We Shouldn’t Be Surprised That Donald Trump Is Winning. Could It Happen In Australia Too?

The causes of Donald Trump's success aren't just confined to the US.

Late last year Nate Silver, the editor of political analytics website FiveThirtyEight, confidently assured us that Donald Trump wouldn’t win the Republican Party nomination for the Presidency and told everyone panicking about a potential Trump candidacy (read: all of us) to “calm down”.

Silver shot to fame after he accurately predicted the results of the Presidential race in all 50 states back in 2012. The fact that someone so plugged into the polls and the numbers was telling us Trump had no shot of winning was very reassuring. On the surface it might have looked like Trump was doing okay, but if Silver (along with most other political journalists and news outlets, Junkee included) was telling us he didn’t have a chance, we were all good, right?

Yesterday Trump defied those predictions and won three more states: Hawaii, Michigan and Mississippi. Since his chances were first written off he’s gone on to win 15 out of 24 state races, receive high profile endorsements and outpoll his nearest rivals by a factor of two to one.  The Guardian recently published an editorial arguing that even Hillary Clinton was vulnerable to Trump’s unstoppable momentum, and as for Silver… well, just over a week ago he declared that “Trump will probably be the GOP nominee and possibly become President”.

So what happened? Did Trump somehow flip the switch from “crazy billionaire racist who is in love with his own daughter” to “incredibly electable and sane Presidential candidate” so subtly and swiftly that none of the commentators noticed?

The Politics Of Turmoil: Why Trump Caught Everyone Napping

I don’t think so. 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.

But we shouldn’t have been surprised — in fact, we should have seen this coming. It’s happened all over the world, and it’s happening in Australia as well. Trump doesn’t represent some sort of neo-fascist paradigm. His success isn’t even really about his policy agenda, though that’s part of it, and it isn’t even really about him at all. 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.

It’s the same decay that’s led to the rise of far-left and far-right parties across Europe and redrawn the global political map. The difference with Trump is that he isn’t an extremist political ideologue. He’s actually a relatively moderate candidate with policies that appeal to both Republicans and Democrats and a knack of 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.

Let’s step outside the boundaries of US politics for a second and look at the global picture. Since 2008 the world economy has been dealing with the ramifications of the global financial crisis. We were lucky here in Australia to be sheltered from the worst of it, but it hit the US and some countries in Europe particularly hard. In the US the value of the stock market halved, unemployment doubled and housing prices crashed by more than 30 percent. In Europe unemployment increased across the board and only two countries managed to avoid a recession.

Inevitably, the economic crisis became a political one. Voters were angry about what happened and turfed out sitting governments across Europe. But they quickly learned that the new governments were committed to the same style of economics and power structures that created the crisis in the first place. This distrust towards the old political institutions had been growing for some time but accelerated after economy tanked.

In response new institutions, parties and candidates emerged. In Greece the radical left Syriza party won government, destabilising the old way of doing things. In Spain a new political movement, Podemos, has gone from strength to strength, and in the UK Jeremy Corbyn, an ageing socialist, has somehow become the nation’s alternate Prime Minister.  

Up until this year, though, we hadn’t seen the same kind of explosive political disintegration in the US that occurred across Europe. Trump’s success isn’t exclusively rooted in the economic crisis, but it’s an important factor. He’s a symptom of something much broader going on.

Know Thine Enemy: Why Almost No-One Understands Trump

When you think of Trump’s policies you probably think of his infamous plan to “ban all Muslims” from entering the US, or his idea to build a giant wall along the US-Mexico border. But did you know that he’s on the only Republican candidate to support universal healthcare? And that he hates free trade agreements, which are supported not just by Republicans but by Barack Obama as well? Its these sorts of policies that are finding resonance with voters across the US.

The most important thing to understand about Trump, and this was clear way back last year when he was written off, is that he isn’t some crazy right-wing madman. He’s actually donated thousands of dollars to Hillary Clinton’s previous election campaigns. He opposed the Iraq War.  Commentators and analysts get confused because they can’t put him in a box. He’s an enigma. The unifying thing about him isn’t that he’s left-wing or right-wing, it’s that he’s anti-establishment and shaking the entire foundation of US politics.

Most senior Republicans, including their last Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, despise Trump. They seem him as a faux-conservative, stealing their party out from under them. The thing that these Republicans have in common with plenty of progressives is that they are underestimating and misdiagnosing what led to Trump’s popularity.

Over the past few years the Republican and Democratic parties haven’t just been at each other’s throats over touchstone issues like Obamacare and action on climate change — they’ve been fighting furious internal battles, and the public are sick of it.

Despite Obama’s personal popularity the Democrats were slaughtered at the 2014 Congressional elections. The resulting political deadlock has led to record high political disapproval ratings – a massive 86 per cent of Americans say they disapprove of Congress. The Democrats’ defeat forced them to do some serious soul searching. Does their future lie with people like Hillary Clinton, who have close ties to the big banks that many hold responsible for the financial crisis, or should they turn to politicians like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, who are leading a sort of Corbynesque mini-revolution inside the party? The Republicans themselves have had their own share of internal battles – remember the Tea Party?

Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have presented themselves as an attractive proposition to voters.  In fact voters hate them. This has been the case for a while, and it’s why we shouldn’t have been so shocked to see someone like Donald Trump appear on the scene, smash his way into the public debate and engage millions of disaffected voters. It happened everywhere else, why not the US?

Obviously Trump isn’t some sort of divine political angel sent from heaven to help clear the rotten and corrupt politicians out of Washington. He’s got his own interests, and some of his policies are bizarre and dangerous. But instead of pointing at his proposals to ban Muslims and build a giant wall and laughing, wouldn’t his opponents have been better off understanding why they’re connecting with voters in the first place?

Part of the problem is that when you scratch the surface, Trump’s supposedly crazy policies are actually par for the course in US politics. Hillary Clinton, for example, recently bragged about her support for a “barrier” along the US-Mexico border to keep out “illegal immigrants”. That doesn’t sound too dissimilar to Trump’s plan.

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.

That’s why people shouldn’t make the same mistake they made last year and write off Trump’s chances against 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.

Could It Happen Here?

From our comfortable position here in Australia it can pretty tempting to look at the mess that is US politics and laugh. But do we actually have any high ground when it comes to billionaires smashing their way into the political sphere? We’re the country that elected a mining baron to a lower house seat in Federal Parliament and delivered his party the balance of power in the Senate – not because he had a clear policy agenda, but we because we just hated everyone else. ‘Straya.

We never felt the economic crisis as badly in Australia, that hasn’t stopped our political institutions from hollowing out. We’ve had five Prime Ministers in the past six years. In 2013 we reacted to the mess in Canberra by electing Clive Palmer and his rag-tag group of Senators, as well as voting in record numbers for minor parties.

If a more serious economic crisis were to hit, and unemployment doubled, leading to further disaffection with politics, can we really say we wouldn’t be tempted by someone like Trump? Someone who tells it like it is, calls out the old establishment for their corruption and sleaze, refuses to take corporate donations, promises to stand up for the average working Australian and supports universal public services like healthcare?

Actually sounds like a pretty attractive proposition, doesn’t it?

Osman Faruqi is a Sydney based writer and broadcaster. You can follow him on Twitter at@oz_f