Trump and Australia
Tuesday, 6 December 2016
| Paul Tyson
One man who saw the inevitability of the Trump victory in the US many months ago was Michael Moore. I read his ‘5 reasons why Trump will win’ in July, and the facts, the logic and the simplicity of Moore’s case were undeniable. Like Moore I too hoped, against the obvious truth, that he was wrong. But he was right. Here, in a nutshell, is why.
Rust-belt America has been left behind since the end of the post-war boom in 1971. These are the people who, prior to the 1930s, used to be small-scale farmers, and then after the war, when their land was bought up by super conglomerates for a song, they turned to manufacturing. 1945 to 1971 was all systems go for manufacturing USA. At this time, Middle America never had it so good. But then Nixon pulled the pin on the Bretton Woods system, which, accompanied shortly after by the oil price shocks, sent us into a global stagflation tail spin that was ‘fixed’ by the creative destruction of Paul Volker in the late 1970s. After Volker, the way was opened for Reagan and neo-classical economics in the 1980s. All the protections against boom/bust speculative capitalism that were put in place after the war by those who suffered in the Great Depression were systematically removed in the 1980s and 1990s.
The new neoliberal environment suited the high flying transnational super-rich – who did very well, thank you – but the manufacturing class simply atrophied as jobs, security and opportunities for ordinary working people relentlessly dried up. We have the same thing here in Australia, too, but we call this the two-speed economy. In contrast to the usual economic indicators – which do show that big business is doing exceptionally well – the majority of Americans and the majority of Australians have suffered rather than prospered under the competitive neoliberal ideology that has driven politics since the mid-1980s. Trump simply tapped into the seething discontent of the majority. Hilary Clinton’s ‘safe hands’ promise to uphold the prevailing elite consensus on smart policy choices was resoundingly rejected.
But here is the frightening thing. Trump speaks to those who know that the neoliberal experiment has not worked for them, and promises to ‘make America great’ again. How is he going to do this? Well, like Hitler’s promise to make Germany great again, there will be public works programs, there will be a rejection of international obligations considered onerous, there will be a Mussolini style cult of personal sexualised machismo, there will be a sacred respect for militant nationalism, and there will be the continued harvesting of that great political energy that got him to the presidency - resentment. This resentment will be turned against vulnerable and externalised threats – Mexicans and Muslims. It’s fascism. We are back at the 1930s. But no, it’s worse than the 1930s, a lot worse.
With global warming requiring urgent action now to prevent apocalyptic disaster later this century (this is science, not propaganda); with the global economy not being able to recover from the 2008 melt-down and just flustering on by sheer wilful belief that everything is alright (even though China hasn’t picked up, though the Eurozone is about to fail, though nothing has been done to prevent speculative trading, though legal transnational tax cheating has never looked healthier for the super-rich); with 60 million stateless people being the mere early rain of the coming flood of global dislocation; with drone technology and the US having astonishing global military power (and Trump in charge); with an overt power clash between China and the US going to happen in the South China Sea soon; with ISIS violence gaining momentum as Putin and the US use this conflict to assert their own military interests; with global population pressure, deforestation, species extinction, coral bleaching, icecaps melting, and right-wing extremism and religious and racial violence blooming … this is not a time for a popularist fascist harvesting of rust-belt resentment, or for the continuation of neoliberal business-as-usual. Given the powder kegs we are sitting on, playing either with fascist fire or business-as-usual indifference can only end very, very badly. We are going to make World War Two look like a picnic when the wheels fall off now.
So at this time what do we, in Australia, learn from Trump?
The obvious lesson is that populist resentment has real power in the polls. And it has power for all the reasons that Michael Moore identified. But what do we do with this knowledge?
Do we let Hanson push us further in the right-wing populist neo-fascist direction simply because it works in winning votes? Will Turnbull be too sensible and mainstream for the political right in Australia after the rise of Trump? Clearly this is what Tony Abbott thinks. Will the right learn from Trump that electoral power can be had by unleashing someone like Scott Morrison, who seems to genuinely love the politics of brutal contempt towards so-called illegal arrival asylum seekers and the long-term unemployed? Will the ALP, like the Democrats, reject a Bernie Sanders styled return to egalitarian and humanitarian moral principles and just try to out-centre the Coalition? As long as our party political machine people retain electoral ‘realism’, the trend in the movement of the centre towards the fascist right will inexorably advance.
‘Realism’ is our problem.
Malcolm Turnbull has already done what is entirely in keeping with our smartest foreign policy heads: he has pledged unqualified support to the USA, and to Trump as the President-elect. He does this because our foreign policy prides itself on a long history of ‘realism’. To a realist – at base – might is right. The most powerful look after their own interests, and we – who are not the most powerful state on the world stage – can look after our interests best if we make ourselves useful to the most powerful. Just as Howard went happily against global opinion and flung us, in the coalition of the willing, into Bush’s war on Saddam, so Turnbull promises undying faithfulness to the US/Australia alliance at a time when the global community is standing back and trying to think about what a Trump presidency means. Our realism is ‘smart’ because, if others are cautious about the US, we have a distinct PR use to the US if we unconditionally support them. This doesn’t mean Turnbull likes Trump, and clearly Turnbull thinks we do not have the same dynamics of rust-belt resentment here in Australia as they have in the US. And certainly, things for the working and outcast poor are dramatically worse in the US than they are here. But I fear Turnbull has radically underestimated the sense of struggle that most Australians live with, who do not, like Turnbull, have a seven or eight figure private investment portfolio to play with.
Hanson shows that the Trump dynamic is already alive and well in Australia, and is now emboldened by fascism in the US. ‘Realism’ is a very dangerous conceptual grid at a time like this. For ‘realism’ is amoral, and only crowd instincts and felt-self-interests count as real to it. If the political climate is such that electoral power flows easily to those individuals and policies that appeal to blind and irrational instincts, wishful ignorance, bigotry and collective resentment, then ‘realists’ will simply go with that flow. When electoral success is the only thing that matters, and when you have a resentment-fuelled insecure electorate, the scapegoating reflexes of our nasty and insecure herd instincts can be ignited very easily. Then you get fascist politics.
Moral idealism is needed now in both of our mainstream party blocks. In our times, if we do not find leaders characterised by the sort of moral power of figures like Martin Luther King, Mandela and Ghandi – for all their shortcomings – we will end up with leaders like Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin. Leaders who have the courage to hold to what is good, regardless of whether it is ‘realistic’, are the leaders who can inspire what is best in a people rather than simply ride what is worst in us. If our political gatekeepers learn this lesson from Trump, then there is hope for Australia. If not, we are heading for the same sort of moral disaster that Germany sailed into in the 1930s.
Paul Tyson is an Honorary Research Fellow in the School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry, University of Queensland.