Populism has been rife in recent times. Whatever you think of Brexit, it’s difficult to deny that it came about through a populist campaign based on anti-elitism and “taking back control” – a slogan that’s still music to our ears, no doubt. A few months after our EU Referendum, Donald Trump won the US Presidential Election as the surprise Republican candidate. Once again, the sentiment was anti-elitism, “making America great again” with hard-right policies. Into 2017, the nerves have perhaps eased a little, many of us wary of the extremes. In their Presidential Election, the French rejected Marine Le Pen and her anti-elitist rhetoric, “in the name of the people”, but she gained unprecedented support for her party Front National. Most recently, in the UK General Election, the Labour Party saw an unexpected boost in electoral support under Jeremy Corbyn – though let’s not forget, he still lost the election!
Perhaps it would be farcical to suggest that Corbyn is similar to Trump (and Farage, and Le Pen). After all, Corbyn’s programme is unwaveringly socialist, anti-capitalist, internationalist, pro-trade unionist and environmentalist. By contrast, Trump’s is capitalist, nationalist, anti-trade unionist and far from environmentalist. Like Trump, Farage and Le Pen both led nationalistic anti-immigration campaigns. But they were outside of the mainstream – Corbyn and Trump both represent mainstream political parties.
So how are they similar?
All four presented themselves as outsiders, separate from and opposed to the political establishment; sympathetic to “the people”. The media didn’t initially take them seriously. Corbyn and Trump were even ridiculed within their own parties. These underdogs seemed ludicrous thanks to their outsider status and stark dissimilarity from their moderate, mainstream opponents. Party leadership battles (e.g. Corbyn vs. Burnham, Trump vs. Rubio) and election campaigns (e.g. Corbyn vs. May, Trump vs. Clinton) both demonstrated their distinctiveness from the moderate mainstream. Both Corbyn and Trump experienced challenges by their own parties. Their cult-like followings of grassroots activists later secured their positions.
They are both avid tweeters with large followings, gathering attention through social media rather than spokespeople and press releases. In doing so, they demonstrate how in-touch they are with “the people”, setting themselves apart from the political establishment and its traditional and impersonal methods of communication. They persistently criticise the media for being “biased” and “rigged”, emphasising their positions as underdogs in a way that almost demands pity.
What’s so special about underdogs?
They represent angry politics, their rhetoric based on “us” vs. “them” and scapegoating the villains in their narratives. Trump scapegoats Muslims and Mexicans, Corbyn scapegoats the rich (whatever “rich” is), “greedy bankers” and businesses. Both of their campaigns consisted of large rallies with passionate speeches. Trump claimed that Mexicans “bring crime” and “are rapists” and so proposed harsh anti-immigration measures. Consequently there has been racial tension and disruption to family life for millions. Corbyn promoted the renaissance of hard-left policies aimed at – brace yourselves – “taking back our wealth” and governing “for the many”. Grassroots activists hoped that workers would rise up against the rich (who, incidentally, fund the workers’ welfare, education and healthcare – the top 10% of income-taxpayers pay 59% of all income tax while the bottom 50% pay 10% of it).
It is this similarity that brought them their successes – angry politics. It’s easier to sell an ideology than a non-ideology. It’s easier to stir up a sense of resentment and discontent, to tap into people’s emotions, than to persuade moderation and rationality. Corbyn’s campaign might have been generally optimistic and hopeful, unlike Trump’s pessimistic and odious campaign, but it still evoked anger – anger at the status quo and an appetite for radical shifts.
By and large, neither Corbyn nor Trump proposed moderate policies as sensible solutions to real problems. They certainly didn’t consider all sides of a debate (e.g. Corbyn’s nationalisation programme or Trump’s Muslim ban). Both proposed extreme, often unnecessary changes and ideological templates that do more harm than good, often ignoring the concerns of the people and businesses they affect.
What should we learn?
The 20th century showed us that ideological government doesn’t work – whether it’s socialist, fascist, even neo-liberal. Government should make sensible, responsible decisions on a pragmatic basis, meeting a consensus between the groups and parties concerned, and doing what is necessary rather than what the ideology dictates.
With their angry, ideological politics, both Corbyn and Trump did surprisingly well against relatively moderate women who many expected to be handed a comfortable victory. These women accordingly led complacent, uninspiring campaigns that failed to identify the dangers associated with their opponents. The two men mobilised disillusioned voters with their populist campaigns and radical policies, causing unexpected boosts in turnout and in support.
Perhaps May’s and Clinton’s respective campaigns could have more effectively proven the risks associated with their opponents’ ideological policies. Merely ridiculing one’s opponents does little to win over their voters. The moderates need to combat ideologues like Corbyn and Trump. Similarities between their politics are few and far between, but they both represent emotive, ideological, personality-based, populist movements. They offer false hope, untruths, fallacies.