We Need To Understand Why Trump Won To Stop It Happening In Australia
The forces behind Trump's success exist in Australia and they're becoming more powerful.
I’ve struggled to write how I genuinely feel about the US election results. Every time I try and approach it with some distance I think of my Muslim family members in North Carolina, a state that voted for Trump. A state where the Klu Klux Klan is planning on holding a victory rally to celebrate Trump’s win.
But regardless of how we feel I think it’s incumbent on us all to try our best to understand what happened this week and why. And I know that it’s incredibly tempting to pretend like it didn’t happen and bury ourselves in a Seinfeld marathon instead .
Earlier in the year, when Donald Trump was sweeping through the Republican primaries, I argued in an article for Junkee that we shouldn’t be surprised.
Here’s a summary of what I said at the time:
“There have been strong indications for a while that the US political system was highly vulnerable to a disruptive, barnstorming phenomenon like Donald Trump. The idea that Trump was somehow always going to spontaneously combust due to his own sheer, crazy momentum was really just wishful thinking on the part of progressives who couldn’t quite understand what was going on.
The whole Trump bandwagon is a by-product of extreme political disaffection in the US, and the hollowing out of political institutions, accelerated by economic crisis and political paralysis.
He’s got a knack for focusing on hot-button issues that keep him in the media. And that’s what makes him so dangerous. He’s not a lunatic; he’s exploiting the dysfunction and chaos all around him.”
During the last month of the campaign, after the stream of sexual assault allegations and what looked like a widening lead in the polls for Clinton, I shifted my position and started to think the Democrats had this in my bag. So the point of this piece isn’t to say “I told you so.” When it came to the crunch, I got it wrong.
Donald Trump is the President of the USA and that’s something everyone has to come to grips with. It’s one thing to write hot takes in the lead up to an election as a kind of abstract exercise, trying to make sense of it of all for an Australian audience. But it’s not abstract anymore. While those of us in the media are pumping out opinion pieces, racial and religious minorities in the US are experiencing a spike in hate crimes.
We need to dissect and pull apart the nuts and bolt of the election — the role of the media, the polls, the candidates, the class, gender and generational division and the impact of the result — because if we don’t, we won’t know how to respond.
And in Australia we need to know how to respond. Because if you think a Trump-like phenomenon can’t happen here you’re living in an alternate universe. Yes, Australia is very different to the US in lots of ways. But the deep antipathy towards politics and institutions we saw in the US is happening here as well. Politicians from Tony Abbott to Pauline Hanson are already jockeying to become the Australian Donald Trump.
If we don’t understand what happened, or pretend like it can never happen here, we’re fucking up. And we can’t afford to fuck up. Too much depends on it. So let’s try and figure out what happened, how we got here and what we should be doing next.
Did The Media Screw It Up?
There’s a lot of stuff floating around about how the media “failed” this election. Some argue that the media spent too much time focusing on the Clinton email scandal and not enough on Trump’s policy inconsistencies. Others raise the idea of the “filter bubble” — the fact social media facilitates an increasingly narrow discourse as audiences only seek out news that that confirms their existing biases.
Lots of these problems are symptomatic of wider issues, like declining revenue leading to smaller newsrooms and increased pressure to produce more and more stories with less substance. But the overarching issue of this election was how few journalists and commentators took the chance of Trump winning seriously. Highly paid media figures whose sole job is to provide an expert analysis on these issues and distil them for a wider audience got it very wrong. It happened in the US and it happened in Australia.
— Conor Bateman (@filmvisuality) November 10, 2016
I’m not arguing that it’s the media’s role to accurately predict who won the election every time. But to ignore the possibility of a relatively likely political outcome, as many did, was a massive, massive mistake.
Journalism is the filter people use to understand the world around them. Australian’s didn’t think a Trump win was likely because most of our media outlets told us it wasn’t going to happen. People trusted them and they were let down.
There’s no easy explanation for why that occurred. But it partly has to do with how the media operates as a distinct class.
You know those articles that say “Hey readers, there’s no such thing as ‘the media’, stop calling us that”? They’re wrong. Of course every media outlet isn’t the same and journalists don’t all operate like homogeneous robots. But they do overwhelmingly come from very similar backgrounds, both in the US and here in Australia.
A US study from 2012 found that only 3 percent of new journalists had parents who worked in “unskilled” jobs (i.e. they weren’t from professional or managerial backgrounds). A separate study found that 13 percent of journalists were from minority backgrounds in terms of race. Across the US, 37 percent of the population belong to a racial minority group.
The people who commission, edit and write stories, and particularly the people who own newspapers and television stations, represent one particular economic and racial subset of America. Is it that surprising that they aren’t able to adequately capture the full scale of what’s going on across the country, particularly in regional areas and the crumbling rust-belt?
That doesn’t mean that the media industry is somehow going to magically fix itself if we resolve diversity issues. But there’s a gulf in terms of the stories that need to be told and those doing the telling.
The same is true in Australia. Our journalists largely come from the same background. In Sydney they tend to study media at the University of Sydney or UTS. They jumped straight into media jobs after finishing their degrees. And because they come from similar backgrounds, went to the same universities and are taught and trained by the same people, they tend to think in similar ways.
Is a journalist who grew up in Sydney’s inner-west, went to Sydney University and has spent their whole working life at the ABC really going to be able to explain what’s driving voters in regional Queensland to Pauline Hanson? How many political writers and commentators predicted Clive Palmer’s success in 2013, or One Nation’s in 2016?
To be honest, it’s pretty extraordinary to see the same people who reliably informed us that Trump had no chance now, without skipping a beat, writing explainers on how he won without any kind of self-awareness.
America pre-election and America post-election are the same country. The forces that led to Trump’s success didn’t magically appear the second CNN called the election, they’ve existed all year. You don’t get to write a grand, sweeping narrative of what drove people to Trump if you totally misunderstood the campaign and thought Clinton was a shoe-in.
The issues affecting the media industry are too complex to be resolved with some kind of five-point plan. Maybe they’ll never be fixed. Journalism, after all, has always been one of the least-trusted professions. But at the very least, media organisations can do something to make sure the people from marginalised communities (whether they’re marginalised economically, racially or otherwise) are better represented.
At the very least it might mean a more accurate portrayal of what is really going on right across the country. The filter might still be imperfect, but hopefully it will stop blocking out everything outside of the inner-city.
The Polls Weren’t That Wrong
A lot of journalists and commentators have been soothing themselves by blaming the polls. “It’s not our fault, the polls said this couldn’t happen!” is becoming a popular refrain. This isn’t quite right for a few reasons.
Firstly, Trump was being written off by people who should’ve known better even when he was polling well. Nate Silver, from FiveThirtyEight, is one of the most respected polling analysts in the world. He correctly predicted the results in every single state back in 2012. But earlier this year, Silver dismissed Trump’s chances despite the fact the Republicans was leading in the polls.
“I don’t think that Donald Trump is very likely to win the nomination in part because he’s not really a Republican,” Silver said. “He’s very far to the right on immigration, but he also wants socialised medicine. He wants to tax the rich, right?” Ironically Silver summed up the basic logic behind Trump’s political strategy, but more on that later.
Silver learned his lesson from the Republican primary and stopped making calls based on his gut-feeling, instead relying more heavily on the numbers. In the final weeks of the campaign, FiveThirtyEight gave Trump a one-in-three chance of winning the election. Silver predicted Clinton would win the popular vote but that the race in a number of swing states like Florida and North Carolina was super close and could go either way.
It’s fair to say that the vast majority polls missed this result. But when you read coverage of the election campaign, did it seem like people were giving Trump a one-in-three chance? Nup. He was being written off, despite the fact that the number crunchers were warning that he still had a decent shot of winning.
In FiveThirtyEight’s post-election podcast Silver explained that “the polls were wrong, but they were less wrong than the conventional wisdom” of political journalists.
What we saw was a primacy of political gut-feeling and journalistic instinct over actual data. Data is imperfect, but it’s much more useful than the hunches of journalists who, as we’ve already discussed, aren’t necessarily in touch with most of the country.
So How The Hell Did Trump Win?
How did Trump turn a one-in-three chance into a convincing win? Well, it depends on who you ask.
It was white men who won it for Trump. No wait it was white working class men. Hang on, turns out it was white, wealthy men. Actually, it was white women. Nah, that’s not right it was black and Hispanic voters.
Everyone is desperately trying to cram the post-election narrative into a neat little box and tie it off with a cute bow. It’s absurd. No one election is ever decided on one issue and it’s never decided by one demographic.
“It was gender that did it!”
“No no, it was class and class only!”
“It can only be one thing!” pic.twitter.com/IMmyIeH8Ty
— Sinead Stubbins (@SineadStubbins) November 10, 2016
Here’s the thing: most voters fucking hate politics. They hate politicians, they hate elections, they hate the vested interest groups who run the show and they hate the journalists who tell the stories.
Lots of people made really compelling, detailed cases as to why Donald Trump’s policy agenda didn’t make any sense. Of course it didn’t make sense. Some of his policies were contradictory. Most lacked detail. Plenty were totally incoherent.
But this was not the first election where people eschewed the facts and voted based on emotion or factors that had nothing to do with policy detail. That’s actually what happens most of the time.
As I wrote back in March, during the primaries, this election was never going to be about Clinton’s policy agenda vs. Trump’s:
“If our understanding of Trump’s success is based on quick news grabs of his most outrageous policies, we might fall into the trap of thinking that he’s a far-right loony who has tapped into a bigoted, right-wing, racist core of American voters. But polling data is showing that most of Trump’s support is coming from moderate and liberal Republicans. And commentators are starting to realise that his populist economic rhetoric is resonating with millions of voters across both sides of the political aisle, who are angry about economic policies supported by people like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
“Trump is the focal point of years of pent up rage against the political establishment. Clinton is the absolute embodiment of the Washington establishment. In that climate, genuinely anything could happen.”
It seems completely crazy that an elite, billionaire figure well-connected to the political establishment (but never explicitly part of it) became the focal point for years of anger and frustration at Washington, but that’s exactly what happened. The real question that should raise is how progressives were unable to tap into the political frustrations of non-college educated voters opposed to free trade and corporate welfare.
At least part of that has to do with candidate selection
A lot of the coverage of Clinton emphasised how she was the most “experienced” presidential candidate in history. This was undoubtedly true. Her CV was impeccable. Her campaign experience was enormous. She’d been the First Lady, Secretary of State and a senator. Trump had never held a political office. But that’s precisely why she struggled.
Voters didn’t want more of the same old. They were calling bullshit on the policies that had led to the financial crisis and a political establishment they perceived as being out of touch.
To give you an example of how massive these political shifts were, Clinton did 10 percentage points worse with union households than Obama in 2012. Pennsylvania voted Republican for the first time since 1988. This election rewrote the political map.
This graph demonstrates that Clinton failed to activate the broad coalition of voters as Obama did in 2008 and 2012.
A quick look at turnout data: It seems 2016 was nothing special for the Rep-candidate. It's the Dem-candidate that didn't get the vote out. pic.twitter.com/wby3gta26m
— D Yanagizawa-Drott (@yanagiz) November 9, 2016
Democrat voters did not feel enthused about a Clinton presidency and simply didn’t turn up. Trump managed to hold on to the Republican base and do better amongst black, Hispanic and white voters than Romney in 2012.
The emotion-driven anti-politics mood is a huge part of what swept Trump to power, but policy did also a play a role. The Obamacare debate seems silly to most of us in Australia, where we have a relatively well-funded public healthcare safety net, but it was a massive issue in the US.
During the campaign, news came out announcing that health insurance costs were going to rise dramatically next year. Trump capitalised on that. Just like he capitalised on free trade — a policy that has always been deeply unpopular with working Americans who see it as a threat to employment and economic stability — and America’s disastrous military adventurism.
If you’re still not convinced, read this transcript of a speech Trump gave in Michigan just days before the election:
“Hillary and our failed Washington establishment have spent $6 trillion on wars in the Middle East and now it’s worse than it’s ever been before… We shouldn’t have gone into the war. Imagine if some of that money had been spent, $6 trillion in the Middle East, on building new schools and roads and bridges here in Michigan.
“The arrogant political class never learns. They keep repeating the same mistakes over and over again. They keep telling the same lies. They keep producing the same failed results.”
Trump went on to win Michigan. It’s the first time a Republican has carried the state in nearly 30 years.
A lot of Trump’s support was based on a ‘vibe’ of anti-politics. But a lot of Trump voters had a solid rationale, from their perspective, to vote for him. And yes, for some, racism would have been a factor. We shouldn’t be shocked. Our major political parties have spent decades tapping into voters’ insecurity and fears of immigration for their own political benefit.
But there isn’t evidence to suggest that Trump was swept into power on the back of a wave of white nationalism. He did better amongst black and Hispanic voters than any Republican since 2004, according to Pew Research.
Trying to shoehorn Trump’s victory into one, tidy narrative is silly and counterproductive. It was a confluence of political events, policy, emotion and fear.
This Could Happen In Australia
So why does this matter to us? Right now Pauline Hanson and Tony Abbott are battling it out for the title of “Australia’s Donald Trump”.
On ABC radio this morning Abbott was trying spin himself as a kind of Trump-esque figure able to tap into widespread disaffection with the political class. The idea is a fantasy. Abbott is the political class. He is a huge part of the reason Australians are growing to despise politics more than ever.
There is no “silent majority” of Australians demanding the return of an Abbott prime ministership. His highest satisfaction rating was 47 percent, two months after he won the 2013 election. When he was booted out by Malcolm Turnbull it was down to 24 percent.
It’s not Abbott we have to worry about. It’s the rise of Pauline Hanson, or potentially someone even worse.
Australia’s political system is very different to America’s. Our rigid party system makes it difficult for an outsider like Trump to hijack a major political party and become Prime Minister.
But other parts of our system make it easier for a party like One Nation to exert a significant influence on politics with concentrated vote. The party went from nothing to electing four senators in one election cycle. They already have a substantial influence on legislation.
There’s now a fear that Hanson’s party could secure up to 13 seats in the Queensland state election. As the party’s support is concentrated in certain regional areas, there’s a possibility they could win seats in the House of Representatives as well, potentially delivering them the balance of power and authority to decide who forms government.
Hanson’s success has been achieved despite a national economic or political crisis. If we were to experience a serious economic slump and the unemployment rate rose, who do you think would be in a prime position to capitalise on the anger that would be generated?
Commentators on the US election have identified the decline of the country’s manufacturing sector as a reason why traditionally Democrat voting blue collar workers abandoned the party for Donald Trump. Australia’s manufacturing sector is also in terminal decline and automation poses a looming threat
Our union movement has collapsed. Only 11 percent of private sector workers are members of a union. The traditional methods of organising voters in economically precarious industries won’t work.
Australia’s predicament isn’t as dire as America’s, but it’s easy to see how a right-wing populist could channel frustration with politics, a fear of different cultures and economic concerns into electoral success.
What Can We Do?
The one thing that’s clear is that we shouldn’t be looking to traditional political parties and organisations for solutions. While Clinton has copped a lot of the blame for the election result, the Democrats’ embrace of free-market, right-wing ideology on economics and foreign policy is a much deeper issue. The party will need to rebuild itself, and its values, from the ground up if it wants to create a winning coalition.
Likewise, our Labor party is not in a position to protect us from right-wing populists. Just like the Democrats, Labor has embraced free-market policies wholesale. Through both its policies and self-indulgent bickering (the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd era) Labor has helped sow the seeds for political dissatisfaction and resentment.
Both Labor and the Coalition are responsible for how voters feel about politics. They are the problem, not the answer.
The Greens have the capacity to provide a more energising, anti-establishment alternative to both the major parties and the populist right, but there’s not much evidence they’re working on a plan. During the last election the party rejected the idea of political radicalism and embraced the status quo.
Since the rise of One Nation and political racism what steps have the Greens taken to a building a broad-based social movement that can fight back? Their most substantive measure so far has been a symbolic walk out during Hanson’s first speech.
It’s hard, at this stage, to see the Greens being able to reach out to either economically disenfranchised workers or the migrant communities under attack from the far-right. Their party room is, after all, less diverse in terms of race than Labor or the Coalition’s.
Unless something significant happens in Australian politics it’s very likely the populist anger and resentment will be channeled by the right, as we’ve just seen in the US.
The answer could lie in the building of new political movements and parties. Organisations that explicitly reject the traditional way of doing things. Strategies and values that can you unite young people saddled with debt and locked out the housing market with migrant communities under attack from the far-right and workers whose jobs are disappearing due to free trade and climate change.
A lot of young people I know are working on building these new structures and movements. They want to learn the lessons of Trump to provide a real alternative. Politics isn’t going to magically get better because we want it too. And there’s nothing that guarantees that people Trump and Haons and the forces behind them, will just disappear after a few years.
If we want things to get better we’re going to have to do it ourselves. We’re going to have to create a better media and a better political framework in order to create a better society. We’re going to have to accept the status quo political establishment isn’t the answer.
And we’re going to have to do it soon because we’re running out of time.