Chris Johns: British politicians could learn from Trump’s peculiar authenticity
Unlike Trump, Tory leadership candidates say things they almost certainly don’t believe
Trump, for all his flaws and contradictions has a peculiar kind of authenticity That’s a key difference between Trump and most of the candidates for job of leader of the UK - and also the current incumbent Theresa May.
Politically, if not constitutionally, Britain is unravelling. We don’t yet have an economic crisis but according to the latest data, the economy has slowed to its “stall speed”. Car sales and construction are slumping. Brexiteer economist Patrick Milford is on record as saying that, post-Brexit, UK manufacturing might disappear. Reports of a planned 2020 closure of Ford’s south Wales engine plant, along with similar other shutdowns, suggest he is right.
While Brexit undoubtedly dominates everything I have a hunch that something else, something relatively new, is also at play.
Trump says what he thinks. And what he thinks resonates with plenty of voters
British politicians have drawn the wrong lessons of Donald Trump’s presidency. Trump taught us that you can say anything you like and people will believe you and enough people will vote for you. It doesn’t matter if what you say is nonsense or has only a passing acquaintance with objective fact. The key point is that Trump says what he thinks. And what he thinks resonates with plenty of voters.
That’s not necessarily the same thing as lying. It could be just wrong, in all senses of the word. But people warm to a politician who speaks his mind; particularly if at least part of what he says constitutes a shared belief. Even if what he thinks today is a randomly assembled series of words that make little sense or are different to what he said yesterday. It’s a weird kind of authenticity: at any given moment in time, he believes what he says and acts on whatever he has said. Of course, it helps that Trump’s views on trade, immigration and liberal values are both unchanging and appealing to many.
That’s a key difference between Trump and most of the candidates for job of leader of the UK – and also the current incumbent. Theresa May was a Remainer who overnight discovered the virtues of Brexit. Her mantra was “no deal is better than a bad deal” – we knew she didn’t mean it.
Those who now campaign for no-deal always knew that May didn’t really believe it would be anything other than a disaster. The current long list of people seeking to succeed her are, mostly, positioning themselves as close to a hard Brexit as they can, thinking that will give them the keys to Downing Street. I doubt that few, if any, of them believe what they are saying. They have seen the Civil Service briefings: by all accounts they are terrifying.
Even if the scale of the damage is less than suggested by those secret dossiers, it is an abuse of the language to imagine that a no-deal exit is a coherent strategy. Those briefings reveal what happens the day after Britain goes over the cliff-edge: the negotiating table beckons with more leverage granted to the other side. No-deal will damage both the EU and the UK, but the latter will suffer much more harm. Some kind of deal is inevitable: the waffle about the sunny uplands of a WTO-only exit will quickly be confronted by the reality of what that means. At least we will have some new data: no economy worthy of the name trades in this way. A deal of some kind will still need to be done. Anyone who says differently is fibbing and almost certainly knows it.
Trump, for all his flaws and contradictions has a peculiar kind of authenticity. Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab and most of the others do not. Everyone knows they are saying anything just to appeal to 100,000 or so members of the Conservative party. We suspect that, unlike Trump, they are saying things they almost certainly do not believe.
Only two potential prime ministers possess authenticity: politicians who say what they mean. One is Nigel Farage. The prime driver of his success has been his stance on Brexit. But few people think he is dissembling when he says he wants a hard Brexit. He has a Trump-like authenticity. The other authentic candidate is Rory Stewart. He is worth watching.
Jeremy Corbyn also had the authenticity of someone who clearly believed what he was saying but has been undone by Brexit: facing both ways, trying to be both a Remainer and Leaver, he has shredded his popularity, his authenticity.
Lack of authenticity plagues business and political life. We are assailed by corporate gobbledygook every day of our working lives. We can spot it a mile off. When politicians go at it we see it for what it is. Unlike the world of work, we have some political agency, we can’t get rid of the boss but we can vote for politicians who mean what they say. Part of Farage’s success is based on his authenticity, albeit one of a twisted kind. Many voters want Brexit; they also want leaders who mean what they say.
Stewart is an unusual MP. He is running an authentic election campaign. He talks sensibly (mostly) about things other than Brexit while having a clear view on the nonsense of no-deal. He probably won’t win – but might be good for a long-odds flutter. I suspect we are about to find out just how much authenticity matters. Which version of authenticity the British electorate end up choosing – or get lumbered with – will determine everything.