After an amateurish, occasionally shambolic, national convention, Donald Trump accepted the Republican presidential nomination with a promise: when he ascended to the White House in January 2017, “the crime and violence which afflicts our nation will soon come to an end…”
This messianic utterance was delivered in the course of a very long speech in which he veered from endorsing the rights of the LGBT community and equality for women – views associated more with liberal Democrats than the people who comprise his core vote – to avowing the old proto-fascist sentiment “America First”. This mix of what his conservative enemies, like Ted Cruz, call “New York values” and the revival of isolationist rhetoric from the early 20th century seemed to constitute, in the view of many Republicans, a promising start to the presidential campaign.
To the rest of us, it might confirm the suspicion that the man is criminally stupid or the most cynical demagogue in American political history. The very idea that this speech could be seen as some sort of coherent expression of Trump’s rationality tells you everything you need to know. This isn’t funny any more. Here at home, during the same 48 hours, Jeremy Corbyn responded to the accusation that he personally, as well as the people who supported him, were responsible for bullying and intimidation of their own party members. In his softest, disappointed schoolteacher voice (“You’re letting yourselves down chaps”), he told a television reporter: “I don’t allow bullying.” This statement came after he had warned his MPs that they would all be subjected to re-selection after the boundary review of 2018, and after his most faithful lieutenant, Diane Abbott, blamed the disloyalty of Labour backbenchers for the disastrous Corbyn performance at PMQs. And, most spectacularly, after the Labour whip Conor McGinn reported that Corbyn had threatened to complain to McGinn’s father, a Sinn Fein councillor, about an interview his son had given to The House magazine in which he accused the Labour Left of “sneering” at the public and losing touch with its working-class supporters. “I’m going to tell your Dad what you said,” doesn’t count as a threat in today’s Labour Party.
It would be easy to overdo the parallels between Trump frenzy and Corbyn mania. On the face of it, they are both bizarre flights from reality: both involve political parties which have chosen leaders who were the least likely ever to win an election. Before his extraordinary bulldozer effect hit the primary contests, it was a commonplace that a number of other contenders had a better chance of beating Hillary Clinton than the absurd Trump, whose political message seemed to consist of playground insults and know-nothing eruptions. Even by the end of the primary season, after all his startling victories, the polls were showing that Trump would lose to Hillary where Marco Rubio would have won.
Meanwhile, here in Corbynworld, there was not even a pretext of choosing an electable leader. This was not about succeeding to government at all. Earlier this month, the founder of Momentum, Jon Lansmann, tweeted: “Democracy gives power to people. Winning is the small bit that matters to political elites who want to keep power themselves.” (And there was me thinking that electing a government was the ultimate expression of a people’s power.) No, as the present obsession with intimidation and threats of deselection makes clear, this is an entirely private, internecine fight. Not a campaign to persuade the wider electorate, but a Leninist coup seizing the levers of power in the Labour Party: a grudge match which goes back at least 30 years.
When Corbyn made his perfunctory, five-minute speech to launch his leadership campaign, he made only the most listless references to matters that might affect the country at large. This was actually all about the party which was “stronger” after his 10 months of leadership – by which he did not mean “stronger” in any sense that would encompass electoral politics. How could he, considering Labour’s showing in the polls? He meant that it was ideologically stronger: that the grip of the hard Left was now virtually unbreakable. Furthermore, he said, warming to the real matter at hand, after this leadership election was over it would be “the job, the duty, the responsibility” of every MP to “get behind the party” – which is to say, to get behind him and the new doctrinal purity of the Movement.
So at least in one sense, Trump and Corbyn are direct opposites. Trump represents the triumph of anti-politics: arguments and positions can be utterly contradictory (even when they co-exist in the same speech); basic principles are so vague and amorphous that they cannot be tested against reality, and emotive appeals to inchoate frustration are more important than policies. Questions of detail are waved away even when there have been concrete statements involving life-and-death Nato commitments. The New York Times reported last week that when Ohio governor John Kasich was approached by Trump’s son as a potential vice-presidential running mate, he was told that the vice-president in a Trump White House would be responsible for domestic and foreign policy. So what, he asked, would President Trump be responsible for? “For making America great again,” was the breezy reply. Not so much commander-in-chief as rabble-rouser-in-chief. Politics is just noise-making or glory-seeking showmanship.
But so far as Corbyn and his people are concerned, politics in the purest theological sense is the most important thing in life. Indeed, it is life itself. That is why getting elected is so relatively unimportant. It is the personal journey of ideological development and self-realisation through class conflict that matters: the cleansing of the consciousness, which is a kind of secular soul, that brings one closer to the understanding of the real condition of social relations and economic oppression… (sorry, got carried away for a minute there). Compared to this revelation, how trivial the transitory occupation of meaningless political office seems.
If Trump and his army of the “forgotten and neglected”, as the man himself puts it, are supremely apolitical – so much so that they can scarcely articulate any specific objectives for his administration other than to “make America great (or safe, or a winner) again” – then the Corbyn army is Politics Unbound. So why do we get the eerie feeling that there is something uncannily – and alarmingly – similar if not in the manifestations themselves at least in the restiveness which has caused them? The facile explanation has been that there is a general, widespread disillusion with the governing class – what Mr Lansmann calls “the political elites” – in advanced democracies. Leftists like Jeremy Corbyn exult in what they see as the final stage of the alienation that Marx predicted. Nationalist demagogues like Trump present it as a betrayal of the trusting folks at home and of the people who thought their country belonged to them.
But the important thing they have in common is the use of demonic enemies: evil employers in the case of Corbyn; evil foreigners in the case of Trump. We have been here before. It was these wicked fables of class and racial enmity that fuelled the terrible ideological crimes of the last century. The democratic process – which was a product of the Age of Reason – is being systematically discredited. The message can be shouted (Trump) or whispered (Corbyn) but it is equally insidious: elected governments do not – cannot – deliver for you. This may be more, God help us, than a fleeting, comic historical moment. It may be the beginning of something truly terrible.