Peter Jones: Trump and Corbyn voice of the people

Donald Trump, like his polar opposite Jeremy Corbyn, is credited with political authenticity, but is it enough? Picture: John Devlin
Donald Trump, like his polar opposite Jeremy Corbyn, is credited with political authenticity, but is it enough? Picture: John Devlin
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BUT can the trumpeted principles of Trump and Corbyn survive if they win elections, asks Peter Jones

What do Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump have in common? Absolutely nothing, you might think. One’s private passions are tending his allotment and making jam, the other’s are private jets and totting up his billions. Both must surely despise what each other stands for. But you would be wrong.

What they share is the latest political buzz-word – “authenticity” – which is said to be responsible for another thing in common: an unexpected rise to the top of the popularity lists in the different political contests in which they are candidates. What is this authenticity? Why does it matter? And is it something authentic, or fraudulent?

Search the internet and lots of articles come up connecting Mr Corbyn, who started as the 100-1 outsider in the Labour leadership race and now looks like getting most of the first preference votes, and the word authentic. He has an “easy authenticity” enthuses a writer on the Guardian website. London mayor Boris Johnson wrote in the Sun on Sunday: “There is a reason he strikes such a chord with the electorate, and that reason can be summed up in one word: authenticity”, continuing that he looks “passionate and principled” in a field of “anaemic, gelatinous and vacillating opportunists”.

Try the same exercise with Donald Trump, regarded as a figure of fun when he announced his bid to become the Republican candidate for the next US presidential elections but is now leading that particular field, and there are again lots of hits.

Veteran Republican political strategist Dick Morris links the rise of Trump to another surprise in the presidential primaries – the surge of left-wing Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders to become the lead challenger to Hillary Clinton’s bid for the Democrat candidacy. Mr Morris says of Trump and Sanders: “They’re both striking a really important nerve, and it’s called authenticity.”

There seems to be several strands to what it means to be an “authentic” candidate. One is believing in a clear set of principles which are easily understood. There is no doubt, for example, that Mr Corbyn would get rid of nuclear weapons, would raise taxes on companies and the rich, and would end or at least reduce the weight of austerity on the poor. If you vote for him, you are in no doubt that he will work to achieve these things.

Secondly, there is a concomitant rejection of what has been the mainstream view about what it takes to be successful in politics – that principles should be kept vague and inoffensive to keep your appeal as broad as possible. Even more disturbing to the conventional wisdom is that you should actually try and answer questions rather than stick to noncommittal circumlocutions.

Thirdly, it seems to demand anger against the established order. This is most obvious in Mr Trump, who seems to get angry at everything. Most recently, he got angry at illegal Mexican immigrants in the US, saying: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

Such a comment is a complete no-no in the conventional political playbook as it greatly offends Hispanic or Latino voters, a big and important chunk of the US electorate. But an aide, Michael Cohen, defended him as being “the voice of the silent majority, and I think he’s awoken that silent majority. People are very angry and the people who are the most angry are actually the legal immigrants who see their jobs fleeing”.

According to Mr Morris, the anger amongst the Conservatives or Republican Right to which Mr Trump appeals is a little broader and more subtle than this particular example. He said that these voters had seen no change in government actions after Republicans won congressional elections in 2000, 2004, 2010 and 2014, adding: “People are saying if we win, we want at least to win something. With Trump, what you see is what you get.”

Of course, Mr Corbyn’s politics are the absolute antithesis of Mr Trump’s. But he advocates his beliefs and principles with the same passion and sincerity and seems to be speaking for a section of the electorate which is angry about the burdens recession has imposed on them. With Corbyn, what you see is also what you get.

It seems to add up to a demand for honesty, a virtue which nearly everybody thinks vanished from politics long ago. Voters do expect that politicians should say what they believe and if they get into a position of power, they should get on with putting those beliefs into practice and not renege on them.

In at least appearing to be that type of politician, I think that the electoral appeal of Messrs Corbyn, Trump, and Sanders should not be under-estimated. As I wrote last week, to simply label their policies as extreme left- or right-wing and therefore doomed to appeal to only a minority of the electorate could well be mistaken. Abolition of student tuition fees, which fits into left-wing egalitarian ideologies but actually mostly benefits the better-off middle classes, is a good example.

But if any of them win their current contests, their willingness to be honest will be tested to the extreme. All political actions involve choices and making a choice to do X often means having to forego doing Y. With government tax-raising options severely limited, will Mr Corbyn be honest enough to say, for example, that abolishing student tuition fees will mean spending £10 billion a year less on something else like the NHS, or being unable to afford to re-nationalise the railways?

This is where the potential for political dishonesty re-emerges, the most glaring example of them being the Syriza government of Greece which was elected on a promise to renegotiate the national bail-out and end austerity, won a referendum on that basis, and yet has wound up accepting a bail-out on even worse (for the Greek people) terms.

This is where supposed authenticity, whether of the left- or right-wing variety, can turn into near-fraud. And let’s remember that the most recent example of a voice hailed by many as being authentic was Nigel Farage. But we are not yet at that stage of the political game and meantime the latest authentics are having their time in the sun.