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Lessons for Australia's political class from Donald Trump

By Alan Berman and Glen Anderson - posted Thursday, 17 March 2016


Donald Trump's rise in the 2016 US primary campaign has been unexpected. After announcing his intention in June 2015 to run as a Republican presidential candidate, Trump was almost universally discounted by seasoned political pundits.

And yet Trump has carried seven out of eleven states in "Super Tuesday". He has since won important primaries in states such as Kansas, Kentucky and Michigan. And yesterday he had significant wins in a number of states including Florida. If Trump's momentum continues, he will have made significant inroads to obtaining the 1237 delegates he needs to become the 2016 Republican presidential nominee. This begs the question: why has Trump been so successful?

A suite of factors have arguably contributed.

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First, Trump is an entertaining communicator. In an optic fibre world which thrives on novelty, his bloviating antics have transformed US politics from anodyne to captivating. Like a good reality TV show, voters are curious to "tune in" and see what Trump is going to say next. Which of his rivals will be mocked today? Which minority group will be insulted? Which member of the press core will be criticized?

Trump's communication style offers more than entertainment though. His tirades against the political establishment have struck an undeniable chord with voters who have become disillusioned with the steady erosion of the American middle class. Many younger voters, struggling to find jobs in the post-GFC economy and saddled with astronomical college debts, no longer believe they will enjoy the same standard of living as their parents.

Trump's popularity is also driven by his business accomplishments. As a billionaire head-quartered in "Trump Tower" New York and starring in a reality TV show, voters have been conditioned to his success. When Trump speaks on the importance of rejuvenating American business, many voters believe. Mention of past financial problems or allegations of questionable business tactics are dismissed as sour grapes.

In contrast to his Republican rivals, Trump instinctively references iconic US companies such as John Deere, Caterpillar, Ford, or Pfizer. Moreover, he specifically links his discussions to the creation of new manufacturing jobs. This is coupled with denunciations of free trade policies and the off-shoring of US jobs, especially to China. Blue collar workers – the Reagan democrats – are flocking to his campaign.

Above all, however, Trump emphasizes that he will get things done. He will make a deal. He will achieve practical outcomes. He will force bickering politicians to sit in a room and compromise. This simple message is mesmerizing to many voters who feel forgotten by the tired policies of prevaricating and partisan Washington elites.

It would be remiss, of course, not to mention Trump's polarising charisma. Although Trump is remarkably gaff prone, offensive to minorities, and inclined to stereotype, many voters are unconcerned because these traits demonstrate his authenticity and outsider political status.

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So much for the rise of Donald J. Trump.

What might it portend for Australia in 2016 in what increasingly looks like an early double dissolution election? Although it would be unwise to analogise too extensively between the US primary season and Australia, some lessons for Australia's political class arguably emerge.

First, Trump's rise indicates that post-GFC voters are sick of "do nothing" political elites. This arguably explains the tightening of Australian polls during 2016: voters are becoming restless over Malcolm Turnbull's "caretaker" persona, especially his failure to meaningfully deal with the burgeoning budget deficit. An Australian political leader who can develop bold initiatives, even if imperfect, stands to galvanise voter support. This may explain why Bill Shorten's proposal to abolish negative gearing for existing housing stock has boosted Labor's political stakes.

A further lesson is that job creation – especially of the blue collar variety – is something that many voters value. Rather than carping about the transition to a "service society", complaining endlessly about the inefficiency of Australian manufacturing or attacking the unit costs of labour, politicians have to demonstrate their absolute commitment to value adding jobs. Offshoring is likely to be an important issue to Australian voters in 2016 given the closure of the South Australian automotive industry and the persistent rumours of Australian submarine manufacture in Japan.

Another lesson might be that "making a deal" – effectively engaging in bipartisanship – is highly valued by voters. Obstructionist and partisan politics have deeply alienated voters in a post-GFC environment. An Australian political leader who can seize the initiative on bipartisanship is more likely to be elected.

A final lesson is the importance of charisma. Political leaders must remain true to themselves. A leader who is flawed yet authentic, unusual but magnetic, is likely to garner voter support. Anodyne performances and robot-like one-liners are unlikely to capture voters' imaginations.

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About the Authors

Dr. Alan Berman, an Adjunct Research Fellow of the Socio-Legal Research Centre at Griffith Law School and a Senior Lecturer in Law at Newcastle Law School, teaches and researches in the areas of crime and Australian society, international human rights law and sexuality and the law.

Glen Anderson is a lecturer in law at the University of Newcastle. Dr Anderson researches and teaches in the areas of international law, equity, company and property law. He has formerly taught Australian and international politics.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Alan Berman
All articles by Glen Anderson

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