How do we explain Trump?

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Tony French.

Donald Trump. Matt Johnson. flickr cc.

A recent statement by former Russian President Gorbachev caught my attention. In an interview with the Washington Post newspaper he said, “it all looks as if the world is preparing for war”.

He sees a world overwhelmed with problems brought about by “bellicose world leaders and a media that echoes them”. That seems an apt description of Putin’s Russia and Xi Jinping’s China today, but also raises the question – is the United States about to join this authoritarian club following the election of President Trump, making the world an even less safe place than before?

Authoritarian trend with Trump?

The answer may well be “yes”. All three leaders display authoritarian, if not avowedly aggressive, national and international policies. Barely two weeks after his inauguration, Trump has halted travel and immigration to the USA from seven largely Muslim countries, he insists on Mexico building that wall, has cancelled the TPP, promised to build up US military resources, and is possibly welching on the refugee swap with Australia.

In that short period of time, too, Putin has reignited strife in Ukraine, and China continues militarisation of its artificial atolls in the South China Sea.

Rather than alarming their populations, these actions receive great support from their people. Half the American population is said to support Trump’s move to ban Muslims from entering the US.

Popularism is, then, well, popular, but only because five key ingredients are being satisfied. They are, according to the economic historian Niall Ferguson, rising immigration, broadening inequality, public disillusionment with the political status quo, economic volatility, and, finally that coalescing catalyst, a demagogue.

To be blunt, enough voters in the US preferred Trump, in spite of his numerous personal deficiencies, to the alternative.

Trump, says Paul Kelly of the Australian, (28 January) “stood for three things: economic protection against free trade, nationalism against internationalism, and cultural tradition against social liberalism”. Hillary, with her progressive liberal message, just didn’t ‘cut it’ with sufficient voters.

Trump voters disdain the liberal ‘elites’, their governments, and progressive messages to minorities, the liberal media, and instead favour conservative values, summed up in the plaintiff catchcry, ‘Make America Great Again’.

Trump’s election victory can be called a ‘revolution’. Like most revolutions, it came as a shock and a surprise to the incumbents. White male voters, economically and politically marginalised, actually constituted a majority of the US voters who found their sentiments echoed in the incendiary and wild words of candidate Donald J Trump.

But, you ask, was this really a revolution? After all, most revolutions begin violently with a coup, a putsch, tanks in the streets, a forcible takeover of the Presidential Palace and the local TV station. Surely not by an election. Yet Hitler came to power democratically, a case then of the man making the most of the office, not the office making the man. In our heart of hearts, we hope the Office of President will be the making of Trump.

Make America Great Again hat. Gage Skidmore. flickr cc.

If we become disenchanted with contemporary applications of economic and social justice, then, as Camus predicts “we rebel” (The Rebel). The world you see is meaningless, and we humans imperfect, but meaning and value can be found in protest, the very basis of our innate urge to revolt, to participate with others in a revolution.

Voting for Trump was a rebel act, a metaphorical storming of the Bastille of political correctness, a rebel chorus revoicing Middle America.

Alternatively, you may say “no” to such French existentialist twaddle. Trump’s victory represented a pushback against rising levels of inequality, both economic and of opportunity. Middle American wages have stagnated for the past twenty years, their children cannot afford college educations, and, defying expectation, that generation of children will be less endowed financially than their parents, a sure downward path to poverty.

Populism in Australia

So what about Australia, then? Could such a revolution happen here, when we tell ourselves that we have less inequality, with our social welfare system, than in other countries?

Rebellion is rising; there are clears signs of popularism, and, moreover, there are populist movements and the likelihood of their increasing. There’s Pauline Hanson, of course, but Xenophon is a populist leader seeking a national constituency, and any day now Cory Bernardi is expected to break away from the Liberal Party to launch his ‘conservative’ party.

Pauline Hanson is proud she is talking to the ‘common people’, those disillusioned with the government, and those if not already anti-establishment then anti-intellectual. Translated, this means they are conservative, in the country, and right wing. She calls them the ‘forgotten people’.

Eerily sounds like the message to Middle America, don’t you think?

Four of Ferguson’s five preconditions are present; we only await the arrival of a suitable unifying demagogue. Will that be Pauline, Nick, Cory, or someone else?

Maybe we might, Trump-like, just endorse Pauline anyway, despite her shortcomings. Watch the results of the forthcoming Western Australia and Queensland elections, where the One Nation Party is expecting to do well, a detour, if you like, on the road to Canberra.

Just after the last Federal election, the Australian National University conducted a survey which showed only 26% of people have trust in the government, the lowest since 1969; and, alarmingly, two-in-five people were dissatisfied with democracy in Australia, the lowest since the 1970s and the dismissal of Gough Whitlam.

History shows us that, once unleashed, revolutions gain a nasty momentum all their own. We may inherently want to rebel, says Camus, but rebellions give us a set of values which allow us to legitimate oppression and, if necessary, murder. Tyranny claims to be virtuous when it sets out to create a new society. Yet what has been the human cost to the people of Russia and China in establishing their ‘new’ societies?

Ultimately, it is the Rule of Law that stands between government tyranny and the people. The American Constitution is there to curtail the Trump executive excesses. Many individuals and even American States have recently taken legal proceedings seeking to overturn Trump’s decision selectively to ban otherwise legitimate entry by foreigners to the US.

And then, too, recall that every revolution is followed by a counter-revolution. Pray that it happens before the global conflict feared by Gorbachev.

Tony French is a Melbourne lawyer and a Board member of Social Policy Connections.

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