The silly season is supposed to end tomorrow. September sidles in and normality replaces August’s frivolity. The reality of winter will be with us soon enough, too. That, at any rate, is the theory but it seems, on both sides of the Atlantic, that sillyness is likely to last for some time yet.
There’s the twin risings of Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn, for instance. It might initially seem as though they have little in common but a more penetrating gaze at their improbable ascent to prominence discerns certain commonalities. Trump is the American Corbyn and Corbyn the British Trump.
The difference, of course, is significant. Trump won’t win the Republican nomination; it still looks as though Corbyn will be the next Labour leader. Trump-mania is a sickness that will pass in time; Corbynmania appears set to doom the Labour party for a political generation. Labour’s leadership contest has taken the form of a winner-takes-all single contest. It is like declaring the winner of the Iowa caucuses the GOP’s presidential nominee. Perhaps you have stronger memories of Presidents Santorum and Huckabee than I have…
But that it what Labour is actually, astonishingly, doing. They are going to select their Trump and take him seriously.
Trump’s candidacy is best understood as a campaign that merges trolling with performance art; Corbyn’s style is rather different but the inspiration for it was much the same. Jezzah was not, at least not initially, in it to win it. He was simply the vehicle for “broadening the debate”.
But far from broadening the debate, Corbyn’s campaign has actually narrowed the conversation. Just as Trump’s carnival has made the early stages of the GOP primary season all about The Donald, so Corbyn’s surge has ensured that Labour is not, in fact, talking about any of the things Labour should be talking about. There is no serious analysis of what went wrong and how it might be fixed, instead it’s all about Jezbollah. It’s all Tony Blair’s fault (or something) just as in Trumpistan most problems can be solved by shouting ‘Merica more loudly.
And in each instance, the satisfaction comes less from knowing your guy is right than in seeing how much he’s hated by the other guys. The guys who trim and equivocate and recognise that purity is for the turf, not politics; the guys who think winning an election is also important. The guys who think feeling good about yourself isn’t enough.
And the more those guys point out that Donald or Jeremy is a one-way ticket to oblivion the happier Donald and Jeremy’s supporters are. Who wants to be sensible when annoying the sensible people is so much fun? And the more the sensible people are annoyed the more it just shows that the people’s revolutionaries must be right. Every time Tony Blair or Jeb Bush or whoever else says anything the more it proves Trump or Corbyn must be doing something right. It’s about pushing buttons, not policies. A mad-as-hell brand of politics that says, essentially, up yours.
In theory, it should be easy to run against Trump or Corbyn. Which then leaves you to wonder why no-one seems able to do it yet. How is it that a collection of Republican governors can’t handle a transparently absurd real estate ‘tycoon’ turned reality-TV star? How is it that a brace of former senior ministers can’t cope with an old school Trot who looks as though he’s missed his true calling as a second-rate geography teacher at a third-rate suburban high school?
Corbyn and Trump might be from different places – politically as well as geographically – but their supporters tend to fall into one of two camps. There are the people who truly, madly, deeply think their man can win a general election and there are the people who know he can’t but don’t care. The former kind don’t really matter very much. There’s almost no proposition so stupid it can’t be endorsed by ten percent of voters.
The latter kind, more numerous I think, are a different matter. They define themselves less in terms of what they’re for than what they’re against. Their politics are a projection of personality, one frequently pock-marked by a kind of narcissistic nihilism buttressed by a sneering disdain for elites. It is an animosity founded upon the shameful suspicion that someone else, somewhere else, is doing better than them and this is wrong. A politics of ressentiment.
Trump’s bubble will burst eventually but the longer it remains as inflated as his ego the greater the damage he will do to the GOP’s prospects next November. He may not even need to threaten a third party candidacy to destroy the GOP’s chances next year.
In like fashion even if, somehow, Corbyn loses the Labour leadership election he will have damaged whoever wins it immensely. Not just because the new leader would, somehow or other, need to offer some kind of peace-deal to the Corbynites but because if someone can only just beat Jeremy Corbyn then, well, what does that say about them and their ability to defeat the Conservatives? Nothing very encouraging, that’s what.
For the time being, however, there is the thrill of being part of a whacking great movement and this is a thrill worth savouring. It doesn’t matter than outside the Trump/Corbyn bubble the world looks very different. It doesn’t matter that the people who will vote in a general election are very different to the people who vote in even a large and open primary. What matters is sticking it to the man. Whoever the man may be.
Remember, too, that neither Trump nor Corbyn began any of this with any pretensions to victory. Their ascent is accidental, the product of forces beyond their control or even, perhaps, understanding. They are just the vehicles for two forms of despair, one founded on ignorance and the other on cynicism. There is a Roman quality to each, just not in a good way.
It’s not about winning so much as it is about sending a message. Which is fine if that’s the sort of thing you like. But politics is actually about power and the consequence of choosing the guy who allows you to think you’re sticking it to the man is that, in the end, the man wins.