For those old enough to remember Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker, observing the current Labour leadership contest is a bit like having to decide between Colin Baker and Sylvester Mc Coy as the next Doctor Who. Jeremy Corbyn’s declaration this week to pursue a policy of nuclear disarmament rekindles memories of the so-called ‘Longest suicide note in history’ that comprised the 1983 Labour Party General Election Manifesto. Then again, you might not give a toss. I doubt many would across the pond. They’ve got their own political ‘X-Factor’ underway at the moment. Whilst the irrepressible Hillary Clinton seems odds-on to be selected as the Democratic candidate to run for US President in 2016, the Republicans appear to be going through a similar identity crisis as the Labour Party here – only, with the Americans traditionally doing everything on a far bigger scale than anyone else, this car-crash makes Labour’s journey to electoral disaster resemble a wrong-turning on the M62.
The candidate grabbing the most attention at the moment is the uniquely unlikeable Donald Trump. The tangerine-tanned blustering billionaire with the most obedient comb-over in the history of hair has made a career of talking to his fellow-man as though he himself belonged to a higher life-form, and he doesn’t seem to have modified his charmless offensive as he attempts to receive the nomination from the Republican Party. Mind you, if you’re capable of casting your mind back four or even eight years, the nominees to have emerged from the Republicans come every Presidential Election have grown increasingly bonkers for a political party that produced such canny operators as Nixon and Reagan.
Just as the Labour Party seem to be wilfully heading towards the lethal embrace of its hardcore grassroots, one with an idealistic (if unrealistic) vision of Britain as a Socialist Paradise somewhere between an imaginary 1945 and 1966, the Republican Party gives every impression it is engaged in a public demonstration of hara-kiri that precludes power for at least another four years. There’s something strangely undemocratic about the American system that throws up so many unsuitable oddballs as prospective Presidents; no previous political experience is entirely necessary, just enough cash to foot the bill for running. Even in the recent past, figures with a track record of high office such as George Bush Senior have emerged as sound candidates, yet today it would appear their kind of CV is more of a hindrance than a help.
A lengthy absence from the Washington hot-seat and the absence of any feasible replacement for Obama has made the Republican Party vulnerable to its more surreal fringes, rendering the kind of fruitcakes that would once have been dismissed without a second thought potential contenders. The infiltration of the Tea Party set, first sighted in a position of power with the abrupt rise of the spectacularly dumb Sarah Palin, has done so much damage to the Republican reputation that the party is in danger of being tarnished for a generation as a sanctuary for the unhinged and unelectable. That a ludicrous cartoon character like Donald Trump could in any way be put forward as a credible contender for leader of the most powerful nation on earth merely underlines the problem. On one hand, this system could be cited as the ultimate democracy in that anyone can theoretically run for President without the tedious climb to the Cabinet that constitutes the British political ladder; on the other hand, the fact remains that being bankrolled by a personal fortune or some huge corporation is the only realistic way of hitching a ride on the primary bandwagon.
Donald Trump’s motivation for the job he seeks seems to be another extension of his belief that anything can be bought. Inheriting his father’s real estate business, Trump’s evident business nous gradually made him one of the world’s richest men, though he bordered on bankruptcy twenty-five years ago before rebuilding his fortune. In his time, he’s owned skyscrapers, casinos, football teams, golf resorts and beauty pageants, as well as fifteen seasons fronting the original US incarnation of ‘The Apprentice’ (for which he was reputedly paid $3 million per episode).
His dalliances with politics initially stretched no further than party donations, though he entered the arena by running for the Reform Party in 2000; a decade later, he appeared set to run for the Republican nomination but pulled out early on. This followed his idiotic questioning of Barack Obama’s US citizenship, demanding the President publicly produce his full birth certificate, a publicity stunt that backfired. This was the first real sign of Trump’s tactics as a potential politician. Certain sections of the Tea Party have long been convinced Obama is a Muslim, so Trump exploited the groundless paranoia. When he finally announced he’d be running for the Republican nomination proper for 2016, he tapped into some Americans’ long-term fear of their poor relations by describing Mexicans in a manner that made Nigel Farage’s comments about Rumanians sound like a fawning love-letter to Prince George from the pages of ‘OK’.
With the Republicans resorting to anoymous senators, small-scale crackpots and yet another Bush, Trump – with his rampant egomania and ignorant belligerence – has unsurprisingly caught the attention of TV viewers, pushing his popularity as a potential candidate and taking the lead in the race. But, again, like the UKIP leader, Donald Trump stands out because he’s such a dramatic contrast with the competition and creates headlines by placing more emphasis on what he’s against rather than what he’s for.
It’s hard to think of a comparable situation in this country to someone like Trump seeking to become PM. I suppose we have an equivalent gobshite in someone like Kelvin McKenzie, but he’d need a Richard Branson-like fortune to complete the comparison. He’d have to be elected as an MP first, of course, then spend a few years on the back benches, then maybe gain a nondescript job as a Junior Minister, even possibly a minor Cabinet post when the government is a few months away from a General Election. The likelihood of him gaining high office would be remote to say the least. After all, there are numerous well-known politicians in the UK who are familiar faces via ‘Newsnight’ and ‘Question Time’ that will never get anywhere near No.10. By comparison, the US system seems closer to ours as it was prior to the 1832 Great Reform Act, where privilege and personal fortunes count for more than actual ability, and political parties are incidental to individuals. Westminster is hardly crammed with those destined for canonisation, but given a choice, I know which system I’d rather have.