Both Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn are hostile to the establishment and oppose centrist politics — but the similarities between these apparent opposites go much deeper than that
Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn are, in obvious ways, opposites: in the over-used terminology we learned from France’s revolutionary National Assembly in the 1790s, one is at the extreme “left” of orthodox politics in the Anglophone world, and the other at a version of the extreme “right”. But they also have similarities. They have both sprung surprises, one by becoming the leader of a major party and the other by threatening to. In each case they are hostile to something seen as an establishment and stand in sharp contrast to the centrist, professional politicians whom they oppose. But I think the similarities go considerably deeper than that and are best understood in terms of the sort of typology developed by Maurice Duverger, in his Les Partis Politiques, first published in 1951, although the version expounded here will be my own, rather than that of Duverger, who died last year. (Is lasting 63 years after the publication of your best known work some kind of record?)
All parties contain or relate to a number of distinguishable categories of person: these include leaders, aspiring leaders, follower-members, devotee-members, loyal voters and marginal voters. A Tory MP, for example, might be either an aspiring leader or just a follower member or both or fall into several other categories. But the relationship between these elements differs markedly between different parties and determines the nature of the party. What the Labour Party and the Republican Party have in common is that devotees are far more important than they are in other parties, though I am going to call them fundamentalists as I think that word suggests some of their more important characteristics. Therefore the central dilemma of democratic politics — compromise and win, or maintain your principles and lose — is far more central than it is in other parties. They are, of course, more or less opposite principles: egalitarian, collectivist and neo-pacifist as against individualist, nationalistic and puritanical.
This makes these two parties different in kind from their major opponents. The Democratic Party has regarded itself since the New Deal as essentially a coalition of interests; though it is not the same coalition that it used to be, the essence of the party, the definitive strategy of Democrats, is to build a coalition big enough to win elections without losing credibility or over-extending. Whereas I have always argued that the Tory Party is essentially negative, that it exists to oppose foolish projects. It is far easier, therefore, for Tories to remain loyal without having to agree as success can be defined simply as winning and therefore excluding everyone else from power. Thus American and English “conservatives” are opposites in important respects because the former are essentially idealists and the latter are equally essentially anti-idealists.
Jeremy Corbyn is a genuine fundamentalist who has always seemed as if the integrity of his beliefs is his prime motivation and power is barely a temptation. Donald Trump is surely not, but he has acquired the tricks to appeal to fundamentalists and has acquired some of their characteristics during his campaign. One of the important normal characteristics of fundamentalists is that they lose. That is, when the fundamentalists run the party they lose to the parties run by coalition-builders and negativists. Jeremy Corbyn’s two fundamentalist predecessors as leader of the Labour Party, George Lansbury and Michael Foot, both lost heavily, in 1935 and 1983 respectively. This has to be modified by the proviso that they lose in normal times. If a crisis is so severe that the status quo is not an option, as they say in the business schools, then the fundamentalists may be on the winning side, such as Britain in 1945 and Greece in 2015.
Having said that, my theory might be said to have a Thatcher problem and a Reagan problem. Was Mrs Thatcher not a successful Tory fundamentalist? And was President Reagan (unlike Barry Goldwater) a Republican fundamentalist who won? No and no. In the Thatcher case I almost entirely agree with the thesis of my late colleague Jim Bulpitt that she must be understood in terms of her statecraft. She took over a state which had got itself into an untenable position and managed the agenda in such a way as to make government possible. Michael Foot made speeches saying that if unemployment reached a million civil order would break down completely; under Mrs Thatcher it reached three million. She did the same things as Ramsay MacDonald did in 1931 and as any other British prime minister would have done in the 1980s. There really was no alternative. The late Tony Benn used to take a kind of encouragement from Mrs. Thatcher, saying that her career demonstrated that “conviction politics” could win, but he was quite wrong to do so.
Reagan, on the other hand was a deceptively professional politician and an excellent faker who could talk the language of fundamentalism without having to bear its costs. Remember the old boy banging on about shining cities on hills? Nobody knew what he was talking about, but they liked it. He seemed to be embodying some pure version of Republicanism. Then compare the role of the state in the US economy under Reagan with its role under anyone else and see if you can find a difference.
Thus the fact remains that, for different reasons, the Conservative party and the Democratic Party do not really have fundamentalists. Ask yourself what a Tory fundamentalist would propose. The restoration of the pre-1832 constitution? A completely free market . . . in land? . . . in labour? The concept is absurd. Keep the bad guys out and muddle through such events as history throws at you — that’s all it can ever be about.
It is both frightening and exciting that the fundamentalist wings of the two parties are in the ascendancy and it is instructive to consider the range of similarities between the two leaders. Both despise and are despised by the established moderate wings of their parties. Conversely, both succeed in giving political energy to many people previously disillusioned with politics. Both naturally portray their party as a movement and a crusade. Both are capable of causing enormous offence without understanding (or admitting they understand) why. Both use language in the same appropriated fundamentalist way. A Corbyn example is “better”: he wants to build a “better” society. Well, don’t we all?: I’d like a society that was better defended, had more stringent punishments, fewer people etc etc But he doesn’t mean any of this and, crucially, his use of the word carries a kind of pseudo-objectivity, as if there could be only one valid conception of what was better. A principal Trump example is “American”; this isn’t any conception of what it is to be American in terms of facts or rights, but an appraisive distinction, as in “un-American activities”.
The most interesting and ultimately revealing aspect of the comparison concerns religion. Formally, Corbyn is a non-believer while Trump is a Presbyterian who collects bibles. But it would be difficult to claim that Donald Trump is a particularly religious man as he has behaved as something of a libertine by the standards of many of his followers. However, everybody is aware that Trump has to be nominally religious in his political position, whereas Corbyn does not; in fact one of Corbyn’s predecessors, George Lansbury, was an avowed believer whereas Michael Foot was not. The comparison is a little like the one made during the 1983 General Election when earnest vicars wrote to the Guardian to say that Michael Foot was a true Christian whereas the (occasionally) church-attending Margaret Thatcher was not. (It was an argument heard in my own household.) Exactly the same argument could be applied to Corbyn and Trump. Indeed, it is obvious that you could only sustain Corbyn’s degree of egalitarianism and pacifism as, at least, religiose beliefs because there is no way you could derive them from logic, reason or empirical observation. To be fair to Corbyn, he seems well aware of that; not only is he less hostile to Christianity than many of his New Labour contemporaries, but he has acknowledged his debt to the “Judeo-Christian tradition”. Meanwhile, when Trump claims he would be the most Christian of presidents he only seems to mean that he would be the most anti-anti-Christian in giving Muslims and atheists a hard time.
If all this seems paradoxical, the resolution is in the history of ideas. We never really had the Enlightenment. Instead of dumping the Judeo-Christian tradition we revived it in new forms: man in the image of God and God in the image of man are not so far apart. Thus the importance of what Bertrand Russell called “Sunday truths” in our culture. We may spend all week assuming that people are profoundly unequal and trying to make ourselves as unequal as possible, but at some level we believe in equality. We may also normally believe in a wicked world in which it is essential to defend yourself, but we also want to indulge in fantasies about world peace. Thus a politician of the fundamentalist ilk is able to carry some of the moral high ground. Thus, too, some interesting electoral phenomena such as the “shy Tory” in England and “heart and head” voter in France, both of which involve voters expressing their self-interest through the ballot box while believing at some level that it’s wrong to do so.
Finally, as a betting man, I must choose between which of these two fundamentalists is most likely to become a national leader. Corbyn could win if he can hold the moral high ground and there is a certain kind of crisis. But the obstacles to his victory seem (even) more formidable than those to a Trump victory. Crucially, the powerful forces of patriotism could work in Trump’s favour, but against Corbyn. Bearing in mind also the Tory majority, our fixed-term parliaments and Corbyn’s age, I put Corbyn at 25/1 with Trump 12/1. But no large bets, please!