Here are the most important political events of the weekend, in three news items. In Britain, the Labour Party elected avowed socialist Jeremy Corbyn as its new leader, with Corbyn tripling the vote of his closest rival. In Australia, the (right-wing) Liberal Party finally revolted against the comically evil Tony Abbott, removing him as leader and thus as the country’s Prime Minister. And in the US, Donald Trump appeared on Jimmy Fallon.
There’s a degree of humor in drawing any sort of comparison between these, obviously, but there’s something more fundamental going on here, too. Corbyn’s victory certainly has parallels in the US: Bernie Sanders, a man of similar political inclinations, continues to perform unexpectedly well in his quest for the Democratic presidential nomination. And while the removal of a sitting party leader could never happen in America, Abbott’s removal speaks to the realization of a right-wing party that it can only go so far down the rabbit hole of far-right populism before the electorate just doesn’t buy it anymore.
Abbott’s successor as Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, is not unlike Donald Trump in at least one way: he’s filthy rich. By the standards of the right, though, he’s a moderate, and he’s certainly not as flamboyant/narcissistic (delete as appropriate, depending on your political inclinations) as The Donald. But beyond the superficial similarities, there are two themes here: the fact that electorates that have been denied a viable socialist alternative for decades turn out to rather like having such an alternative to vote for, and at the other end of the political spectrum, that the right is reckoning with the fallout of decades’ worth of courting the far right.
Both of these, in turn, are symptoms of a wider malaise: a deep and abiding alienation from the political process. You don’t have to be a cynic to argue that the reality of politics has long been far removed from the words used to justify it (whether it ever reflected those words is another debate). Politicians talk about freedom of choice and liberty when they mean the exact opposite, about defending our country when they mean invading another, and so on.
The failure of Abbott and Corbyn’s predecessor Ed Miliband is due, as much as anything, to their failure to capture the imagination of the public. These days, we expect politicians to be self-serving liars; all that we ask is that they’re convincing and/or entertaining. Which brings us to Trump. Look at his appearance on Fallon: it’s a theater performance, and no one knows that better than Trump himself. Late-night television is the perfect forum for a man whose policies, such as they are, are far better suited to pithy one-liners than they are to any sort of serious analysis or explanation.
Serious analysis is not, of course, what one would expect to get from Jimmy Fallon, although it’s worth noting again here that some of American’s most cutting political commentary in recent years has come from comedians. Regardless, look at how Trump plays his audience: as the campaign progresses, Trump — like some sort of ungodly mega-rich coiffured toddler — is getting better at understanding how to get what he wants. He’s starting to understand that his signature bluster plays best with liberals when it’s tempered with a measure of self-awareness, and he’s smart enough (or cynical enough) to tweak his persona accordingly. And he understands that his single best source of appeal come from appealing to people who are alienated from mainstream politics.
The result? People like him! Look at all the cheers he gets on Fallon — a show that falls somewhere in the middle of the late-night political spectrum. And you can say one thing for Trump: he’s exponentially more charismatic than the clowder of clowns running against him for the Republican nomination. If you find yourself warming to him at all, it’s because he’s not like the rest.
In his own way, Trump is a more successful version of Deez Nuts and/or Limberbutt McCubbins, a ridiculous candidate with whom people identify because they see the whole thing as a joke. This doesn’t comprise the entirety of his support base, clearly — there are people out there who endorse his ideas or seriously think that a man who has built an entire career on impotent bluster could somehow “get things done.” But regardless, the only way you can take a man like Donald Trump seriously is in a context where you don’t take anything seriously — which makes him a perfect fit for politics.
The problem, of course, is that politics is a serious business. It’s not harmless fun. As Matt Taibbi pointed out in Rolling Stone recently, real people can be and are being hurt by Trump’s rhetoric. And even beyond that, withdrawal in disgust might not be the same as apathy, but the end result is identical: if you remove yourself from politics entirely, you lose any ability to influence something that retains the power to shape your life. The popularity of Trump is a mirror of the popularity of Sanders, or Corbyn, in that they spring from the same place — the depths of contempt for the incumbent system — but the difference is that the election of a Trump or an Abbott means that the joke’s ultimately on you.