The United States presidential election, in an unlikely final twist, has ended with former President – and possibly the husband of the next – Bill Clinton lambasting Jeremy Corbyn as “the maddest person in the room” in a leaked speech posted by WikiLeaks. Or has it?
The reality is very different – and a handy reminder that American English and British English are, at times, two very different languages.
In British English, we tend to hear and use “mad” as a synonym for “deranged”. But Clinton was actually calling Corbyn “angry” – a very different statement. The context becomes clear if you read the previous section:
“The British Labour Party disposed of its most (inaudible) leader, David Miliband, because they were mad at him for being part of Tony Blair’s government in the Iraq War.”
It seems safe to say – seeing as in one of Hillary Clinton’s emails, an aide, Sidney Blumenthal, described Ed Miliband’s victory as “something of a regression” – that the inaudible remark was something like “electable” or “inspiring” and not “overrated” or “incapable of doing the basic wooing of the parliamentary Labour party necessary to win”.
But what’s also clear is that the Labour party was not “crazy at” David Miliband because of the Iraq war, not least because you cannot be crazy at something. Instead, they were “angry at” the elder Miliband because of his vote for the Iraq war.
That’s the light in which his line that “when people feel they’ve been shafted, and they don’t expect anything to happen anyway, they just want the maddest person in the room to represent them” has to be read. Clinton is calling Corbyn angry, not crazy: and the feeling that he felt genuine rage and would offer serious opposition against his lukewarm opponents was a big part of his win.
(Not that Clinton is likely to join Momentum anytime soon. He also says they “practically got a guy off the street to be leader of the British Labour party”.)
What’s really striking is not just the transatlantic mistranslation, but a wider problem in America’s election this year. Earlier this year, Hillary Clinton came under fire after leaked remarks she made about Sanders’ supporters:
“They’re children of the Great Recession. And they are living in their parents’ basement. They feel they got their education and the jobs that are available to them are not at all what they envisioned for themselves…if you’re feeling like you’re consigned to, you know, being a barista, or you know, some other job that doesn’t pay a lot, and doesn’t have some other ladder of opportunity attached to it, then the idea that maybe, just maybe, you could be part of a political revolution is pretty appealing.”
And then again, for leaked remarks, this time about Trump’s supporters:
“To just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that…but the other basket — and I know this because I see friends from all over America here — I see friends from Florida and Georgia and South Carolina and Texas — as well as, you know, New York and California — but that other basket of people are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they’re just desperate for change.”
Quoted in full, these are essentially uncontroversial explanations of the bedrock of the supporter of her major rivals for the Democratic nomination and the presidential race itself. Sanders’ supporters were predominantly middle-class graduates facing not the promised increase in their living standards they expected when they enrolled at university, but falling wages and unskilled work with no real prospect of promotion – or the older relatives of those middle-class graduates. Bernie Sanders himself agreed that the diagnosis of where his support was coming from was largely correct.
And Trump’s supporters, are likewise, a coalition of much of the usual Republican coalition, bolstered by angry nativist, misogynistic, homophobic and white supremacist voters who, thanks to Trump, have been given a bigger national and international profile than they’ve had for decades.
And you can have an important debate about whether or not the brand of Third Way centre-leftism that the Clintons will deliver is going to transform the economy for supporters of Trump or supporters of Sanders, or whether what you need is to elect “the maddest person in the room” to fix the mess.
What seems likely that a combination of Clinton’s own centrism and the constraints of a Congress that looks likely to remain at least partially in Republican control will mean little progress for either group.
But even more likely – and the most insidious thing about this election and politics in general at the present time – is that you cannot have a debate about how to fix a problem if political discourse is increasingly shaped around attacking descriptions of the problem as a smear and not a vital starting point for solving the problem. This has been an election in which the question of whether Clinton smeared Sanders supporters by pointing out that they had been done over by the recession has received more coverage than the question of whether Clintonism will fix the problems of Sanders supporters, in which more anger has been extended on behalf of the “deplorables” than Hispanics or African-Americans who feel under threat from him.
And that really is mad.