An outspoken member of the ideological fringe on a major national party soars to first place in that party’s leadership election, widely regarded as unelectable but backed by a wave of grassroots supporters who view the current establishment as corrupt and unnecessarily compromising. The establishment itself has no idea how to combat this insurgency; some try to accommodate these new extremes while others condemn them outright. Pundits throughout the media proclaim that, while this insurgent candidate is certainly shifting the terms of the debate, they aren’t actually going to win, and as soon as the election is over – the normal laws of politics will resume. As the contest drags on, despite constant and near universal negative coverage in the press, the candidate’s popularity just grows and grows and grows until — eventually — their supporters are vindicated with a triumphant election victory.
Jeremy Corbyn, or Donald Trump?
The only part of the above scenario that does not apply to everyone’s favourite lightening blond billionaire is that fact that he hasn’t won – yet. Despite having just lived through the perfect example of how a major political party’s orthodoxy could be overturned by an angry base, much of the British media seems to have subscribed to current prevailing logic in American politics: that a Donald Trump victory in the fight for the Republican nomination is simply unimaginable.
On the contrary, it’s clear that not only is Donald Trump the current front runner, he’s well on his way to being the Republican nominee come this summer.
At first glance, Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn could not appear to be more different. One is virulently anti-immigration and has been widely condemned as borderline fascistic in his call for a ban on all Muslims entering the US, while the other is an old-fashioned socialist who many see as being just slightly to the right of Vladimir Lenin. However both candidates are remarkably similar in the reasons for their rise.
The major appeal of both candidates is based on a rejection of pragmatic compromise of ideals to gain power that the party establishment wishes to pursue. With Labour this proved enough to sweep Corbyn to power, and likewise the strength of feeling about immigration in the Republican party could be all Trump needs to succeed.
Both are fuelled by supporters who fundamentally distrust the media as biased, corrupt and dishonest. For Jeremy Corbyn, this meant that high-profile interventions from senior Labour figures and negative coverage from many sections of the media had little effect on his campaign. Similarly, despite constant obituaries for his campaign in the media and likewise condemnation from party figures such as Dick Cheney, Trump has remained a steady front runner throughout the entire race.
The similarity between two insurgent candidates however, is not the only factor that proves how Trump’s campaign will mimic Corbyn’s. Indeed if that was all that was needed to triumph in a party election, Bernie Sanders would be on his way to the White House and Hillary Clinton would be looking for a time-share retirement home in Florida. The establishments of both parties seemed to rely entirely on Trump and Corbyn supporters eventually “coming to their senses” and supporting one of the more moderate, electable candidates . As a result, both parties have been noticeably complacent in dealing with their respective candidates. With establishment figures quietly getting behind respectable, moderate candidates (Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham for Labour, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio for the Republicans) and assuming that the much-vaunted laws of political gravity would eventually reassert themselves. In Labour, this proved to be a catastrophic mistake, and meant that any serious intervention to try and stop or Corbyn from winning proved completely ineffectual. It may already be too late for the Republicans to stop Trump, with Rubio, Bush and even Cruz languishing behind him in every recent poll.
In both instances, almost all observers on both sides of the Atlantic agreed that ideologically extreme candidates simply had no hope of achieving the broad base of support required for victory. The most optimistic predictions for Corbyn at the beginning of the race placed him at a poor third behind Cooper and Burnham; even Owen Jones has spoken retrospectively that he was unsure that a candidate from the far left should join the race for fear that they would be soundly defeated. Yet Corbyn is now the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. Corbyn not only won amongst the rush of “£3 supporters” but also the existing membership, whose moderation and centrism had been sorely overestimated by virtually every pundit in the media. It is fairly likely that Trump will pull off a similar coup, and for similar reasons. Far from being on the fringe, Trump is well-liked by a large portion of Republican supporters, indeed when second preferences are taken into account (an important factor as the smaller, less popular candidates start dropping out) he has the support of over half the party – Trump’s support is not coming from an angry minority, but reflects genuine disenchantment among the Republican base, just as Corbyn’s success reflected a similar phenomenon in the Labour Party.
In the end, the most glaring similarity between the GOP and Labour is that neither can blame anyone but themselves for the state they’re in. In the short term the Republican failure to contain, and even at times encouragement of, the Tea Party movement is undoubtedly one of the key reasons why Trump leads the pack today. One cannot encourage an anti-government, anti-establishment movement and then expect it to simply subside around the time of a general election. In the same way, the victory of Jeremy Corbyn is clearly linked to the proliferation and popularity of anti-austerity movements on the British left from 2010 onwards. Under his predecessor Ed Miliband’s leadership, the party moved more to the left than it had been before, opposing every cut put before parliament, proposing rent controls and an energy price freeze. However, despite all of this, the Miliband leadership still put forward a manifesto that would involve some form of budget cuts in order to appeal to the moderate voters Labour needed to win, alienating swathes of the membership and sowing a feeling of desperation. Meanwhile, the influx of more left leaning members between 2010 and 2015 would go a long way to explaining why a party that nearly elected the centrist David Miliband in 2010 would elect the unashamed Hard Leftist Corbyn in 2015. Just as Labour’s failure to respond adequately to growing left wing anti-establishment feeling within their own party led to the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, so too has the Republicans’ failure led to the likely nomination of Donald Trump.
None of this should be happening. Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn both break nearly every rule of politics as we know them; people who want the mass deportation of all undocumented immigrants or believe some communist dictators weren’t actually all that bad should not be the ones leading the major parties of Western democracies – it simply defies understanding. Yet this conviction that it shouldn’t happen turned into a belief that it wasn’t. Too many in Labour simply rejected the truth until it was too late. We no longer live in normal times. Ideologically extreme candidates are now, thanks to years of frustration with an establishment viewed as corrupt and unable to deal with the massive economic problems and unstable international scene we now face. The law of political gravity aren’t just being broken – they were repealed when no-one was looking. At this rate, Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee for President; the Republicans had better hope they are more prepared than Labour was.