The Owen Smith campaign isn't likely to leave many lasting traces on British culture, but one of them might be the final, wheezing, gasping, death of 'banter' as a word that's acceptable to use under any circumstances. Facing accusations of sexism for a tweet in which he suggested Nicola Sturgeon be presented with the world's biggest gobstopper, he refused to apologise, insisting that it was "a bit of political banter during an election contest". This is probably it: even the loudest, lairiest, and most witless of the Lad Bible fanbase aren't likely to want to keep using a word that's now been tainted forever by Owen Smith's grey, rubbery lips. Banter might be dead, sexism less so. It's not Smith's first furore: there were similar accusations after he publicly lusted for the "strength and the power and the vitality to smash her [Theresa May] back on her heels", or when he told Leanne Wood that she was only allowed on TV because of her gender. All this raises a few uncomfortable questions.
He's rude and tactless, insulting towards women, and running a pointless campaign that's pretty much destined to lose. A horrible possibility is emerging. For all his claims to be the sensible, rational, normal man bringing Labour back to electability, could Owen Smith be the British version of Donald Trump?
On the most immediate level, once you start looking into it, the similarities are astounding. Both are, for instance, very sensitive about their masculine endowment and sexual performance. At a Republican debate in March this year, Trump denied any implication that his tiny, weak little hands meant he had a tiny, weak little dick. "I guarantee you there's no problem," he said. "I guarantee." Smith's references to his own honourable member have been more oblique, but no less defensive. At an event the other week in Hull, when told a member of the public had a personal question, he pointed at his crotch and said "29 inches", before adding "inside leg". (Before audio recordings were leaked, his campaign team tried to claim that he was absolutely not referring to his knob, in which case the joke simply makes no sense.) Great banter, obviously, but he can't take it as well as he can dish it out.
During a softball interview on ITV's Good Morning Britain, Smith was asked whether he had ever tried out any of the company's products while lobbying for Pfizer. "That's between me and Mrs Smith," he said. Which is a strange answer: if you're asked whether you've ever had to use Viagra, and the answer is no, it's not hard to just say no. And when host Susanna Reid said something to this effect, the mood suddenly darkened. "That was called a joke, Susanna," snapped Smith, with all the sudden, aggrieved, wounded bitterness of a man whose dick may or my not be working to industry standard. Unresolved issues around his genitalia and public condescension towards women: full marks on the Trumpometer for Owen Smith.
There's more, far more. Both exhibit a series of bizarre neurosis around ordinary food: Smith claims not to know what a cappuccino is, while Trump, a New York native, was once photographed eating a slice of pizza with a knife and fork. They've both made incredibly stupid foreign policy proposals, both seeming based on whatever sounds good at the time, even if they're stupid in different ways: Trump thinks he can get the Mexican government to pay for his beautiful border wall, while Smith thinks he has a great idea to get Isis around the negotiating table. Both have been profoundly insensitive to disability, with Smith describing his opponent for the leadership as a "lunatic". Above all, they're both trying to appeal to the same spectral base of disgruntled white men, capitalising on any anxiety over metropolitan types with their fancy new gender arrangements – see Smith defining himself as "normal" with "a wife and three children" while still running against Angela Eagle, who is gay.
And both are trying to stir up fears around migration and refugees: in a distinctly Trumpian move, Owen Smith claimed that schools in south Wales are under incredible pressure from vast numbers "people fleeing the Middle East", churning up all the familiar paranoias, the dehumanised tide, the refugees as a cloud of locusts come to strip our unguarded country of everything it has. In fact, a grand total of 78 Syrians have been resettled in the entirety of Wales, where many schools are facing closure because there simply aren't enough pupils. It's not quite "they're sending us their rapists", not yet, but when you start lying about migration for electoral gain, you're in the territory of the horrendous, and it's never too far away.
A lot of pundits like to occasionally draw comparisons between Trump and Jeremy Corbyn; they don't tend to consider that the same might be true of Smith. Hadley Freeman complains that "Trump and Labour's hard left both claim to be a cause, but have become cults of personality, ones it is forbidden to criticise." Janet Daley writes that "Trump frenzy and Corbyn mania" are "both bizarre flights from reality." Nick Cohen makes comparisons between those fighting against both candidates, with those fighting the Nazis. In the end, the comparisons always boil down to two things: both command a strong populist support from a voter base whose devotion sometimes verges on the fanatical, and both are insurgents, outside the accepted mainstream, against the traditional elites, forcing their way into politics from the outside. And on the latter point, at least, they're absolutely wrong.
Trump isn't something foreign or heterogeneous to ordinary liberal democracy, he's just an intensification of its normal processes – there could never be a Donald Trump if there weren't already a Hillary Clinton. Politicians in representative democracies have always tried to pit the strong against the weak, to ferment hatred of the outsiders, to strut around appealing to some lowest common denominator; they've always said anything they think will get them political power. Trump is a particularly vulgar version, but we live in particularly vulgar times. What really unites Trump and Owen Smith is their lack of any actual commitments: all their positions are provisional, vague riffs deviating within strict limits from the general ideological dogma – and when just trying things out in front of an audience is the whole of your politics, stupid gaffes are bound to result. The left is ascendant within the Labour Party, so Smith is trying to bend in its direction, to be a decorbynised Corbyn, to make minor social-democratic gestures while not rocking any boats. In any political landscape where the need to gain power by any means overdetermines every other goal, some kind of desaturated monstrosity is always inevitable. Here, today, it's Owen Smith: a crappy, watered-down version of Trump, but still a kind of Trump. But it's OK, right? He won't win. It's just a bit of banter.
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