The rise of Donald Trump shines a bright light on the poverty of mainstream politics, captured as it is by a set of ideas that fail to address growing inequality and socio-economic exclusion.
What is important in the minds of some elites is that this not be disturbed, that the growing concentration of wealth be viewed as reward for effort. So long as rising inequality and exclusion are not fundamentally challenged by redistributive policy measures, megalomaniacs will flourish.
What a gulf there is between Donald Trump, the slightly unhinged sensationalist, and Barack Obama, perhaps the finest and most captivating orator of our time. A nation overwhelmed by economic crisis was soothed by Obama’s message of hope and reassured by his determination and authenticity. Energy and poise in abundance, he was blessed with a family that the nation could take easily into its embrace. The times had to suit Barack Obama and Barack Obama had to suit the times. They did to a large extent, but he also needed the Democratic Party to have a majority in Washington. That was not to be, making the passage of healthcare and other policy reforms a torturous process given the dominance of the Republicans.
On taking office, Barack Obama was confronted by the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. The Global Financial Crisis (GFC) threatened a decade of double digit unemployment in the US. The Obama administration did a great deal to contain the damage, investing heavily in infrastructure projects and job retention in vulnerable industries like automotive. The automotive industry was provided a financial lifeline, saving tens of thousands of jobs in the process. The Australian Government’s lack of willingness to provide certainty to the industry stands in stark contrast to this. We now know that the automotive industry can survive and indeed thrive in high wage economies like ours if the political will is there to support it. President Obama and his administration did what was necessary to get behind the industry at a difficult time.
While the Obama administration’s stimulus package accelerated recovery from the GFC in the US, ultimately helping to generate sufficient employment to drive down the unemployment rate, millions of Americans were devastated by the crisis. It is difficult for us to fully comprehend how bad it was in the US. We were spared the worst of the GFC, largely due to the Rudd Government’s timely stimulus package.
Soon after he came to office, Obama had to contend with a deep and prolonged economic crisis. While the new administration made significant inroads into unemployment and ultimately presided over a return in growth, the enduring hardship generated by the crisis created fertile ground for political opportunists like Donald Trump. His promise to ‘Make America Great Again’ resonated enough to give him the advantage over Hilary Clinton, who despite her enormous capabilities carried leaden political baggage.
Not since Ronald Reagan has there been a candidate with as high a profile as Donald Trump. The billionaire businessman and reality-show star waged war through the Republican nomination process. He ignored all conventions, leaving a trail of destruction behind him and a pathway to the presidency in front of him. Australia is no stranger to this style of politics. Queensland gives rise to it periodically. Think of Pauline Hanson and Clive Palmer. Both presented themselves as outsiders, anti-politician politicians. They fuelled and fed prejudice and intolerance. Trump elevates this dark political art to the national stage in the US, creating conditions for the most division-ridden period in contemporary American history.
While Trump’s rise to power should not surprise us it should alarm us. He is one of the most divisive leaders in history with little understanding of the role of government and appreciation of what constitutes a functioning democracy. Much of what he says fuels xenophobia and populist nationalism, creating intolerance and heightening tensions between the US and other nations. Donald Trump becomes president of a nation divided. He will crash or crash through, creating havoc along the way. Some will try to counsel moderation to him but mostly he will be emboldened by the senior officials he has gathered around him and by a Republican-dominated Congress.
One lesson from the rise of Donald Trump is that reactionary populist politicians like him thrive where inequality grows and goes largely unchallenged. Over the last 30 years, neo-liberalism, despite its obvious failures, hangs like an albatross around the necks of Australian policymakers. John Quiggin, the great Australian economist, long warned us about the dead ideas that walk among us, of Zombie Economics. We need to understand this in order to understand the poverty of modern politics in the United States and Australia.
John Spoehr is Director of the Australian Industrial Transformation Institute at Flinders University