Open Essay

Fall of the Professional Politician

Lance Price is an author and political commentator. He is a former BBC journalist and later adviser to Tony Blair. He has published four books including Where Power Lies and The Modi Effect: Inside Narendra Modi’s Campaign to Transform India
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What unites Trump, Modi, Boris and Corbyn?

UNDER NORMAL POLITICAL circumstances, the world would not be on tenterhooks in the run-up to the US presidential election on 8 November. By ‘normal’, I mean politics that conforms to the ground rules that have governed how democracy operates not just in the United States but across most of the world at least since World War II. Conventions that have seen good presidents as well as bad elected, parties of both the Left and Right triumph, and significant shifts in policy direction achieved through the ballot box.

And yet—unless something dramatic happens in the next few weeks—the world will be anxiously awaiting the result of an election that looks desperately close when by all conventional measures it should be anything but.

With some justification, Hillary Clinton’s team was very happy with her performance in the first of the three presidential debates. She was well prepared for the encounter and looked both ready and eminently qualified to be president and commander-in-chief. Donald Trump was none of those things. And yet, if you’ll excuse the pun, he had one card that could yet trump all of hers.

Hillary was strong, confident, relaxed, even affable. She looked great and sounded completely on top of the issues. Donald, as she repeatedly called him throughout, didn’t lay a finger on her. But he didn’t need to. Trump knows instinctively that the sum of all Hillary Clinton’s strengths is also her greatest weakness. Her competence and grasp of policy, while admirable, make her look every inch the conventional politician. The only unconventional thing about her is that she’s a woman and she’s running for president. Trump’s counter to that is to say that if she weren’t a woman she wouldn’t even be in contention, a statement that is both misogynistic and manifestly untrue.

Most of the clever and experienced commentators on American politics, backed up by a mountain of polling evidence, suggest that Trump has a commanding lead among just one section of the electorate, White working class men. But the same commentators argued that Trump could never win the nomination, and he did. They said his campaign would implode under its own contradictions and the weight of the candidate’s lies, insults and instability. But it hasn’t.

There is another part of the electorate that is much harder to identify by the usual methods. These people are not a sub-group like African-Americans, women, Hispanics or graduates—all of whom are said to back Hillary by huge margins. They cross all classes, races and demographics. What defines and unites them is their distrust, verging on hatred, of ‘politics as usual’. To them Hillary Clinton is the epitome of that. Everything that makes Donald Trump different appeals to them. He is, by anybody’s definition, ‘Politics as Unusual’. He’s the non-politician politician. Which is why under normal circumstances, he’d be back on reality TV shows where he belongs, but in today’s environment he could yet become leader of the most powerful nation on earth.

All across the globe, professional politicians who have played by one set of rules for generations have come up against a phenomenon they don’t understand and have failed to get to grips with. Individuals and movements that have set out to show that they can re-write those rules have had some remarkable successes.

In some ways, Narendra Modi set the trend, which is why some people have tried to draw rather tenuous connections to claim that Donald Trump is America’s Modi. He’s not. Modi governed a state larger than many European countries for over a decade. Trump has never held political or elected office of any kind. Modi is serious about policy and interested in what works. Trump is interested only in what will earn him his next controversial headline. But while there are no similarities in terms of calibre, there are lessons with regard to how they approached the business of getting into power.

Like Modi, Trump outmanoeuvred the grandees in his party and imposed his candidacy by mobilising the grassroots against the establishment. Both men have been contemptuous about the mainstream media and have proved that they can get their message across by other means. They have talked over the heads of pundits and experts and have found a way of communicating with their supporters directly. Both are fans of the 140 (or fewer) character Tweet. They both have a macho swagger that implies they are going to do things their own way no matter what anybody says. And Modi has shown there is a huge constituency for all of that, especially against a weak opponent. Fortunately for America, Hillary Clinton is made of tougher stuff than Rahul Gandhi.

In my own country, Britain, we came close to ending up with another non-politician politician as Prime Minister. Boris Johnson has had to make do with the consolation prize of being foreign secretary, but his brazen self-confidence, disregard for the facts and populist posturing almost won him the top job. Fortunately for Britain, the Conservative Party bigwigs managed what their Republican counterparts in America failed to do and stopped him in his tracks before he could do any more damage. Not for nothing is the Tory Party seen to be the most professional, ruthless and successful political machine in the Western world.

Boris didn’t really believe it was in Britain’s interests to leave the European Union, but he argued for it anyway. A new book has revealed that he told former Prime Minister David Cameron that he expected the Brexit campaign to be ‘crushed’. He led that campaign solely because he thought it would further his own political career in the intensely Eurosceptic Conservative Party. He got away with it (just) the same way that he was twice elected the mayor of London, a city that usually votes for the opposition Labour Party. He portrayed himself as the non-politician politician. He didn’t play by the usual rules, brushed off criticism with a joke and charmed people just by being ‘different’. When he was caught out lying, he would shrug, run his fingers through his unkempt mop of blond hair and change the subject. And still people liked him.

Hillary was confident, relaxed, even affable. She looked great and sounded completely on top of the issues. Trump knows instinctively that the sum of all Hillary’s strengths is also her greatest weakness

He may have lost out on Britain’s prime ministership to the much more conventional politician, Theresa May, but he left her with an unholy mess to clear up when, despite his prediction, the Brexit campaign succeeded. It was a campaign built on lies and misrepresentations. Cameron and the others who wanted the country to stay inside the EU produced a mountain of facts and figures to prove their case about the likely economic impact of Brexit, but the majority of voters chose not to believe them or not to care.

The whole Brexit campaign was anti-establishment and anti- politics-as-usual. Cameron thought he would win because he was playing by the old rules. He had the overwhelming majority of politicians, economists, business leaders and even military top brass on his side. Faced with this barrage of expertise, Johnson’s side-kick, Michael Gove, famously said, “People in this country have had enough of experts.” Gove is a bit of an intellectual himself and he was rightly derided for that comment. The point he was really making, and on which he was right, is that people have had enough of being told what they should think.

It is this mood of frustration and defiance that poses the biggest threat to the established political order in so many countries. People feel powerless in the face of forces they can’t control and don’t understand. Much of it stems from the pace of globalisation that has left national politicians looking impotent. The feeling that politics-as-usual is the politics of let-down and disappointment has thrown up this new breed of anti-politician on both left and right.

In my own party, the Labour Party, this has produced a massive groundswell of support for a man that all the conventional wisdom and every political expert worth his or her salt (myself included) says can never be elected Britain’s prime minister. Jeremy Corbyn’s poll ratings against Prime Minister Theresa May are woeful in the extreme. Eighty per cent of his MPs said they had no confidence in him in a secret ballot. Dozens of his top team resigned making it impossible for him to find enough people to fill all the jobs in his shadow ministerial line-up. And yet, after all that, he has just been re-elected leader with the support of over 60 per cent of the party membership. Indeed, Labour’s ranks have swelled dramatically as people joined just to defend him. Labour is now the largest left-of-centre party in Europe with over 600,000 members—an incredible number by modern standards—and yet it stands further away from the prospect of power than ever.

Corbyn’s programme is a rehash of failed socialist economics from the 1970s and pie-in-the-sky utopianism about a nuclear-free world and tackling terrorism by dialogue and not force. But his great appeal is to offer, however disingenuously, ‘a new politics’. In other words, just by setting himself up against the political establishment that so despises him, he wins enthusiastic support from people who feel they have been excluded from the debate and ignored because their views don’t count.

Anti-politician politicians aren’t always what they seem. Many, like Corbyn and Johnson, are politicians to their fingertips and have been all their lives. It just suits them to campaign as outsiders. Modi’s long years as a pracharak meant he came to party politics relatively late in life, but while he may have been an outsider to Delhi, he was still an experienced and successful politician long before launching his insurgent campaign to be Prime Minister.

And, despite the enthusiastic support verging on hero-worship they inspire in their followers, anti-politician politicians can’t always translate that into electoral success at the ballot box. Politics has never been more unpredictable than it is today, but it’s still a safe bet to say that Jeremy Corbyn will never have anything like Modi’s appeal in a general election.

In America, Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party establishment managed to see off the challenge in the primaries from Bernie Sanders, although it was a close run thing. Clinton has had to make policy concessions to the idealistic, anti-Wall Street, anti-Washington activists who fought so hard for Sanders. She doesn’t want them to stay at home and sit the election out because they are disillusioned with politics as usual.

In one key respect the new politics is not so very like the old. It is still intensely tribal. Some White working-class, mainly male, voters who might have supported the Democrats in the past are now for Trump. But policies still count for more than personalities. The overwhelming majority of Democrat activists will vote for Hillary, some with a heavy heart, because they despise what Trump stands for no matter how anti-Establishment he might claim to be.

The danger for Clinton lies not with the Democrat base but with the vast swathes of Americans who are not very interested in politics and not well versed in the policy debates between the rival camps. History is littered with candidates who were clearly better qualified on paper but failed to win. Ronald Reagan and George W Bush stood against opponents who were cleverer, more experienced and better prepared for the presidency and still they won. The smartest kid in school is not always the most popular.

Hillary Clinton can sometimes appear a little too sure of herself, somewhat condescending and aloof, as she did in the first debate. She struggles to be ‘likable’ and she has to play by different rules simply because she’s a woman. To be fair to her, she hasn’t tried to pretend that she’s anything other than what she is—an accomplished, supremely professional politician. She has earned the right to be president through hard work, years of public service and immense courage. It would be a tragedy if she fails to get it just because people are weary of ‘politics as usual’. Donald Trump may be unusual, but that’s no qualification for the job in any world other than one that has turned common sense, as well as political convention, on its head.