Donald Trump took a metaphorical dump on every single page of the modern political playbook. Under those rules, a candidate with no solid organisation, establishment backing, strategy, strong fundraising or coherent narrative, whose speeches were just WWF wrestler-level theatrical braggadocio, shouldn’t have stood a chance. But Trump more ably understood widespread political disenchantment and anger from those who didn’t care for professionally-crafted speeches or being accused of racism or misogyny and had nothing to lose. Learning from The Apprentice, he ran a reality TV character candidacy where ethics, lies and outlandish statements are just part of a successful character.
This is a wake-up call for the political geeks and pundits who have turned politics into what Pitchfork Media is to music – changing an accessible concept into an overly-analytical, unintelligible cultural branding exercise and personal journey. Especially outside America, many believed they understood the political behaviour of 18-49 year old White college graduates from Ohio based on what they gleamed from New York Times articles reinforced by Facebook likes while constantly hitting refresh on Five Thirty Eight. We ignored warnings from the frequently-dismissed Michael Moore, who probably better sensed the mood of his white working class Michigan kin than any pollster. The columnists and pundits who we worship no longer understand politics, let alone our their citizens. Where we don’t speak a narrative that ordinary people understand in times of trouble, right-wing populists create them with devastating effect. French President Marine LePen and Dutch Prime Minister Geert Wilders in 2017 are no longer remote possibilities.
It’s not enough for politicians to digitally stitch together hypothetical demographic-geographic voter coalitions based on polling algorithms, we need to engage different perspectives outside of our personal echo chambers.
This is an indictment of the approaches of the mainstream left worldwide. Our democratic and economic models are badly failing to provide healthy political debate, economic and social stability and solve deep national and global problems in a post-GFC world. Yet, many of us mistook a pro-corporate, pro-Iraq War foreign policy hawk and poor political campaigner for a dynamic reformer based on gender alone rather than demand actual reformers and good candidates like Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders. Now, to paraphrase Veep, ‘The fact that you are a woman means there will be no more women presidential candidates because we tried one and she fucking sucked.’
This election confirms that large parts of our societies no longer understand each other and seethe with mutual hatred. Now that Hillary lost, the onus is on the broader left to get its act together. Currently, we don’t know what we want nor are we collectively capable of comprehending what would drive people to vote for Trump or Brexit beyond often overly zealous and moralistic applications of privilege frameworks or just punching down on our social inferiors.
The only way out of this mess is through listening and trying to understand what motivated a Trump victory or Brexit without being condescending. Most of these voters aren’t Hooterville-dwelling, rabid racist, sexists and homophobic rednecks looking for their next marginalisation. There’s a deeper sense of disempowerment and insecurity in a national and global democratic and economic model no longer fit for purpose for which people like us don’t have a simple yet convincing answer. Many of whom might not agree with Trumpian or Faragian rhetoric or thrust at least find an open ear. The wholesale political reforms that are required need less Hillarys, more Elizabeths and Bernies, and many who have made political choices that we despise. Their votes have to be earned without demanding they conform to every item on our idealistic utopian wish-list. Democracy isn’t a nightclub queue guarded by social media bouncers checking your political dress code.
Politics is ultimately about power: who has it, why they have it, what they use it for and how to change it. Change requires listening to different views, learning to think from different perspectives and arguing a case rather than curling up into a ball and shouting ‘safe space.’ Participating in politics means being confronted with people we dislike or hate and if that we can’t learn to coexist or engage, then Donald Trump is the perfect consequence when our political brands and self-enforcing algorithms matter more than what other people think.
Worldwide rage at Donald Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering America has culminated in a 400,000-plus petition to ban him from entry into the UK reaching the House of Commons for binding debate. Owen Jones labelled him a menace and warned us not to see him as a clown. In this case, our popular rage appears misplaced. Consider the makeup of the Home Office list of banned individuals. This ranges from figures who have said controversial things to serious financial fraudsters, alleged terrorists, convicted war criminals, and human rights-abusing politicians. Strangely, there was no similarly popular petition to ban Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi – previously informally banned over complicity in Muslim pogroms as Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2002 – from visiting the UK in October. Our well-meaning efforts ignore not only the context of the Home Office list but also the reality of what Trump actually represents.
Trump’s presidential campaign resembles a billionaire vanity project meets a My Fair Lady/ Around the World in 80 Days ‘gentlemen’s wager’ in which American political dysfunction has allowed to succeed. Republicans candidates are trapped by an alliance of monied lobbyists, donors, and grassroots primary voter groups they fund who can fight politicians who have strayed from absolute devotion to their conservatism. Presidential candidates are being forced further to the right of the American public and can no longer simultaneously serve red meat in the primaries and convincingly return to the middle during the general election. Case in point: Mitt Romney.
The antipathy towards these disingenuous, professionally-trained career politicians has many among the Republican base more willing to support novices. In 2012, Herman Cain – the former pizza mogul whose bizarre campaign ads, naivety, multiple claims of sexual harassment, and a speech quoting Pokemon: the Movie – temporarily led the polls. In 2016 – amid a sprawling 17 mostly conventional candidates – Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, and Donald Trump have each stood out and held the limelight. Similar to Cain, Carson has fallen due to misleading biographical claims and Fiorina was hurt by aborted foetal organ harvesting claims and her record as CEO of HP.
Trump has succeeded against other novices and establishment candidates because he runs not as a politician but as entertainer. A candidate for the reality TV age in the mould of Simon Cowell or Gordon Ramsay – blunt and mean and whose controversies are treated as mere aggrandisement. Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi, in his article ‘Inside the GOP Clown Car‘, argued this was a shift from professional politics in favour of celebrity. ‘He’s taken the Beltway thinkfluencers out of the game and turned the presidency into a pure high-school-style popularity contest conducted entirely in the media. Everything we do is a consumer choice now, from picking our shoes to an online streaming platform to a presidential nominee.’ A typical Trump campaign rally or debate isn’t a political event but a self-aware brand: bouffant hair, spray tan, wiseguy New Yorker attitude playing a reality TV president for the crowd. Even his mocking of the disabled, women, and now Muslims feels less like bigotry and more of a calculated, shameless appeal to bigots within the Republican base. He’s not beholden to politician rules so hasn’t suffered the consequences. If he did, the Sinn Fein fundraiser attendee, Democrat and Bill Clinton supporter, now Republican businessman with dealings with Chinese businesspeople and Gulf State Muslim princes would be at single-digits. Luckily, this hurts his chances in the general election.
Amidst our outrage, we ignore real demagogues like Narendra Modi the politician and elevate Trump to the position of political menace. We’ve confused entertainment for politics. Trump is a clown, but more symbolically he’s a court jester playing a satirical presidential candidate and consequently mocking a corrupt process. Close the petition page, pour a drink, and enjoy this meta-spectacle.
It is claimed that the UK Labour establishment is in panic over opinion polls and endorsements indicating that left-wing leadership candidate Jeremy Corbyn is the frontrunner in the leadership election. Former leadership candidate Chuka Umunna has fronted criticism of Corbyn in an attempt to temper left-wing Labour members with realism, yet this might not be enough. Corbyn’s level of support arguably reflects a wider shift in centre-left values worldwide. In this environment, there are signs that primary voters are moving away from mainstream options in favour of their ideal candidates. Hillary Clinton’s strongest challenger in the Democratic primaries is independent, self-described socialist Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who is running on a left-wing platform similar to Corbyn, and is performing far better than anticipated. Both candidates are fuelled by grassroots campaigns with strong youth support. In that sense, Corbyn’s obvious parallel is Tony Benn’s close challenge to Labour deputy leader Dennis Healey in 1981.Corbyn and Sanders are, like McCarthy and Benn, transformed from rebels to serious contenders. Sanders’ campaign has similar vigour to Senator Eugene McCarthy’s campaign against President Lyndon Johnson in 1968, in which a narrow Johnson victory in the New Hampshire primary caused him to drop out. The outcome of these elections depends more on how their mainstream opponents respond to the new political environment.
So far, the Labour leadership election campaign has been lacklustre and often limited to the ad-nauseum repetition of words such as ‘aspiration‘ that have stripped of meaning to a degree that it wouldn’t be entirely surprise the public if the main candidates are either clones or alien replicants. Though Liz Kendall has arguably had more success articulating a coherent, down to earth narrative than other mainstream candidates Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper, Corbyn has been the main beneficiary of this, probably because he has claimed the mantle of idealism. Corbyn acts as a Tony Benn-like figure representing a grassroots socialism and whose appeal contrasts with the image of professionally-designed, poll-driven, focus-group tested, policy and talking points communicated in pure political speak synonymous with the downside of New Labour. Likewise, Hillary Clinton is hindered by a long-entrenched image as an inauthentic, calculating politician in opposition to the curmudgeonly but passionate Sanders who has taken up the abandoned mantle of idealism which Obama had used to defeat her in 2008. In any case, what worked for Tony Blair in 1997 and Bill Clinton in 1992 might not succeed in 2015. In a world of austerity, ongoing inequality, mass data collection, drone strikes, and failed military interventions, there is an arguably greater passion for figures like Corbyn, Sanders, and others who articulate an passionate idealism rather than those who stake out calculated, strategic, tested positions. Candidates must acknowledge the limits of an overly cautious, professional approach.
The basic challenge of whoever wins is to achieve what Ed Miliband failed to do: channel empathy and articulate policies that make a meaningful difference in peoples lives in a way that captures an idealistic desire for change. For Burnham, Cooper, Kendall, or Clinton in America to win, this means communicating with authenticity and empathy rather than gimmicks and orthodox solutions. UK Labour MP Simon Danczuk cites Andy Burnham’s idea of more regional accents in shadow cabinet as a patronising, cosmetic solution that doesn’t address a deep distrust of politicians. Danczuk proposes that leadership candidates should listen, communicate authentically, and relinquish greater power to local government and service users for communities to find solutions to unemployment, poverty, and education that reflect their needs. This approach articulates both idealism for political change that is also pragmatically grounded.
If Burnham, Cooper, Kendall, Clinton or any centre-left politicians worldwide disagree with radical opponents, they would be better served with an authentic, pragmatic idealism rather than dismissal. If they cannot do this, then candidates like Corbyn and Sanders become – at least by default – the best candidates.