The rise of Trump has lessons for Australia

| November 14, 2016

Australia must act to address inequality, recommit to inclusion and hear citizen voice if it is to avoid a populist revolt on the scale of Brexit or the rise of Trump, argues Craig Wallace.

I can’t think of any overseas event since the tragic 9/11 attacks in 2001 which has so shaken, confused and shocked many Australians as the election of Donald Trump as US President last week.

It’s half a world away but it feels relatable. We are all consumers of US culture. We have long term cultural affinities that were cemented in the post war settlement begun by Prime Minister Curtin who announced that Australia looked to America, free from reservations as any kind, as the source of our regional security. America is a place we feel we know.

How then could they elect someone who calls Mexicans rapists; boasts about assaulting women; threatens to lock up political opponents; mocks disabled people; threatens to ban Muslim immigration; denies climate change; talks about mass deportations and seems to have no respect for the basic trade, rights, legal and political systems which have shaped the world since 1945?

Trump is the crescendo of a year of upsets with the Brexit result, the steady rise of Marine Le Pen in France and the resurgence of One Nation in the Australian election this year.

2016 is a year of shocks but the path here has been long and structural. Last week’s election of Trump came on the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall. Just as the end of communism came from within, the end of neo-liberalism and the rise of extremist populism have long running social, cultural and economic causes which are acting in concert.

In 1989 the East looked enviously over a wall at the consumer culture, television broadcasts and affluent wealth of the west. In 2016 Americans want to encase themselves inside a wall in the face of a world that seems to threaten their declining personal wealth and security.

Paul Keating makes a decent argument for areas of Australian exceptionalism but we also need to take a sober inventory of ourselves and realise that we are not that far away from some of the dangerous fault lines that made Trump possible. And if we want to prevent a rerun we need to ask their cause and confront each in turn.

We need to confront racism and intolerance. For three decades now sections of the political establishment have been courting a slow, dangerous unravelling of the consensus about pluralism and race. In the 1980’s it was Asian immigration. In the 1990’s it was the “black armband” view of history and since 2000 the conversation has turned overwhelmingly on refugees. At the same time in the guise of wittering against ‘political correctness’ a group of reckless nihilistic ideologues have been chipping away at cultural norms which worked to treat people as people regardless of inherent characteristics like race, gender, disability and sexuality.

To halt this our leaders need to start acting like adults and showing moral leadership. They need to stop playing with matches and turn on the lights. Racism, sexism, ableism and homophobia are about ignorance. The best defence is knowledge. Instead of concocted culture wars there should be a national cross party reaffirmation of the multicultural, egalitarian and pluralist values of our country.

There should be investments in attitudinal work to find out the true prevalence of racism and what it would take to make our cultural fusion work, especially outside the University educated Sydney-Melbourne-Canberra city triangle.

We can’t hop in a time machine back to football, meat pies, kangaroos and Holden Cars – we have to make this Australia work, endure and thrive.

The Trump victory also fed on resentment arising from an erosion of the living standards, welfare, jobs and housing amongst working class people in the US caught in the changes wrought by globalisation.

According to the data, white voters without a college degree earning under $30,000 were the most likely group to vote for Donald Trump. Yet the irony is that when it comes to inequality, many of these people have far more in common with an illegal immigrant worker than they do with the man they elected president or people they just elected to congress. Lowly paid, in precarious and casualised employment they have been the big losers in globalisation both here and in America.

Forget 18c; we need to stop silencing non university educated working class people from speaking out about real inequalities which are fuelling their anger and resentment. Parts of the political establishment are happy to dog-whistle to people on race but crush them under heel whenever they dare to speak about lives on income support and in poverty.

That is precisely why I supported a wide range of community organisations and leaders to come together in a Statement of Concern following the hounding of a man on a low income who asked a question about income inequality on the ABC’s Q&A program. We need a recommitment to citizen voice and an expansion of the ways people can join in conversations on their lives as well as complex public issues. We also need to provide alternatives to the social media black hole which amplifies anger and division without providing answers. Deliberation and citizens panels hold promise.

Here in Australia we have a growing number of people thrown out of old industries and languishing on a Newstart payment that is so low that even business acknowledges it can’t meet requirements for subsistence.

Government investments in a literate, happy, well fed people are a small price to pay for the resilience of the rule of law with free, democratic public institutions that provide sound conditions for business and economic growth. We need to see inclusion and cultural diversity as an asset. We need to foster meaningful citizen voice so that no one feels unheard.

Whichever way you cut it, America is set for at least four painful divisive years – politically, economically and culturally.

Australia does not need to go down this path. We avoided the worst of the Global Financial Crisis and we can also be a light against the wave of crude intolerance and extremism sweeping the world.

We can be a beacon so that as our American friends come out of the shadows – and they surely will – they might see our harmony, prosperity and safety net, not to mention our gun laws, as lights to a happier place where a fascist could never rise.



  1. Max Thomas

    Max Thomas

    November 16, 2016 at 3:31 am

    Taming the popular beast

    Stephen Fry has wryly conferred on Australia the epithet "America Light". The roots of Australian immigration are to be found not so much in post-war humanitarianism as in fear. "Populate or perish" was the post-war maxim with economic development, regardless of social or environmental costs, following closely behind. But always lurking beneath the veneer was the 'white Australia policy', a grim legacy of the gold rushes which, although terminally wounded, like the mythical Hydra, somehow manages to rear its ugly head at times of actual or perceived stress. Tertiary education has been much more widely available post-WW2 and especially since the 1970s, regardless of socio-economic status, and the tertiary education rate has vastly exceeded the rate of population increase. Brexit and the election of Trump may have been populist expressions of the "citizen voice" demanding equality and inclusion but such clarity of purpose was not evident before the events. More likely, these outcomes represent a response to the promises of charlatans and false prophets who resorted to 'manufacturing' the conditions that awaken the dormant beast. Mixing metaphors, no matter how the whistle is tuned, the Australian tail will never wag the American dog. I submit that, unlike the USA which has a revolutionary history and has suffered the tragedy of civil war, we in the 'lucky country' have not much been tested until now. We have to be grateful for the institutions which were designed to save us from our worst selves but they cannot change the nature of the beast. We must think hard and critically about the social, economic and environmental conditions we need to foster to bring out the best we have, and we have to find the courage to act. We need great leadership now more than ever. The ability to recognise true greatness and to make the sacrifices it demands is the mark of a great people. Whether or not these things can arise from privilege I am not sure, but I think this may be the moral challenge of our time.