On the eve of the 2016 US Presidential election Charlie Falconer, in Italy giving a tour d’horizon of politics to a group of distinguished lawyers, said he thought that Trump would win – it felt a lot like Brexit. He was resigned to it. And right. Farage wasted no time in getting himself photographed with Trump boasting about his special relationship with him. Yet, 3 years on, arguably it is another British politician who has a better claim to be the British Trump: our PM In-All-But-Name (© Alastair Campbell) – Jeremy Corbyn.
Surely not? Hard to imagine a PM Corbyn rushing to Washington to pay homage, let alone holding hands with Donald. Even harder to imagine Trump welcoming Corbyn’s election. One is a spectacularly vulgar capitalist; the other a proud socialist. But look past the obvious differences and some similarities are striking.
A disruptive agenda. Abroad.
Both seek to disrupt, to upend the existing political settlement, both domestic and international. Trump may not have been the first US President to start the slow process of US disengagement from Europe but he has been the most brutal in expressing his contempt for Europe, its institutions, NATO and other post-war bodies. He does not accept the wider post WW2 settlement nor the US’s role in it.
Nor does Corbyn: for many years he thought the UK should withdraw from NATO. He has bemoaned the loss of the Soviet Union because it acted as a counterweight to the US’s dominance. Under a Corbyn premiership UK foreign policy is likely to shift radically from its automatic anchoring within the Western alliance and in support of the US (which, unlike every previous post-war UK PM, he does not consider to be a force for good and stability).
Both of them take a dim view of foreign intervention. Trump seeks to retreat to US borders viewing US armed forces as little more than mercenaries who should be paid more handsomely than now for protecting ungrateful Europeans.
Corbyn has been against every UK armed intervention since WW2, including protecting Kosovan Muslims from Serbian aggression. Projection of UK military power beyond the UK’s borders is unlikely ever to trouble a Corbyn Cabinet. Ironically, it is Israel which interests both men, though with diametrically opposed approaches, and Russia, seen by both as a misunderstood and often unjustly maligned friend or, at least, not the bogeyman it is usually portrayed as.
And at home.
Both seek to make a clean break with what they see as the failed policies of their predecessors, the existing consensus and assumptions about globalisation, free markets, free trade. The labels may be different but their domestic approach, although different in key essentials (Trump wants low taxes, Corbyn high ones) is an essentially nostalgic one: for a time of support for home grown industries, skilled jobs for life for the working man, controls over free-wheeling big corporations, a dislike for outsourcing, mobile capital, the gig economy with its precarious labourers, prone to undercutting by foreigners.
There is much to criticise about the current economic settlement – and both are very good at it – but there is something very 1960’s and 1970’s about their solutions.
An adoring base. Fans willing to overlook personal peccadillos or unfortunate associations. An ability to talk about what really concerns ordinary people and come up with apparently appealing solutions. A detached relationship with the parties they represent and a contemptuous attitude or indifference to its long-serving representatives. A focus on personal relationships rather than working through established institutions.
Even an old-fashioned approach to campaigning mixed with a very up-to-date use of social media. Trump may have made Twitter his own in a way that Corbyn has not but both seem happiest at rallies, in crowds, whipping up fervour and chanting in a way reminiscent of an older campaigning style. Corbyn may be the less obvious narcissist; yet it often seems as if Labour has become Corbyn’s party rather than he its latest leader.
Us and Them.
Both men have a small trusted group around them, though Trump is far more willing to discard those who displease. But both are unwilling to engage with those beyond their immediate circle; both dislike challenge and criticism and have a tendency to petulance, self-pity and aggressive lashing-out when faced with anything less than simple adoration or agreement.
There is a troubling disregard for the idea of legitimate opposition or for independent institutions, notably a free press. Fake News may have been invented by Trump but it has proved attractive to Corbyn’s outriders. Both have an uneasy relationship with the truth and are quite willing to be, well, economical with the actualité. Only the degree of shamelessness varies.
Nostalgia for a time when economies seemed more ordered and fairer is one thing. But there is another way in which both men have presided over, maybe even enabled and flirted with, older and less welcoming attitudes, ones which the world had thought buried in the ruins of a defeated Germany or inconceivable following the traumas of the fight for civil rights and Obama’s election.
Trump’s post-Charleston comments, his refusal to disavow support from white supremacists, his willingness to scapegoat immigrants, often quite offensively, have helped revive a nastiness that had lurked in the shadows.
Similarly, a self-styled anti-racist fighter all his life has – somehow – found his party and himself criticised for reviving, spreading and/or turning a blind eye to anti-semitic memes and insults, as happily uttered by white supremacists in Charleston as by socialist anti-racists in Liverpool.
Trump has been very willing to dish out the nastiness himself; Corbyn has left this to others – his questionable comments having been made when he was a political nobody. But both have allowed the previously unsayable, the previously unthinkable to become mainstream in a way which has revived old hatreds, to the despair of many, even as they both claim to want to create a better Britain or a greater America.
If Corbyn looks at all to US politics for inspiration, it will likely be to Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. There are few in the UK who see Trump as someone to be emulated or admired. And many who hope that he is a passing phase, a regrettable and unwelcome intrusion into a civilised world. But he is the political outsider who, unexpectedly, won against the odds and may well win again.
His influence may be more far-reaching than his critics assume. His type of politics is no longer inconceivable: Bolsonaro in Brazil, Erdogan in Turkey, even Salvini in Italy and Hungary’s Orban have something of the Trump about them. Corbyn may despise everything Trump stands for but, like him, he is a political outsider wanting power so that he can radically reshape society. As he has said: “Change is coming.” It is a sentiment with which Trump would heartily agree.