The endless media coverage of the past year might make you think Donald Trump’s rise now seems normal. However, it should never be forgotten just how ridiculous it is that an unapologetic ignoramus, with more failed business ventures than coherent policy ideas, is now just one Hillary Clinton gaffe away from obtaining access to the US nuclear codes. Something has gone wrong. Below, I aim to identify what has gone wrong, as well how ‘The Donald’ is just one of many demagogues riding this worldwide wave of populism.
People have wondered how Trump’s total incoherence and dishonesty has not made him unelectable. They ignore a crucial factor – what is emanating from the other side.
There are a number of issues that could be discussed in this space, but lets take Trump’s most controversial policy – a ban on Muslim immigration. The idea itself is unethical, unworkable, and a moronic over-reaction, but, crucially, it is an over-reaction to a real issue, namely, Islamic terrorism. And as it happens, we live in a world where the mere broaching of this topic, can have you branded as an ‘Islamophobe’.
While there are certainly people who harbour an unjust hatred of Muslims, there are many more who don’t, and who have justifiable concerns about Islamic terrorism. To have these concerns regarded as bigoted by people who aim to shut down an important argument before it has even begun seems to be code of conduct among many both on the Left and in the mainstream media. Framing this argument as a matter of race is not just wrong, but hypocritical, because the very notion itself is drawn from the racist stereotype that all Muslims are Arabs, which is plainly not the case. In the face of this, the mere fact that Trump is addressing the problem makes him agreeable to many who support him.
In Australia, the re-emergence of Pauline Hanson and her One Nation party is in part due to this also. As long as conversation of Islamic terrorism is tainted with cries of bigotry, then no-nothing loons like Hanson will hold onto a key pillar of their popularity. We can’t counteract this with deflection or sanctimony; we need honest and open conversation about a very difficult subject.
One of the main criticisms that emanates from Trump’s legion of detractors is that he is completely unqualified for the position he is running for. That he is, but it must be understood that his lack of qualifications is arguably his greatest advantage when one considers who his voter base consists of.
People have an almost inate distaste for politicians, but in America, it’s on another level. Congress currently holds a 20% approval rating with the American people. The widespread feeling is that there is total gridlock brought on by two self-serving political parties who would rather shut down the government than collaborate (a fight that former Republican candidate Ted Cruz lead in 2013).
In this environment, Trump’s status as a ‘Washington outsider’ plays perfectly for him, and given the fact that he is running against establishment politics personified in the form of Hillary Clinton, this benefit will be amplified.
This sentiment also seems to be fueling the populist surge across Europe, with many people losing faith in the establishment, due to both austerity and an inability or unwillingness to control immigration levels. Parties and politicians that were barely on the fringes a decade ago are now firmly within the system. It’s unlikely that these parties all became simultaneously popular on their own accord. They needed to be ushered in, and the establishment has seemingly left the gates open for them.
Populists often stress the feeling that their country has been taken away from them. It is no coincednence that Trump’s slogan is ‘Make America Great Again’, or that our homegrown far-right populists call themselves ‘Reclaim Australia’. For decades now, many people across the developed world have felt that globalisation has taken their jobs, and immigration has robbed them of their national identity. The central issue here is ‘openness’, which is why Trump’s policies, seemingly without theme, are all punctuated by a desire to close off America from danger by isolating them from the world.
This is the feeling that drives protectionist trade policies, the wall with Mexico and the ban on Muslims. It also is the calling card of populists worldwide. From the successful Brexit campaign in the UK to the myriad anti-immigrantion parties across the rest of Europe, this populist movement is centred around the concept of keeping people safe by closing them off. And in a post-GFC world coupled with a seemingly endless global wave of terrorism, this rhetoric has taken hold.
Now of course, there are many other reasons why Trump is where he is today. These include excessive media attention and his celebrity star power. Perhaps the most salient is the pseudo-intellectual, race baiting shifts in Republican Party rhetoric in recent years. However, these are issues specific to his candidacy, and not representative of this greater shift in populism. Therefore, I ignored them and instead focused on explaining the reasoning behind populist platforms around the world. Predicting the result of Wednesday’s election is a dangerous game, given its unpredictability until now, so I’m not going to try. But one thing that seems likely is that this global populist movement, and all the dangers that come with it, is real, and it’s here to stay.