While the possibility of authoritarianism is never easy to think about, the rise of Donald Trump to leading GOP presidential contender teaches us a valuable lesson. If Trump can win in the United States, an Australian much like him could win power here too. Trump has an awful record of prejudice, demagoguery and hysteria to his name. To avoid his like from coming to power here, we must recognise the immense danger of the powers our government already enjoys and abuses.
Trump's key features are:
- A strongman's attitude and behaviours. Trump's only real belief is in himself and his ability to act as a "problem solver." If only he enjoys the power of government, he promises to make things right. Otherwise he has few fixed beliefs. His policies can change frequently, sometimes in the space of days.
- Trump does not just regularly insult his critics–he threatens to introduce powerful libel laws in order to stifle them. This contempt for freedom of expression is wound up in his egotistical character: Trump must be free of criticism because he never deserves it.
- Trump's prejudiced statements are well-known. He taps into widespread fears about migrants, calls for banning Muslim migrants entirely, and lambasts free trade. He believes free trade and immigration has destroyed employment in the United States.
The key problems with this agenda are:
- No one man or group of men, be it Trump or anyone else, can govern us with perfect wisdom and foresight. We are all ignorant of many things. Typically, people know what's best for themselves. More fundamentally, individuals have a right to decide their futures for themselves. Freedom of choice matters. Trump's promises fall flat because no government official can "solve" societal problems like some mathematical equation. They can only alter the law–usually for the worse.
- Harsh libel or defamation laws undermine free discourse. Rather than defending reputations, they are typically used by the privileged as a hammer to stifle discussions on important social and political topics.
- Trump's comments amount to a call for collective punishment of groups of people whom he dislikes–Muslims, Latin Americans or other immigrants. The trouble is that whatever problems these groups may face do not justify punishing innocent people. There is no disputing the existence of violent Islamic radicalism, for example, but the idea that all Muslims are radicals and deserve to be punished for views they do not hold is a nonsense.
- Latin Americans or other immigrants are commonly regarded as competitors for jobs, but this overlooks that their presence contributes to the economy. They supply valuable services and demand services in turn–creating local employment in the process.
- Free trade largely benefits us. Just as the supermarket shopper is buying the goods in his trolley because they are worth more to him than the cash in his wallet, importers and consumers buy foreign goods because they're left better off. The reason is simple: trade allows us to specialise in what we're good at and do more of it. If foreigners are better at producing something than a local, the local should shift or redouble their efforts. Taxing consumers won't improve things.
Trump's uniqueness, however, lies in his media savviness. Trump is able to combine popular dislike for trade and immigration with a practiced demagoguery that has come from years of observing and working in popular media. Therein lies his much vaunted "strength." He has created a cult of personality.
We should fear what Trump could do with his power. Imposing tariffs on foreign goods doesn't just damage the economy and increase prices for consumers. It can spark a tariff war where ever country increases their tariffs. This is a key cause of the Great Depression in the 1930s, which led to widespread world-wide poverty.
Moreover, Trump's call to ban Muslim immigration is a form of collective punishment that could lead to much worse. He has even praised former American President Roosevelt for imprisoning over 100,000 American-Japanese civilians, including American citizens, during the Second World War for the crime of having the wrong ancestry. It is not hard to imagine what he could do to Muslims or others if he were able to.
The truth is that Trump is tapping into a wellspring of ideas actively supported by the Western political class already. In Australia, for example, our political class leaves people languishing in detention camps for the "wrong" of attempting to migrate here. We impose higher taxes on foreigners and sometimes ban them from building or buying property here–to our detriment and theirs. This amounts to shooting ourselves in the foot to spite foreigners. It makes no sense, and leaves the public vulnerable to Trump-style demagoguery.
Fortunately, few in Australia can match Trump in skill or policy. This is for the good. We don't need a Trump to lead us on a leash.
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