We are all still coming to terms with the cataclysmic political events of the year. Brexit was a starter. But the big one has been the election of Donald Trump.
We don’t really know exactly how Trump will act as a President. We have his radical statements made during the campaign, some of which have been moderated since. However, clinging to hope that he may change his mind over some of these statements may be a case of hope against reality.
Leaving aside what Trump as the western world’s leader will or will not do, what can we learn from this experience? Or are we destined to go down this path?
First, some good points:
- Thank God we have compulsory voting.
We should be grateful we have compulsory voting. Neither the UK and USA does. And I think both paid the price. Only about 60% of eligible people voted in the US, and 72% for the Brexit vote. Compulsory voting, I think, acts as a moderator on extremist positions. It’s no good Americans protesting about the election of Trump when they didn’t bother to vote.
- Also, our Lucky Country growth over the past 20 years.
The US has a great rump of middle class people whose real wages and living standards have neither improved nor even declined over the past few decades. They saw in Hillary Clinton no improvement in this. She was seen as continuing current policies. But perhaps they saw with Trump’s promises – despite his effrontery – at least a chance. In rugby terms, an ‘up and under’, which might yield fruit.
- And our media.
Trump – and possibly also Clinton – was able to make outrageous claims in the campaign, but did not seem to be cross-examined by the media for detail. He got away with murder. Our journos, brash as they can be, would not let this happen. Instead of one-liners, our politicians would be forced to flesh out policies. Trump and Clinton faced no such pressure.
Now on some of the negative issues:
Trump was asked if he regretted the hyperbole, and indeed lies, he told during the campaign. Without hesitation he said “No, I won”. The sad thing here is that he is saying it is ok to lie. And, sadly, we had it too with ‘Mediscare’. There was also so much hatred and bitterness in the American campaign. Good manners went out the window. As it was successful, it may spread.
- The need to focus on priority issues.
I read about a timber worker from one of the Rocky Mountain states who worked hard in difficult conditions for low pay and what is a grinding living, but all he was hearing about from Washington was transgender toilets. And this turned him, and others, against Washington. And Trump seized on this with his ‘draining the swamp’. I think we have a similar problem. While the LGBTI have legitimate issues which they promulgate forcefully, these issues do not necessarily hit the economic and social buttons of the middle- and lower-class peoples of rural Australia or the western suburbs. Look how much airplay and time gay marriage has been given this year.
- Free Trade & Trade Agreements.
Trump has retreated into populist protectionism. This wholesale retreat into protectionism is a danger. Yes, the Detroits and other places have suffered through trade, but overall there have been huge win:wins for nations, including the USA. Think how less we pay for so many goods now than in the past. And, as for globalisation, think how many hundreds of millions of people – perhaps billions – have been lifted out of grinding poverty by it. The trouble is that we do not sell these benefits well. And Trump is seeking to reverse these benefits. Shades of 1932.
- Build a Wall/Anti Muslim Sentiment.
A friend is concerned for his family about the Apex gangs. He pointed out that if there is a major terrorist incident in Australia, it will drive segments of our population to be anti-refugee, à la Trump building a wall.
- Descent into Populism.
Trump’s campaign consisted of one-liner populism, rather than policy. There is the temptation our leaders may also take this soft option.
With Trump, we as a nation face great uncertainty on a plethora of issues. On climate change, on which the president-elect of the world’s most powerful nation seems to be an unbeliever. On the Australia/US alliance, which very important for us. On US policy regarding Asia and China in particular, which policy seems to be in a vacuum.
When the US reached Baghdad in 2003, there was a sense of ‘what’ll we do now?’. The same happened in UK with the Brexit vote, and perhaps the same is happening in the US now.
In 1977, John Kenneth Galbraith wrote a book which he entitled The Age of Uncertainty. Surely, we are in such an age now.
If there is a winner for the year, I think it is Vladimir Putin.
Bill Frilay lives in Melbourne, and is an occasional commentator for Social Policy Connections on current social issues.