Corbyn and Trump supporters are more alike than they think: both legitimise hatred in defence of the cause, but dread the enemy within
There is nothing interesting about Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn. In normal times, sensible people would take detours to avoid a braggart who boasts about how much money he’s made and how many women he’s laid, or a ferrety conspiracist who mumbles into his beard about how the Zionists control the world. Narcissists, in the case of Trump, or paranoid fantasists such as Corbyn don’t stand above the average man or woman. In every respect the average man or woman is their superior. The odds are that a random stranger you pass in the street has more to say that is worth hearing than the leader of any extremist party.
We waste our time on them, not because of who they are, but because they have persuaded millions to back them. The economic and racial explanations for their support are commonplace: the crash of 2008 discrediting the old consensus or whites losing their majority status in the United States. Psychological explanations are less explored, even though anyone caught up in today’s vicious debates can sense the release supporters of the far Left and Right enjoy as they push though the moral barriers that once constrained them to engage with glee in pornographic outpourings of hatred.
Coded appeals to pre-existing hatreds are a staple of politics. In the 1980s, the Republican strategist Lee Atwater warned that direct evocations of white supremacy had become dangerous for right-wing candidates. Republicans had to become “more abstract” and talk about tax cuts on assumption that middle-class white voters would understand that they would get the money and blacks would lose their welfare payments.
What is new, or at least new in the West, is the ability to inflame hatreds that were previously suppressed or did not exist at all. There has, for instance, always been an anti-Semitic streak on the British Left, but I speak from experience when I say the majority of British leftists were not remotely racist. But the arrival of Jeremy Corbyn meant that a man with a ghoulish record of supporting every variety of anti-Semitic fanatic was now Labour’s leader, and an adored one for many members. Rather than admit their hero had flaws, they covered up and said the accusations against him were not based on solid evidence but were the result of a Jewish conspiracy to punish Corbyn for his opposition to Israel. With astonishing speed, they abandoned their anti-racism and rushed to embrace the anti-Semitic mentality they would previously have regarded with repugnance.
The success of their leaders is as important a psychic driver. Followers see them mock the disabled, treat women as the objects of lecherous fantasy and indulge the hatred of African-Americans, Mexicans and Muslims in the case of Trump or endorse murderers and torturers and defend tyrannies in the case of Corbyn. They wait for the inevitable retribution as polite society enforces its norms and administers its punishments, and they keep waiting. Far from being punished, the taboo-breakers prosper. Trump wins the American presidency. The Labour membership elects Corbyn as their leader, not once but twice.
As their leaders flourish, their repressed supporters are released from constraints that once bound them.
“Let them call you racist, xenophobes, nativists, homophobes, misogynists — wear it as a badge of honour!” Steve Bannon told supporters of Marine Le Pen in 2018. Enjoy it. Welcome it. We are powerful now and the old insults can no longer cow us.
Even though Zionists have “lived in this country for a very long time, probably all their lives, they don’t understand English irony”, Jeremy Corbyn told an audience of white left-wingers and Islamists in 2013. They are not truly English. There’s no need to treat them as if they were no different from you and me. You can let go, and see 9/11, hostile news coverage and opposition to Corbyn himself as plots by the Zionists, the Rothschilds, the eternally-conspiring Jew of the fascist imagination.
The release Trump and Corbyn have granted their followers is all the greater because both lead movements that are powered by moralistic and highly repressive ideologies: white evangelical Protestantism and the politically correct variant of leftism. They have more in common than supporters of either like to admit. Both insist on high and on occasion impossibly high standards, and enforce conformity by keeping believers in fear of a public shaming. The censorious eyes of fellow believers are ever-present. They must be feared more than nominal enemies for it is fellow believers — your apparent friends and comrades — who have the power to eject you from the community of the virtuous in which you have built your life and very sense of yourself.
An evangelical believes in a personal conversion in which they commit themselves to Jesus. In theory, they do not just inherit their parents’ faith — though in practice most do. Instead, they give themselves over heart and soul in a conscious decision that can only be withdrawn at huge psychic cost. They have a duty to spread Christ’s word; because Christ did not just suffer and die, he suffered and died for Me. Most famously they must abide by the authority of scripture including prohibitions on divorce, adultery, homosexuality and abortion. And, for this is crucial, they must be seen to abide by them.
“A real Christian is the one who can give his pet parrot to the town gossip,” said Billy Graham. They should be willing to have their secrets exposed in front of their community and fear no censure. To say this is a demand reminiscent of the intrusions into private life of totalitarian states is to understate the case. The effort to police not only your deeds but words and thoughts so all are aligned with dogma is beyond human capacity. Failure is predestined, and all atheist critics have seized on the hypocrisy the enterprise induces.
We notice that the modern evangelical movement has gone quiet about divorce and adultery, sins that might restrict male heterosexual freedom. Instead, it has concentrated its theological rage against homosexuality and abortion, “vices” the heterosexual male can condemn without inconvenience to himself. White evangelical support for Trump was still running at 71 per cent in the autumn of 2018, even after the divorcé had been exposed as a man who paid off porn stars he treated as prostitutes. Surely, we say, evangelical willingness to endorse such a man reveals the vacuity of their faith? In a paragraph that can make you glad to be alive, Christopher Hitchens encapsulated the hypocrisy when he declared:
Whenever I hear some bigmouth in Washington or the Christian heartland banging on about the evils of sodomy or whatever, I mentally enter his name in my notebook and contentedly set my watch. Sooner rather than later, he will be discovered down on his weary and well-worn old knees in some dreary motel or latrine, with an expired Visa card, having tried to pay well over the odds to be peed upon by some Apache transvestite.
Joyous though the dissections of double standards may be, they miss the target. Most devout believers know they are sinners. But they see and fight greater sins: children being “murdered in the womb”, secular liberals turning away from the path ordained by God. More to the point, they are likely to wear attacks from atheists as badges of honour. It is only when the criticisms are repeated by their own side that they have the power to hurt. The modern PC Left isn’t so different, and not only because so many of its attitudes originate in American puritanism. Take a white male Corbyn supporter of the 1968 generation. His socialism required him to support the white working class. The struggle against apartheid in South Africa and for civil rights in the American South ought to have made him conscious of racism, while feminism ought to have made him conscious of misogyny and the gay rights movement conscious of homophobia. By the 2000s he should also have been aware of the need to respect groups and causes that were invisible to him in his youth: animals, if he is not yet a vegan, he knows he should be; sex workers, or “prostitutes” and “whores” as he used to call them; people with disabilities, and trans women and men, whose existence he once barely acknowledged. On one level, his life shows an admirable widening of sympathies. He is living in the “expanding circle”, as the philosopher Peter Singer described it, which leads moral concern to grow as the logic of empathy for one group requires its extension to another.
It is a noble and plausible description of how morality spreads. Yet nobility is not the only characteristic it produces. As surely as evangelical Protestants, the politically correct believe that those who oppose them are committing injustices that cry out to the very heavens for remedy. They too can feel superior, members of the elect. As with atheists and evangelicals, right-wingers are keen to condemn leftist hypocrisy — the socialist politician who sends her children to private schools has become a stock figure of conservative satire. But mockery from the right has no more impact than atheist attacks on Christian double standards. Neither register that the faithful must be more frightened of their fellow believers than their political opponents, when they live in a world where offence is so easily given. At one point women, gays, transsexuals, and people of colour tell our old white male he is meant to be blind to their identities, and treat them equally. Within seconds he is meant to stand on his head, show empathy and respect, and treat their identity as their defining feature.
The web makes Billy Graham’s fantasy of handing parrots to gossips appear small-time and small-town. Your life is laid out on social media accounts. Utterances made when you were drunk or high, ideas you have once had or held can be dragged up and used in evidence against you. Language policing is not a new feature of leftish life. I felt a shock of recognition when I found a battered copy of Howard Fast’s memoir of his time in the American Communist Party of the 1950s on my father’s bookshelves. Fast, the author of Spartacus, recalled how
People were expelled from the Party for speaking of a“negro girl” or of a “black night”, for both “girl” and “black” had become magical taboo words, the use of which indicated that a white person had a deep well of racism within him. The particular horror mounted to a point where dozens of Communists I knew avoided the company of all negroes, so terrified were they of taboo words or actions that could lead to expulsion. Work among negroes collapsed completely.
Then, as now, the ever-present fear was that your comrades will denounce not defend you. They would not cry, “I am Spartacus”, but either enjoy your destruction or stay silent rather than risk guilt by association. The far Left and far Right have always been vulnerable to charges of betrayal. Just as nearly every prominent supporter of Brexit refuses to compromise for fear of the accusation of selling out, so every socialist knows he or she can be outflanked on the left. You are in a meeting where everyone in the room agrees on a workable plan of action, until one person stands up to say he or she cannot support the consensus because it betrays a specified group. What do you do? You can explain why your opponent is wrong, but then you are open to the charge of betrayal — which many lack the nerve to face.
Meanwhile the knowledge that you don’t make your name in politics by merely castigating your side’s political enemies (why bother when everyone else can do that?), but by going after apostates (“Republicans in name only”, “Blairites” or “Terfs”) drives careerists. If they are to get on, the old guard must be forced out of the way with charges of heresy. The fear of a public shaming is why so many liberal-Left and centre-Right organisations collapse towards their extremes. With the exception of Mitt Romney and a handful of others, every opponent of Donald Trump in the US Republican party has been browbeaten into silence or forced out of the Senate or House of Representatives. It is to the British centre-Left’s credit that there are many brave opponents of Corbynism in the Parliamentary Labour Party, but alongside them sit MPs you never hear from who keep quiet for fear of bringing trouble on themselves.
Beyond politics, vast numbers of people now worry about what to say. You may have had the experience of hearing a word fall from your lips that could be misconstrued or twisted and then glancing at your listeners to see if they are going to make something of it. After the Fast quotation above, should I have added a sentence to explain that “negro” was the politically correct language of the 1950s. rather than “black,” “African-American” or “person of colour” and I meant no offence by repeating his remark verbatim? Probably 999 readers in a thousand would not have noticed, but what if the one in a thousand was malicious or fanatical or simple-minded and decided to use it as evidence of racism?
Similar calculations are made by millions, and the majority self-censor rather than run the small risk of being called out. Imagine living like that, assuming you are not living like that already. Think of the pressure building up inside you, and how grateful you’d be to politicians who lift the lid and allow you to let yourself go.
The British sociologist David Hirsh wrote with great prescience in 2015 of the “politics of position”. He was describing the Corbyn faction in the Labour Party, but what he said applies to extremist or populist movements across the West. Corbynism’s “political practice is actually to avoid debate over ideas and policies. Instead it defines itself as the community of the good and it positions its opponents and its critics as being outside of that community.” It does not seek to convert opponents through argument, instead it divides the world into the damned and the saved, the insiders within the movement and the alien “other”.
It has become clear since Hirsh that if you found your niche in the politics of position you could get away with anything.Trump and Corbyn took the leadership of straitlaced and repressive movements. They have built their success by assuring followers that they could cast off their inhibitions. They could behave as filthily as they wished as long as the filth was thrown in service of the wider cause. Journalists noticed the change first and not only because Trump and Corbyn must, like the leaders of the totalitarian movements of the 20th century, damn all who ask hard question or pull them up on their lies as purveyors of fake news.
Katy Tur of NBC wrote of attending the first Trump presidential rallies and hearing “little old ladies in powder-pink MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN hats calling me a liar” and otherwise respectable men wearing “HILLARY SUCKS — BUT NOT LIKE MONICA” T-shirts. More than 35,000 Corbyn supporters signed an online petition demanding the sacking of the BBC’s political editor because they did not like the interpretation she had offered of local election results. So ubiquitous were the cries of “whore” and “bitch” that the organisers had to pull it down from the web, and the BBC had to offer her a bodyguard.
The Left is meant to be constrained by a hard but vital set of standards that forbid misogyny. Equally, it is meant to be bound by the dictates of anti-racism and anti-fascism which forbid the racial abuse of Jews and the propagation of Hitlerian conspiracy theories. But as every female and Jewish Labour MP who has crossed the Left has found, the standards disappear when a woman or Jew inconveniences Corbyn.
It seems as if modern extremist movements are unconsciously imitating the church of medieval Christendom, which offered the faithful relief from punishment for their sins in purgatory if they bought indulgences from pardoners. Although anger at the practice helped cause the Reformation, the sale of indulgences had an internal logic. Helping the Church by crusading against infidel Muslims or heretical Albigensians was self-evidently good to Catholic eyes, as was giving money to the Church so it could spread God’s word. Why shouldn’t the Pope agree to wipe out the accumulated debt of a believer’s sins in return? It seemed only fair. Indeed, if there were no incentives and no promises of escape from the punishments of purgatory, the faithful might not be keen to fight on crusades or provide the money for new churches and monasteries.
For the Church, read the party, and for the Pope, read the party leader. And then notice that modern extremists have gone beyond the medieval Church. Catholicism still held that sins were sinful. Modern politics holds that there is no sin zealots can commit if they are sinning for the cause. They can abuse women, blacks, Muslims and Jews if the abuse is in defence of Trump or Corbyn. Far from calling them out, their usually censorious fellow-believers will defend them. Their friends and comrades will tie themselves in knots and set themselves up as moral arbiters as they explain why they are not the anti-Semities or misogynists they give every appearance of being. They try to distract attention with charges of whataboutery. The freedom to hate and be defended for hating is what marks out the fringe that has become the mainstream.
Constraints have not been quietly put aside, but tossed away with the glee of a prisoner throwing off his shackles. Now, at last, we are free to escape all the years of biting our tongues and repressing our thoughts; now we can let ourselves go and vomit up all the hatreds inside us, safe in the knowledge that our friends won’t condemn us, but praise our services to the struggle. Imagine the release and the relief the sadistic pleasure brings. They’ve waited for it for so long, and now they aim to enjoy it. The thrill of a dark liberation is running through our age.