Donald Trump is a Right Wing Corbyn Who Will Fail at The Second Attempt
Election Day is less than 5 months away and Donald Trump is in trouble. While most analysts were predicting a second victory to follow the usual 8-year US political cycle, the Coronavirus has weakened the President’s prospects in an already tight election. The position he finds himself in is very similar to that of former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, who suffered a catastrophic defeat in his second election, after a surprisingly good showing in the first. At first, the comparison seems strange – Trump is a Muslim-bashing, tax-cutting, billionaire with a tendency to shoot from the hip, whereas Corbyn is a ideological socialist and pacifist. Unsurprisingly, the two have little time for each other; ahead of the 2019 UK election, the President said that Corbyn would be “so bad” for the country, whereas the ex-Labour leader accused Trump of wanting to break up the British NHS. However, they share more similarities than they would like to admit.
When they began their campaigns for high office, both men were marmite politicians disliked by their party’s establishment. For most, this would be a recipe for disaster, but it crafted a successful narrative for both and allowed them to run campaigns as insurgent candidates with an anti-elitist message. Once they had secured the top jobs within their respective parties, they ran similar national campaigns, railing against unfavourable media coverage, the establishment and an incumbent party that divided opinion almost as much as they did. Both Trump and Corbyn were expected to suffer a heavy defeat but both achieved a better result than expected.
Of course, it is important to note that Jeremy Corbyn did not win the 2017 election, whereas Donald Trump did win the presidency a year earlier. Alas, the two upsets followed a common trend. Demographically, Corbyn’s support largely came from urban constituencies, some of which had traditionally backed the Conservatives – the party secured unlikely victories in Kensington and Canterbury, achieving a net gain of 30 seats. Although he didn’t lead the party to victory, such a positive result in an election which Labour had cut a 23% Conservative lead to just 2% on polling day achieved plaudits even from those who had previously been critical of the party’s leadership. It was undeniable that Corbyn had tapped into voting bases that had never previously supported the party, but warning signs appeared and were subsequently ignored among the euphoria. Support for MPs in traditionally safe Labour areas diminished – Dudley North, Ashfield and Barrow-in-Furness were won by fewer than 1000 votes, even with the party's support increasing in other areas.
The reasons for this can be debated, but it is hard to deny that Corbyn’s attitude to foreign policy and his ambitious left-wing manifesto left some Labour voters feeling uneasy, even in 2017. Whilst most leaders respond to narrow defeats by moderating their message and reaching out to swing voters, Corbyn doubled down. His national security credentials came into question again in the aftermath of the 2018 Salisbury poisoning, as some felt he was reluctant to criticise the Russian government, and he offered a more ideological manifesto at the 2019 election. At the time parliament was dissolved, Labour were trailing in the polls by 15 points, but Corbyn’s allies appeared unphased by this - many cited the remarkable transformation of the public mood during the 2017 campaign. However, the political landscape had changed. The party had to defend slim majorities in previously safe seats, and was now marred with allegations of anti-semitism, to add to its’ initial problems. They also no longer enjoyed the luxury of facing the robotic Theresa May, and despite Boris Johnson’s questionable relationship with the truth, his charisma was a significant asset for the Tories’ campaign. This resulted in Labour’s worst showing since 1935, winning just 202 seats, as many of its’ traditional heartlands fell into Tory hands.
The numbers indicate that there are a lot of parallels between Jeremy Corbyn’s fall from near-winner to loser, and the current state of play in America. Besides the result itself, the nature of Trump’s 2016 victory shocked many political commentators. He managed to win in Wisconsin and Michigan – the last time these states voted for a Republican, the Presidential candidates were Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush respectively. Although Trump achieved a comfortable electoral college victory, he lost the popular vote by almost 3 million and gained narrow majorities in the areas he achieved surprise victories. In North Carolina, the margin of victory was 3.8% and he squeezed home by less than 1% in Pennsylvania and Michigan.
However, trends in some traditional red states were very different – Arizona, Georgia and Texas all supported Trump but did so less enthusiastically than they had advocated previous Republican candidates. Arizona saw the biggest shift – Mitt Romney won by a 9% margin for the Republicans in 2012 yet Trump, despite a national swing towards the party, had just a 3.5% lead. Most current polls predict that Biden will emerge victorious in Arizona in 2020 and whilst Texas and Georgia are less likely to flip, Trump will still have to use resources in these states, where a Republican victory was previously considered to be a formality. This has echoes of the Labour red wall seats which leaned towards the Conservatives in the 2017 UK election, against the overall trend, and then turned blue in 2019. Additionally, most areas won by the Democrats in 2016 are safe, meaning that if Trump loses in either the rustbelt or historically Republican voting states, he has little opportunity to make any gains to compensate.
Trump supporters may point to the fact that previous 2 term presidents have increased their majority at the second attempt – Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W Bush all fall into this category. This is true but they built on their previous success by unifying the population and reaching out to moderate voters. Instead, his strategy seems to revolve around throwing red meat to his fervent support base to ensure that they turnout to vote. The President has caused controversy by telling a group of US Congresswomen, 3 of whom were born in the US to “go back” to the “crime infested places from which they came”, and his response to the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota has angered many across the country. Although related more to economic policy than rhetoric surrounding culture and race, Jeremy Corbyn chose this tactic, by offering a more overtly socialist manifesto second time around.
Trump can also no longer rely on the “Anyone but Hilary” vote – Democratic voters who backed him in protest at their party’s nomination of Hilary Clinton, a widely unpopular figure. Although doubts about Joe Biden’s age and stamina will benefit Trump, he is well liked by much of the US public. Again, this mirrors Jeremy Corbyn, who reaped the benefits from Theresa May’s chaotic campaign, but later came unstuck against Boris Johnson.
Despite these similarities there is still a long way to go in this campaign. Debate performances, the economic recovery and attitudes to the Black Lives Matter protests will be crucial issues, and the result may rest largely on turnout. Like most populist politicians, Trump enjoys messianic status among his following, but preaching to the converted only gets a candidate so far, and his political journey so far indicates that he is unlikely to change course. Whatever the outcome, 3rd November will be a significant moment in history, but if the President wants to secure his desired result, he’s got his work cut out.