Image for The USA elections and our broken system ...

*Pic: Gage Skidmore, Flickr

Thank you Donald Trump!

That subheading does not reflect my views as a citizen, but acknowledges that the Trump tsunami helped me crystallise what I think has gone wrong with our own political system. Indeed, the election of Trump as US President is – in retrospect – understandable in light of a previous TT article of mine, ‘A Wave of Unreason’ ( here ).

Many Western political systems are broken, some more than others and not least here in Australia, precisely because the obvious consequences of neoliberalism involve a massive redistribution of wealth to the already rich, the insulation of the political establishment from the needs and wellbeing of their electorate, and increasing feelings of alienation and anger in those outside the inner circle of privilege.  Not even the cageful full of canaries that died during the 2008 GFC made the penny drop in the political and economic elite: indeed, more of the same was irrationally seen as the solution to that problem. It needed a real estate developer who ran a reality TV show to cause the butterfly’s wing to flap in the USA, creating a catastrophic shift in world politics. 

That outcome is surely beyond belief when seen through the lens of conventional politics. Donald Trump, a racist, misogynistic liar, arguably psychopathic, who had no political experience, nominally representing the Republican party when the leaders of that party were strongly opposed to him, promoting few if any sensible policies, had won the presidency of the most powerful and influential country in the world. What unreason is that!

His marketing skills sold sufficient of those negatives to enough sections of the electorate for him to win. His opponent Hilary Clinton had 30 years of experience in the corridors of power, knew how things worked, was fluent and was strongly supported by her major party. She had more votes than Trump by a margin approaching 2,000,000 – but the psychopath gained most states and the last is what matters in the bizarre electoral college system of voting in the US.

Trump’s strategy was simple: forget the power elites and the wealthy city folk, focus on the rural states as the key to winning. They had suffered the most when manufacturing was sent offshore to developing countries where labour was cheaper, as good neoliberal policy demanded. States like Ohio, Iowa, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, and cities like the once thriving Detroit, contained armies of unemployed and extremely angry ex-workers.  In these states, also more generally across America, people were fearful that what few jobs existed were being taken by cheap and often illegal immigrants. 

High degrees of racism were the inevitable result. Workers’ wages had not changed significantly for 30 odd years while the wealth of the urban, already rich, had multiplied many times over. Sixty years ago, the top 1 percent of the wealthy own 9 per cent of the total wealth of the USA, today the top 1 percent own 35 per cent of the nation’s wealth. This imbalance of wealth is certainly worse in the US than in Australia, but the pattern is the same as in the US.

On the other side, people were sick of nearly 30 years of the ubiquitous Clintons, their lies, sexual scandals, their line-up with the big end of town. Hilary, since being Secretary of State, had been paid $22 million for speeches to the corporate and financial elites, including $225,000 each for lectures to Goldman Sachs, praising them for their policies and performance. The Democrats’ traditional power base saw her as on the side of the system that had destroyed jobs.  The traditional Democrat constituency, the workers and idealistic left, transferred their allegiance to Bernie Sanders for their Democratic candidate.

His support, especially amongst the young, was enormous and when they discovered that the Hilary-style Democrat elites had undermined Sanders and his social justice platform, they were livid. Young Democrats couldn’t vote for Trump, they wouldn’t vote for Clinton, so Trump won.

It has been estimated by several experts post-polling that Sanders himself would have beaten Trump ... if Hilary and her allies hadn’t intervened, America would now have a left-leaning social democratic government not an unpredictable and ambiguous government, extreme right as far as racism, climate change, massive corporate tax cuts are concerned, but left in free trade deals, and tariffs to discourage US companies from relocating offshore.

Perhaps neo-fascism best describes Trump’s likely form of government, given this mix held together only by his aggressive authoritarianism. 

Trump’s nominees for cabinet and senior levels of government make it clear what his government will be like. All are loaded heavily to the right, members of the Republican elite he had so recently affected to despise, far right hawks, climate deniers, representatives of the fossil fuel industry and of the financial sector that his constituents hated, not to mention his own inexperienced children and his son-in-law. 

The Republican dominated House and Senate, with Trump’s promised appointment(s) to the Supreme Court, mean that there will be no checks and balances on his power. There is a through-train for hard right, hugely damaging policies that could well threaten the world itself. A Trump administration certainly won’t be one to please the under-privileged who had voted him in. One ray of hope is that Trump has already backed away from some of his more extreme election promise – for instance ‘the great big wall’ at the Mexican border is post-election a fence, his intention to pursue charges against Hilary Clinton is now dropped. Other touted policies, however, like huge tax cuts for big business (which will benefit Trump’s own businesses enormously), tearing down climate change policies, supporting the fossil fuel industry and the Dakota Access pipeline across indigenous reserves, will surely come to haunt all of us, not just Americans.

And it could well have been a left government in Washington had the Democratic Party supported Sanders. The butterfly’s wing flapped to the right when it could just as easily have flapped to the left. The political scene is that volatile and unpredictable. 

This bizarre and dangerous outcome happened when the US two-party political system ran out of control, out of touch with the electorate and leaving the latter angry and alienated. So what about our Australian system? Could the same thing happen here?

Unrepresentative democracy

The major factor by far in the Trump victory was that both Democrat and Republican parties were beholden to finance and big business interests and were not representing ordinary people, particularly in rural states. The surge of the demoralised and disempowered against self-serving establishments is also seen in Brexit in the UK, where the ordinary people and even their leaders had no idea of what they were doing and what the consequences might be. 

A similar lack of representation exists in Australia. Since Hawke and Keating transformed the Labor Party into a free market neoliberal-lite party, the Labor Party has twisted itself into a corkscrew with a right hand thread.  Both major parties, admittedly with different emphases, legislate for the interests of big business not for the majority of Australians – just like the Republicans and Democrats in the USA. 

Labor was in lockstep with the Coalition on asylum seeker policy until they very recently refused to endorse Turnbull’s witless, cruel and quite unnecessary bill to prevent asylum seekers resettled from Nauru and Manus from ever visiting Australia for whatever reason; also Labor agrees on national security issues such as committing troops to wars that are none of our business but that the US has decided to embark upon for their own paranoid or grandiose reasons; on free trade agreements that benefit the corporate world and not the general populace; on the dangerously counterproductive school chaplaincy programme that replaces trained psychologists with religious zealots who almost certainly hold counter-productive views on the very issues that are troubling students; on forestry and pulp mills as we in Tasmania know only too well.

True, since the 2016 federal election, there are clearer differences between the two parties especially on climate change, education and health but enough similarities still exist to deprive a large number of voters of a clear choice.

Another similarity between the USA and Australia is the existence of a two party system, a structure which itself diminishes representative government. In Australia and Britain, and to an extent in the US, the two parties emerged from the two broad groups in society, employers and employees, represented by right and left wing parties respectively.  Today’s society is much more complex than that with the result that the left and right wing parties no longer provide adequate representation across the spectrum of society. This is evident in the rise of independents and minor parties and plunging memberships of the major parties.

Thus, Mark Triffitt1 quotes ANU research reporting that only 43 per cent of people believe it matters which party is in power, a decline of nearly 25 per cent over the past seven years. Younger Australians are now seriously alienated from politics and the party system. Party membership has dropped sharply to less than 2 per cent. Labor politicians are either spawned by the party machine or hard hat unionists fighting a battle that is increasingly irrelevant to modern conditions, while Liberals are usually rich male businessmen and lawyers who have little idea of how the majority of people live. All the homeless need do to get a home is ‘to find a good job that pays good money’ as a Liberal ex-treasurer recently informed us. 

Triffitt concludes:

The best way to view mainstream political parties in this day and age is to see them as the new fringe groups of the 21st century.

Two experienced commentators, Peter Onselen and Wayne Errington, agree that Australia has outgrown the two-party system and must reform institutions to remake it.2 The basic problem is that politicians have become ‘professionalised’, winning itself has become the goal, not the means of achieving a substantive goal. The electorate has become cynical and alienated from party politics.

The big question is what will be the important political groups to emerge in the 21st century and how the old system will be removed and a new one, whatever it is, put in place. The irrelevant political dinosaurs aren’t going to vote themselves out of office, so what form will the shower of meteorites take that will confirm their political doom?

There are thus at least two major factors in the gap between political parties and the electorate they are supposed to represent. The two party system itself, which wraps politicians in an institutional cocoon, and the fact that the two parties share neoliberal ideology.

The system at work

Once good people get into Parliament a process of institutionalising seems to occur. Many politicians, especially on the Labor side, enter Parliament no doubt with the highest ideals but most morph into cogs in the party machine.  They are forced to, to the detriment of imaginative governance. Politicians should be allowed to express views that differ from party ruling, to even cross the floor as they may in England and America, but to do so in Australia is political suicide. Enforced solidarity kills initiative, creativity and political imagination, which is what we sorely need right now: more Maxine McKews please and fewer in-house bullies.3

Turnbull’s case dramatically shows how powerful the system is. Small ‘l’ liberal Malcolm Turnbull, with a strong social conscience, passionate about addressing man-made climate change, leader of the Australian Republican movement, and hope of Australia when he took over the prime ministership from Abbott, promised reasoned debate in parliament, no more trading insults. But he had sold his soul for the leadership to the hard right minority of his party. He swiftly became as raucous as Abbott himself, shouting down whatever Labor said, stridently lying about Labor policy for example on Trump and national security (q.v.),  and shouting three word slogans (that he had promised not to do) as raucously as Abbott had shouted his, but whereas Abbott did ‘stop the boats’, ‘jobs and growth’ have both slumped under Turnbull.

Turnbull is now champion of the fossil-fuel industry, backing cruelty towards asylum seekers equalling that of the heinous Peter Dutton, backtracking on his view that Parliament should settle the same sex marriage issue, cutting welfare benefits to the most disadvantaged with as much enthusiasm as his predecessor, whopping tax cuts for wealthy companies.  In short, he has been transformed into a clone of Tony Abbott: same software, prettier hardware.

His attitude towards the Trump victory is deeply worrying, showing the same inconstancy in what he truly believes in. When Turnbull came to the top job he warned us about hollow and ‘extravagant professions of loyalty and devotion’ to the US, not to get ‘doe eyed’ in the presence of the American president.  But after Trump’s election he swiftly changed his tune. He led a sycophantic conga line to be amongst the first to kiss the Trump Rump (to paraphrase Mark Latham and Phillip Adams). He phoned Trump soon after his election, boasting how he spoke to Trump before leaders of larger nations (but he had to seek Greg Norman’s help in the obtaining Trump’s phone number).

The 15 minute conversation was, he tells us, ‘warm, frank, constructive and practical’. He went on: ‘Americans understand that they have no stronger ally, no better friend, than Australia and the enduring national interests of our two countries as such that our relationship will continue to be strong.’  He explained how similar he was to Trump, both businessmen coming late in life to politics – but hasn’t Turnbull been in politics for years, twice leader of the Liberal Party? Then days after that, Turnbull sought a meeting prior to the APEC Free Trade talks in Peru but was effectively snubbed by Trump.  Labor’s response on the contrary was realistic and cautious: Trump’s election is a game changer Shorten said and obviously it is. Penny Wong wrote that ‘there was a very serious prospect of a substantial shift in US foreign policy.’ And wasn’t changing foreign policy exactly what Trump had been telling his cheering followers? But Turnbull, still basking on the warmth of his 15 minute phone call, blustered that Penny Wong wanted ‘to move away from our strongest, most important, most trusted, most enduring ally’. Why, she was even willing to ‘put our nation’s security at risk’. 

I am afraid our Prime Minister has become a shrivelled husk of a politician, having lost the plot along with his integrity.

Despite his wish to identify with Trump, Turnbull’s is a very different story from that of his admired Donald Trump. Whereas Trump changed the system, the system changed Turnbull. Turnbull turned out to be a wannabe leader but when it came to the crunch in facing both his own party and the leader of the world’s most powerful nation on the other, Turnbull crumbled.

As Peter Brent writes,

‘Turnbull ‘has turned into Abbott, who had himself, with the world seemingly at his feet after the big 2013 election win, ended up resembling Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd at their most ineffectual. Could it be that the position, or the political system, now ruins whoever is the current occupant?’4

So are these transformations because of the personalities of those involved? Or is it a systemic problem? It is both. When the system is broken, the political powerbrokers being out of kilter with what the electorate believes in and wants, the gaps so created allowing opportunists to jump in to fill the gap that bests suits their shape.

So what impact can the US debacle have on Australia?

The impacts of the US elections on us depends on what sort of government in Australia is in power. On the one hand the right side of politics keeps kowtowing to Trump, either like Cori Bernardi and Pauline Hanson because they rejoice in what Trump is likely to bring to the country, or like Turnbull and his senior colleagues because they have joined the conga line with their tongues hanging out.

The problem here is that paying too much sycophantic attention to Trump is just what a supreme egotist like him wants. It gives him ever more power. Take free trade agreements. He has made it clear he doesn’t like them. The first thing he will do in office, he promised, is to tear the TTP up. Turnbull takes that to mean we might be able to adjust proposed agreements, the TTP in particular, to suit Trump’s vision of America. In other words, we and the other signatories would be leaning over backwards to accommodate what Trump wants. He would be the one calling the shots. That is a terrible position to place our country in.

Or take Trump’s proposed trade war with China. Trade with China is economically important to Australia. Which way will our right wing go with that? Back our own country or back Trump’s policy?

Trump wants a massive military build-up in the States, which taken with his bellicose promises about intervention in the Middle East, will mean more US intervention in other countries. Will we just meekly commit Australian troops to whatever wars he wants to engage? We have unfailingly followed the US into war in the past, usually with disastrous results, for us, for the US and for the countries invaded. All the signs are that a Coalition government would continue along this increasingly crazy and dangerous path. It is a tragedy that we are locked in to a massive extent with existing US bases in Australia. 

A Labor government on the other hand, going on what Shorten and Penny Wong have already said, is more cautionary. The way America seems set to go, is now very different from the way Australia would want to go. We must judge each involvement with the US on the merits of the case. That seems eminently sensible, and close to Angela Merckel’s reaction to Trump:

Germany and America are connected by values of democracy, freedom and respect for the law and the dignity of man, independent of origin, skin colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political views. I offer the next President of the United States close cooperation on the basis of these values. 

Polite, offering cooperation, but in terms of our supposed common values as democracies. What could be fairer than that? 

Other impacts on Australia could be because we occupy the same planet as America. A large emitter of greenhouse gases uncapped by any target, a boost in fossil fuel consumption, and the example that sets for other countries, can only accelerate climate change.

Then apocalypse: the finger of an aggressive megalomaniac on the nuclear button …

How likely is Australia to spawn a Trump?

John Passant5 thinks it quite possible that unless workers can reclaim their unions with jobs protected and real wage increases, we could become ‘Trumpland’, with Pauline Hanson leading the charge and Malcolm Turnbull following her.  This view is that the system can be mended from within by a Labor government that gives workers their justly due. I believe however that the system is broken beyond such easy repair.

It needs replacing.

Raimond Gaita believes the upsurge of Trump signalled the end of reason. ‘Trump’s disdain of facts and argument became so persistent and extreme, that he took his supporters - and America with them - into a place where he eroded the conditions that enable the application of concepts of fact, evidence and argument.‘6 He also says that couldn’t happen here as Australians are too cynical about politicians and tend to think more critically than Americans about what they hear from politicians, especially patently obvious shysters.

Several features in America helped the Trump victory that do not exist in this country or at least not to the same extent. We have compulsory voting which means that the desertion of young Democrat voters is much less likely to occur here. In fact only 19 per cent of the population voted for Trump, yet that was enough to install him given also the American convoluted electoral system. It just couldn’t happen with some sort of proportional representation system of voting.

The extreme sense of powerlessness and anger particularly in the rural states isn’t present to that extent in Australia. Home ownership, a welfare system, a government health scheme in Medibank, and relatively better wages, take the sharp edge off what alienation and civic anger is felt here.

Politically, America has always had a far right narrative which gained control of both the House and the Senate. With the Ku Klux Klan, the National Rifle Association, violence and high murder rates it has been far more acceptable to express violence and acted out racism in the USA than here. Trump’s appeals to those very same traits thus had a ready, large and willing audience. Our audience of angry and disempowered people is only around 4 per cent, expressed in those who voted for One Nation.  Violence and racist behaviour are not acceptable to the great majority of Australians.

Australia is thus unlikely to spawn a Trump. Pauline Hanson is a naughty fairy compared to the cult figure that Trump made of himself.

That is not to say that all is well here. The bimodal reaction of the right to Trump’s victory is a big worry, which is to rejoice and emulate his programme of division and hatred or to try to placate the man and pretend everything is okay after all. That only exacerbates the gap between the people and politicians and between people and people themselves. And that is where representative government breaks down. 

The reaction from the left is more encouraging. The whole idea of a social democratic governance, which Labor and the Greens claim to represent, is to build the economy in order to serve the people. Ideally that means that wherever citizens live, whatever their ethnicity, they have the same rights of access to health, education, transport, the law and a happy and fulfilling life. The nearest to that ideal that has been achieved in Western democracy is in Scandinavia, as I have argued previously on TT ( Here: Why has Scandinavia got it right and we haven’t? ).

Barack Obama put the problem of instability and disaffection at its simplest: Politicians must connect better with ordinary people’s concerns.

That is not what Obama himself did because the divisive Republicans were in charge of both houses and would not let him.

The UK government did not connect with the ordinary people hence Brexit. Successive Australian administrations have paid more attention to party priorities than to good governance, hence the string of failed Australian PMs since 2007, massive public distrust in politics and politicians and class division as neoliberal policies bite.

The task facing us therefore is to work out a system of governance that maximises that connection with the people. A neoliberal system does not: it maximises secret deals and the separation between rich and poor.

Surely we can do better than that.

Refs ...

2 Peter Onselen and Wayne Errington, ‘Ruling not Governing: What to do about our lost confidence in the body Politic.’ In Fixing the System, Griffith Review, Edition 51
3 See McKew, Maxine, Tales from the Political Trenches, Melbourne University Press, 2012. She did the amazing: snatched John Howard’s seat in the 2007 election. She went into Parliament with the highest ideals, but was harassed and bullied by unelected minders to toe the party line.
4 Peter Brent, ‘Prometheus Bound’, Inside Story, 18 November 2016
5 John Passant, ‘Australia a Trumpland in the Making?’ Independent Australia, 14 November, 2016/
6 ‘Raimond Gaita on Donald Trump’s America: a cloud cuckoo land devoid of fact, evidence and argument’. The Conversation 16 November 2016.

*John Biggs is a retired academic who now writes fiction. He turns to non-fiction when angry, and when the cause of his righteous anger is political he gives heartfelt thanks to Linz for Tasmanian Times.

Dr Michael Powell in Comments: The Last Trump ... There is something apocalyptic about the election of Donald Trump. No one can quite define it but there has been an utter alteration. In a tilt at our obsessive commercialism, one commentator described it as ‘product improved fascism’ and certainly this feels like an election for all those that missed the 1930s …

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