As if proof were needed, the transition phase of Donald Trump’s imminent presidency shows all too clearly that Americans are in for a rough if not calamitous ride. And Australians have just as much to fear from a weak Prime Minister beholden to the barking right of his party emboldened by Trump’s victory.
The election of Trump as US President will define the world’s political agenda certainly throughout 2017 and very likely over the course of his four-year term – if in fact the mercurial Trump lasts a full term. Trump’s election gives license to far-right extremists largely kept in check by prevailing political orthodoxies, social norms and generally enlightened attitudes.
Trump’s shock victory has busted that paradigm wide open; deliberately and without disguise. More wrecking ball than thoughtful statesman, Trump’s reckless, deceitful and frankly monstrous campaign was a repudiation of those orthodoxies, norms and enlightened attitudes.
Trump tapped into a maelstrom of discontent that resonates just as loudly in Australia: a view that the “political elites” have been pursuing agendas – globalisation, economic restructuring, deregulation – without regard for how they affect the most disadvantaged in the community. When people’s jobs and livelihoods are at risk they will inevitably feel that their cultural values and ideals – their “way of life” – are also under siege.
It’s a heady cocktail of disaffection that manifests itself in a desperate embrace of any counter-political force that vows to eschew the political establishment and act for “the real people”.
Trump’s victory does serve as a salient reminder that the fast pace of economic change since the 1990s – which in the last half-dozen years has accelerated dramatically with the onset of the “digital economy” – has big losers as well as big winners. The conventional political messaging that change is good – a mantra repeated ad nauseam in shrinking workplaces – has tested the patience of people who far from sailing majestically in the sea of change are drowning in it. And they are angry that their cries for help have either been not heard, ignored, or worse, ridiculed.
The anger of Trump’s disaffected followers deserves respect, as it does a credible response from governments, legislators and policy makers.
It remains, however, difficult to forgive these disaffected Americans for entrusting Trump with their grievances.
Voters turned a blind eye to – or indeed welcomed – Trump’s bigotry, racism and sexism, if not outright misogyny. They overlooked his transparent ignorance on the economy, foreign policy and national security; they were unfazed by his instability, incoherence and infantilism; and perhaps most inexplicably they ignored the fact that Trump embodied everything he stood against: he (in the words of Hillary Clinton) “stiffed” contractors, employed illegal immigrants, used Chinese steel in his construction, rorted the tax system and outsourced manufacturing of his branded products overseas.
‘The biggest fuck-you in human history’
Basically, Trump’s supporters didn’t care, and the reasons are best summed up by documentary film-maker Michael Moore, who predicted Trump’s victory:
“Trump’s election is going to be the biggest ‘fuck you’ ever recorded in human history…Whether Trump means it or not is kind of irrelevant because he’s saying the things to people who are hurting, and that’s why every beaten-down, nameless, forgotten working stiff who used to be part of what was called the middle class loves Trump. He is the human Molotov cocktail that they’ve been waiting for, the human hand grenade that they can legally throw into the system that stole their lives from them.”
Australia is already familiar with the “fuck you” political phenomenon. It powered Pauline Hanson into federal parliament the first time around in 1996 and perhaps even more improbably Clive Palmer – Australia’s Trump – in 2013. In 1998, Queensland voters delivered their own giant fuck-you when they elected 11 One Nation MPs to state parliament – a short-lived primacy as it turned out. And, this year, voters returned Hanson to parliament with a Senate seat along with three of her, shall we say, eccentric One Nation cohorts.
Trump ascendency brings into focus the anger which has been building in the community – and left unattended – for a long time.
Many Australians, like their American counterparts, feel ignored, disenfranchised and disadvantaged by the new economic order. And their response is not only to look to the likes of One Nation, but to harden their intolerance of anyone or anything that they consider threatens their “way of life”.
The Trump victory has emboldened One Nation to be even more outrageous in their political quackery, and worse, xenophobia and bigotry. We are familiar with the news footage of One Nation senators ostentatiously toasting Trump’s success. At the time of writing, climate change denialist Senator Malcolm Roberts is on a cringeworthy visit to the US to fly the Trump-Downunder flag.
“Unlike many foreign leaders who have shied away from or tried to ignore Donald Trump, newly elected Australian Sen. Malcolm Roberts is proud of his early support for the maverick Republican candidate and now the president-elect,” the Washington Times reports, obviously none the wiser that Roberts is a political pipsqueak, albeit one who has successfully tapped into the same dissent that propelled Trump to the White House.
Roberts told the newspaper while in Washington for meetings with the Trump transition team (cue to roll eyes): “We’re the only party that actually came out and supported the Trump candidacy. We also celebrated his victory the moment it happened. We were very happy about that.” (Roll again; vomiting optional.)
The Washington Times report continues: “The appeal of Mr. Trump’s campaign, he said, was that ‘it seemed to be that the American people are at last waking up that there’s something wrong, and they’re saying to both main parties: You caused this. We don’t know what the problem is, but we know there’s a problem,’ he said.”
A Prime Minister who stands for nothing
At such a time, the need for strong political leadership is paramount, but Australia lacks anything remotely resembling leadership, so that nobodies like Roberts get to dance on the world stage in praise of Trump. But it’s not just the fringe players who are running loose. Mainstream conservatives are also lining up to declare their fealty to Trump and Trumpism.
Liberal senator Cory Bernardi, a Trump acolyte, right down to his red ‘Make Australia Great Again’ cap, warns that Australia must heed the lessons of the US presidential election. Bernardi says One Nation is a political force once more because Pauline Hanson and her colleagues are willing to talk about the things that “people are talking about in the pub”.
“If you have politicians who refuse to talk about immigration, for example, you’re going to get people like Pauline Hanson who will tap into that space,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald.
After lionising his hero, Bernardi added: “Hillary Clinton was the very worst candidate they could have put up. She’s working for the elites, she was crooked and the system was crooked and they [voters] wanted someone to fix it.”
Bernardi, of course, was addressing an audience of one: his leader and Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull. Turnbull, so lacking in authority within his own party, has made no attempt to slap down the outspoken Bernardi. Indeed, there is every chance that the South Australian senator will find himself promoted to the ministry, both as an offering to the right and in an attempt to keep him quiet.
There could not be a worse time for Australia to be saddled with a spineless PM who stands for nothing. When it became clear that Trump had won the election, Turnbull rushed to congratulate Trump and assured Australians that Trump the candidate and Trump the president would very likely be two very different things. Congratulating Trump is one thing, but Turnbull was remiss in not asserting Australia’s values and interests rather than being seen as all-in with the president-elect.
As the US swings to the right over the next four torrid years – and embarks on the Trump experiment of running a country like a business (headed by a CEO of dubious business acumen) – the onus is on Turnbull to provide the leadership that prevents Trump-style agendas from taking root in Australia.
Turnbull has made much of his government’s plan for the much-touted transitioning economy, but there is no such plan, save for Treasurer Scott Morrison’s budget, which is merely a short-term political document of dubious value. Australia needs root-and-branch economic reform – a bold blueprint that positions the nation for a new era of change and uncertainty, of stature akin to the reforms of the Hawke-Keating era. And both these Labor titans understood that with genuine reform must come the leadership that leaves no Australian feeling overlooked, unrepresented or disqualified.
Even with barely a skerrick of substantive reform under this government that’s how many Australians feel right now. At a time when many Australians feel like they’ve living through a recession, Turnbull, every bit as tin-eared as his predecessor, is still sloganeering about innovation, agility and exciting times.
Trump’s victory provides a valuable reminder about the importance of leadership. In its absence, the orange menace will beckon, whether it’s Trump or Hanson.
As 2016 draws to a close, there is no sign that Malcolm Turnbull has the courage or will to stamp his authority on the prime ministership. Instead, Australia seems destined for another year of diffident, ill-disciplined and pointless government. Surely this is not what Turnbull expected of his time as prime minister. It’s certainly not what the people of Australia expected.
Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a former associate editor and columnist with BRW and columnist for the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. Follow him on Twitter @DAngeloFisher or correspond via firstname.lastname@example.org