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Corbyn, Trump and Farage: The Rise of the Paranoid Style

They may seem very different on the surface, but underneath they’re driven by the same fears.

There was an odd TV moment last December, when Russell Brand and Nigel Farage appeared on Question Time together. For several awkward minutes, the chest-beating iconoclasts struggled to find much to argue about. Both agreed that Britain was broken. Both agreed that an ill-defined “establishment” was to blame for oppressing the working classes. Both clung to the insistence that they weren’t part of that establishment themselves. Both asserted that progress could only be achieved through the toppling of the mainstream parties by a populist movement.

One pandered to the right, one to the left, but somewhere in the middle they both hit a sort of anti-politics reactionary demographic that isn’t easily classified. Their main disagreement was over which nebulous agency they blamed for our woes. Cabals of bankers rule Brand’s world; Farage blames the immigrants. Of course bankers and immigrants are often the first against the wall when revolution calls, and in that respect the two men are playing parts from a very old story.

Enter Corbyn. Stage very left; an accidental colossus plucked from the darkest imaginings of the Labour psyche through a process as improbable and incompetent as the conjuring of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in Ghostbusters. Stranger still, Jeremy Corbyn may be the answer to the question, “how can Labour win back UKIP voters?” 39% of them felt he’d make the best Labour leader. Which raises a brief but tricky question: why?

Like many UKIP supporters, Corbyn occupies an anti-political ground where the traditional distinctions between left and right are less meaningful. Corbyn and his UKIP counterpart are both natural Eurosceptics, both insular and protectionist when it comes to Britain’s place in the world, both weirdly sympathetic to Putin, both aligned with the left behind working class and suspicious of political, economic or intellectual elites (Corbyn rejects scientific consensus on everything from alternative medicine to nuclear power). Both have adopted – and been adopted by – what Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoid style” in his famous 1964 essay; “a sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy”.

The paranoid style

Paranoia has been the defining feature of Corbyn’s campaign and leadership. At one point a BBC journalist asking him a simple question on Clause Four was met with an angry “who put you up to that?” — a moment that echoed Farage’s rant about biased BBC audiences during the election debates. He has actively supported anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists like Stephen Sizer and trades in bizarre pro-Russian reinterpretations of world events. His supporters see Tories in every shadow and imagine that dark forces in the Labour Party itself would rig the leadership election to ensure their man failed. Now that he’s in power, he’s made attacking the media and the establishment his priority over any other area of policy. 

“The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms,” wrote Hofstadter, “he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point.” To Corbynistas, public services won’t just be bit worse under the Tories; they’ll be destroyed. We are regularly granted “24 hours to save the NHS.” Labour is a lost cause even though Cameron clings on only by a tiny majority. We face the “end of capitalism.” 

It isn’t enough for the Tories or Blair to be simply wrong; they must be evil incarnate, intent on causing misery and verging on the omnipotent. The mythology of the enemy is key to this persecuted mentality. “He is a perfect model of malice,” said Hofstadter, ”a kind of amoral superman — sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel. […] He wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history...  He makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys and profits from the misery he has produced.” Crucially, he controls the press; as seen in the left’s bewildered response to the last election.

The conspiracy theories central to campaigns

It’s not just in the UK that the paranoid style is on the rise. Across the Atlantic, Donald Trump leads the Republican nomination race like a clown on a unicycle, everyone wondering how on earth he’s staying up. A firmly anti-establishment candidate, he panders to fears about race, immigration and the general weakening of America’s “precious bodily fluids”. His supporters overwhelmingly believe conspiracy theories that Obama is a Muslim, that he was born outside the U.S. and that the children of immigrants should not be granted citizenship. His rejection of science is so comprehensive one wonders if he knows which direction he’ll fall out of bed in the morning. A preoccupation with the long-debunked myth that vaccines cause autism has been a key feature of his campaign.

Trump is closer to Farage than Corbyn in policy, but they share a common style and attract people for similar reasons. Hofstadter pointed out that the tendency arises, “when the representatives of a particular social interest — perhaps because of the very unrealistic and unrealizable nature of its demands — are shut out of the political process.”

In many areas of public life, the front line has become simply too difficult and too professionalised for members of the public to have any real impact. Science has progressed on many fronts far beyond the amateur’s ability to contribute, while European politics resembles a technocracy more than a democracy, especially over matters such as Greece. On both sides of the Atlantic, party membership, which is dwindling rapidly, has come to be less important than self-interested networks of lobbyists and donors. Labour’s leadership campaign accidentally provided the first opportunity in years for a vaguely popular movement to take over a mainstream party. 

The Corbynista movement, like its UKIP and GOP counterparts, is a response by a section of the public who feel, with some justification, that their voices have been excluded by that mainstream political class. Their ideas on everything from race to economics to science are too simple, too old-fashioned or just too wrong to be taken seriously in 2015. That includes many of the left-behind demographic that Rob Ford and Matt Goodwin identified in Revolt on the Right; the sort of people who long for simpler times, think Britain is broken, and would happily vote for a 1980s ale-swigging stockbroker or a 1980s tea-swigging beardy as long as he's from the 1980s and cocks a snook to the establishment.

The inevitable result

So what happens now? Hofstadter’s model predicts both the cause and the inevitable result. “The paranoid is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician.” Compromise is alien. Compromise makes you, as Liz Kendall found to her cost, a “Tory cunt”. Corbyn is popular because he refuses to compromise, and it’s precisely that trait that will ultimately cause him to fail, because persuading ten million people to vote for you involves compromise by definition. “This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals,” wrote Hofstadter, “and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration.”

Destiny isn’t calling Corbyn, Trump and Farage so much as it’s hurtling toward them like a rogue asteroid. While I wouldn’t want to see any of them near power, I don’t think we should celebrate. Instead we should ask about the circumstances and decisions that created such a large group of the frustrated and ignored in the first place.

*This article was amended on 18 September. Originally it stated that the Revolt on the right was written by Goodwin Ford when it was written by Matt Goodwin and Robert Ford. 
Martin Robbins is a writer and talker at the messy border of science and culture. He is a columnist at VICE, and blogs for The Guardian and the New Statesman.