Something is happening in Britain and the USA. Shia LeBoeuf recently declared that “British politics just got interesting.” England’s Daily Telegraph described a “populist surge” that was engulfing America. On each side of the Atlantic there is a politician breaking boundaries, redefining politics, and riding on a wave of popular discontent with the traditional political system. These two individuals are the brash, blonde billionaire Donald Trump, and the understated, bearded Jeremy Corbyn. On the surface, they could not be more different. But, scratch the surface, and you will find that, for all their ideological difficulties, they both owe much of their success to the fact that they are promising something different, something new, and something at odds to what they denounce as an outdated political system.
Voters in both Britain and in America have become increasingly disillusioned with politics, and politicians, in recent years. In Britain the expenses scandal exacerbated the view of politicians seeing themselves as a different class to the people they represent, while in the States, disenchantment with a system that is seen as morally and financially corrupt is not helped by the fact at the prospect of the next Presidential contest being between the brother of a former President and the spouse of another. In both nations complaints abound about “professional politicians”, who care too much about their own ego and wallets, and not enough about their voters. It is this sense of political alienation that both Corbyn and Trump have capitalised on.
This disillusionment with the political class was demonstrated in a recent article in The Atlantic magazine, which highlighted the fact that in the US, and within the Republican Party especially, the trend has been to prefer those with less political experience over more “war-weary” candidates, with plenty of years in the Senate behind them, but who are not deemed fresh enough. “As voters have grown angrier with government,” the article notes, “they have become more receptive to outsiders”. Trump is an even more extreme example of this, a candidate supported not simply because he is fresh and new, but because he explicitly denounces “traditional politics”, and is turning away from accepted political norms and etiquette. After every controversial quote or outspoken comment, political commentators have consistently predicted that Trump’s support will falter. And, equally consistently, his momentum has not been interrupted. What is clear about his success is that it is not occurring despite his controversial statements, but because of them. Every time he makes outlandish claims, every time he emphasises how different he is from the prevailing political class, he is solidifying his support base amongst those who have become disillusioned with “professional politicians”, who are looking for something, anything, different.
Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign tapped into a similar feeling of discontent with the political class. The Labour Party membership, and those registered as affiliated voters, consciously eschewed the Blairite policies of Liz Kendall, the moderacy of Yvette Cooper, and Andy Burnham’s establishment credentials, in favour of a candidate who has spent 30 years as a backbench MP quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) working for the causes he believes in, and representing his constituents in North London. There is no doubt that Corbyn is not your everyday politician, despite his many years of work in Westminster: in 2005-10 alone he voted against the Labour Party 25% of the time; and during the 2009 expenses scandal he was found to have had the lowest expenses claims of any Member of Parliament. Difference, change, and a new style of politics were consistent themes throughout his campaign, and these were themes he has carried on into his leadership role, declaring in his speech at the Labour Party Conference that voters don’t have to “get what they’re given”, and that a vote for him was “a vote for change in the way we do politics”.
What’s striking about both the rise of Trump and that of Corbyn is that both have been caricatured – in newspapers, on social media, and by their fellow politicians – as occupying a certain extreme position on the political spectrum, but that both transcend, in many ways, the positions attached to them. A recent survey showed that whilst Trump is culturally and socially to the right – his attacks on immigrants the most obvious example – he is economically to the left. His support base amongst Republican supporters is not with the Tea Party, nor with the Christian Right, but amongst those who support higher taxes on the rich while fearing the impact of immigration. Simply put, it is amongst those who have felt that, for too long, both parties have neglected their interests. Trump is a shameless populist, but by tapping into that populism he is appealing to a population that feels as though it has not been appealed to in a long time. Corbyn, although unashamedly a left-wing politician, has a broader appeal than that. A closer look at his policies reveals that he is more moderate than the British media, and, in fairness, Corbyn’s own supporters, have sought to portray. In fact, Corbyn’s message of a new, more democratic and less divisive politics, is strikingly non-doctrinal, and during his first Prime Minister’s Questions – during which he asked the Prime Minister questions suggested to him by the general public – Corbyn even got Cameron to admit that “if we are able to change Prime Minister’s Questions … no one would be more delighted than me”. Since Corbyn was elected leader over 50,000 people have joined the Labour Party; these people aren’t joining because they are all raving, flag-waving socialists, but because they are buying into the new vision of politics that Corbyn is outlining. A grassroots movement arising out of the Corbyn victory, called Momentum, seeks to “create a mass movement for real, progressive change” in British politics.
Of course, the two politicians have their differences. Despite owing much of their support to similar phenomena of discontent and disillusionment, they have gone about exploiting that support in different ways. Corbyn’s desire for a less divisive politics could not be further removed from Trump’s confrontational approach and personal attacks on his fellow Republican candidates. And Corbyn’s humanitarian call for Britain to accept more Syrian refugees is at striking contrast from Trump’s declaration that were he to become President he would send all Syrian asylum seekers home. Similarly, to associate Corbyn, with his many years of political experience, his carefully thought-through politics and genuinely held principles, with Trump’s racist and sexist outbursts, is clearly unfair to the Labour leader. What is clear, however, is that without tapping into a popular discontent with traditional politics that transcends the left-right divide, neither of them would have seen as much success, or as many newspaper headlines, as they have done so far.
The limits of each politician’s respective successes remains to be seen. The odds are still against Trump winning the Republican nomination, while Corbyn faces an uphill struggle if Labour are to win the 2020 General Election. Nevertheless, regardless of whether President Trump will ever have his finger hovering above the red button, or whether Corbyn will ever right his bicycle in 10 Downing Street, one thing is certain. Politics in Britain, and in America, may never be quite the same again.
Joe Mansour is a history graduate from the north of England. He loves travelling and experiencing different cultures, and it is this that informs most of his work. He is interested in British and US politics, global inequality, and structural barriers to social mobility, and seeks to use his knowledge of history to inform his understanding of current affairs and events. In the future, he wants to go into journalism or public policy, using his writing raise awareness of the problems of inequality societies around the world face.
*Cover image ‘coins’ by Jason Rogers