corbyn’s softness for the IRA.”

And one more thing in common? Jeremy Corbyn’s controversial outreaches to the IRA when it was still at war with the British state are well known. And, as The Independent reported, Mr Trump also held out his hand to the IRA’s Gerry Adams. In 1995.

James Bloodworth: “Each side – Nevers as well as supporters of Jeremy Corbyn – underestimate the extent to which their opponents are motivated by principle. It has become ubiquitous on the left – as I think the late Christopher Hitchens pointed out – to assume that your opponent’s lowest conceivable motivations are invariably the real ones. Yet for the most part the leading Nevers and the most high profile Corbynistas have strong convictions. It isn’t simply a power play – though inevitably there is a degree of that as well as vanity at work as there always is in politics. Should the Labour Party attain power in the near future it will be interesting to see how many of the current crop of left-wing idealists transform into ardent pragmatists and party-liners. This is happening to a degree already with the tightening of message discipline coming from the leader’s office. It isn’t difficult to imagine a future Corbyn-led government being assailed from the left by some of the Nevers, especially on foreign policy where the purported idealism of many Corbynistas is actually indistinguishable from run-of-the-mill realism.”

James Bloodworth is a journalist and author of Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain, which was longlisted for the Orwell Prize 2019.


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