2016 US Election -Donald Trump as US President

Donald Trump is the new President of the United States. This statement, thought impossible by most political pundits, pollsters, journalists as well as much of the Western world, has come true. In what some commentators and political websites are describing as the biggest political upset in American history, Trump defied the odds and has become the new POTUS.

As outsiders observing the US election from afar, it can seem perplexing at first glance to see Trump elected as POTUS. Unlike traditional presidential candidates, his policy details are often lacking, sometimes even incoherent. He has been embroiled in innumerable personal controversies which seemingly would have disqualified other candidates from being in the conversation as a serious candidate for POTUS. I am among those who think that Donald Trump is not a worthy candidate for POTUS for these reasons (for what it’s worth, I think the same of Hillary Clinton). Despite this, it is important to note the context for how a candidate as deeply flawed as Donald Trump managed to become POTUS. Only by taking a serious, measured look at these circumstances can the necessary lessons be learned to ensure another candidate as inept and unqualified as Donald Trump does not get elected POTUS.

Firstly, despite a level of recovery since the financial crisis of 2008, many Americans are still in a precarious economic situation. Half of all Americans have no savings at all, and 70% of Americans have less than a thousand dollars in the bank. Whilst Americans in metropolitan centres have largely resumed living at a pre-crisis standard, this has not been the case in rural America, which Trump virtually swept in the final vote. Jobs are scarce and opportunity to advance in life is even more scarce. The rural/city divide extends to cultural issues. In rural America, people felt alienated and forgotten, lacking control over their lives. In many instances, these Trump voters had voted for Obama four and eight years ago. Despite this, having felt ignored by the current administration and the nation at large, they felt no other option but to vote for Trump, despite often having reservations about specific policy issues and his personal character.

The big question now is what exactly a Trump administration will look like. His presidential campaign was based on challenging Republican policy orthodoxy, particularly on key issues such as trade, immigration and America’s place in the world. In all these instances, Trump won the rhetorical debate first against the Republican establishment and ultimately the voters. On trade, Trump promised to put America first, including promises to rip up or renegotiate trade deals as well as taking measures to prevent jobs from leaving the country. On immigration, Trump has argued against current immigration levels and has promised to build a wall along the southern border of the United States to help deal with illegal immigration from the Mexican border. Trump has also repudiated America’s role as the world’s foremost power on international issues, particularly in relation to issues such as the Middle East and Russian involvement throughout Eastern Europe. This is in sharp contrast to the neoconservative doctrine which has been a GOP staple since the presidency of George W Bush.

Whether Trump will firstly follow through on these specific policies or policy directions and whether he can make significant reform in these areas remains to be seen. Throughout the Republican Primary and the general election, Trump has taken several different positions on a variety of issues, including cornerstone issues of his campaign such as immigration and trade. Many of his policies, including many of his proposals on tax are either unworkable or would require significant adjustment to be feasible. Other proposals which Trump has raised, particularly in relation to combating terrorism would be in violation of the United States Constitution. Examples of these include his proposals for torture and to place a blanket ban on Muslim immigration from the Middle East.  More importantly, despite the Republican Party having a majority in both the Senate and Congress, he may face significant opposition to many of his proposals. Many Republicans in both the Senate and Congress are opposed to Trump ideologically and may vote against his policies on a variety of issues.

From an Australian perspective, a Trump presidency could have significant ramifications for the Australia-United States alliance. Trade deals will likely have to be re-negotiated, quite possibly on terms less favourable for Australia. On significant geopolitical issues, such as the ongoing situation with China, Trump’s aggressive rhetoric toward China, if followed through in policy and action, would leave Australia in a particularly precarious position. Australia has major trade ties with China despite being allied closely with the United States and were America to engage in a trade war or a military conflict over the South China Sea, to name two examples, Australia would be in a severely compromised position, being obligated to side with America in these circumstances. So far, the Australian Government has been diplomatic and insisted relations with the United States will not change. It is hard to imagine, however, if Trump is serious about his positions on international relations, how a reworking of the Australian-American alliance will not occur.

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A Few Thoughts: Federal Election 2016

Australia’s recent federal election was a very tightly contested one, more so than most polling, commentary and voters expected. As of the time of writing this post, a full week and a half after Australians went to the polls on July 2nd, the vote still has not been fully finalised, with a few seats still in the balance. Though Malcolm Turnbull and the Liberal-Nationals Coalition have been effectively returned to power, with Opposition Leader Bill Shorten yesterday conceding defeat,  their position is a lot more precarious than it was. This is due to having lost a host of seats to the opposition Labor Party as well as to a variety of independents and minor party candidates, such as those of the Nick Xenophon Team.

As a result of the significantly reduced majority in the Lower House, as well as the further increase of crossbenchers in the Senate, most of whom differ significantly ideologically from the Coalition, passing legislation could be a tall order. In particular, passing key budget measures and reducing the budget deficit will prove to be difficult. Unlike the Coalition, much of the crossbench is economically protectionist on issues such as free trade, which will make passing legislation related to these issues difficult for the government. Other key economic measures which Turnbull has championed, including cuts to the company tax rate and changes to superannuation, look set to be either blocked entirely or severely compromised by the Senate opposition and crossbench.

The result also leaves Turnbull in somewhat of a precarious position as leader of the Liberal Party. Though the election has been won, the majority in the House of Representatives is almost wiped out. As a result, prominent conservatives, both within and outside the Liberal party have been questioning Turnbull’s leadership. Leading conservative commentators including Andrew Bolt and Rowan Dean have called on Turnbull to resign, with Bolt claiming that the result proved he was not fit to lead the party and that he had abandoned the party’s conservative voting base.

The election results, though not to the same degree as in the United States and in Europe, highlight somewhat of a disruption the usual political culture in Australia. Crossbenchers and minor parties are steadily gaining influence and seats in Parliament. Overall, there is a slow yet noticeable shift from a traditional two-party system similar to those of the United States and the United Kingdom, with the rise of parties such as the Nick Xenophon Team (NXT) and the re-emergence of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party. Both the NXT and One Nation espouse economic protectionism, more so than both the Liberal Party and the Labor opposition, with both parties being sceptical of free trade agreements. Both parties also show scepticism towards immigration, particularly One Nation, which argues in its party manifesto against multiculturalism and high levels of immigration, instead arguing for an approach which emphasises assimilation and nationalism. This policy approach from One Nation reflects similar nationalist movements such as those in Europe as well as in America through Republican nominee Donald Trump and his ‘America First’ approach to issues of trade and immigration.

The election results and composition of the House of Representatives and the Senate suggest that the upcoming three years of Parliament will be similar to the preceding three. Given the composition of the Senate in particular, significant reform will again likely prove difficult, with Prime Minister Turnbull needing to do much work with crossbench and opposition Senators in order to pass contentious legislation. However, given that Turnbull in his relatively short time as Prime Minister has already suggested then abandoned several key policies, including tax reform and superannuation reform, it remains to be seen whether Turnbull is able to achieve this.

What are the chances of an Australian Donald Trump?

Throughout the Western world, traditional politics is being shaken up in ways not seen for several decades. The current US Presidential race is a prime example of this, with Donald Trump taking the presumptive Republican nomination and self-described ‘democratic socialist’ Bernie Sanders contending with Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries. Both Trump and Sanders have run on platforms which challenge conventional positions on free trade, immigration and foreign policy interventionism within both the Republican and Democratic parties. In Europe, mainstream political parties and institutions are also being challenged. Populist candidates and parties from both the left and right of the political spectrum are winning more of the vote than they have for decades. This is reflected both in the rise of new political parties, as well as several nations, including the United Kingdom and Greece holding referendums on whether to remain within the European Union or to leave.

Considering this trend, it’s worth examining the possibility of a similar populist movement in Australia, including the likelihood of an anti-establishment candidate becoming the Australian Prime Minister. It is tempting to assume that Australia will soon follow a similar path, with an outsider candidate in the mould of Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn or Marine Le Pen becoming a significant political force in Australia. I argue, however, that a significant, organised populist movement is unlikely to arise in Australia in the near future.

One reason why a populist candidate is unlikely to rise in Australian politics, at least in the near future, is Australia’s economic stability relative to the United States and Europe. Australia is fortunate to have experienced a record 25 years of continued economic growth. Unlike the United States and Europe, Australia managed to stave off recession in 2008 at the height of the global financial crisis. Unemployment for the most part has remained relatively low. The recession and subsequent economic instability for a large proportion of people in these parts of the world are a major driver of the ongoing push toward populist movements.

Closely related to this is the issue of immigration. High levels of immigration, especially of unskilled migrants, have been a major catalyst for populist movements in Europe and the United States. Particularly for the working classes, these demographics feel that policies of mass immigration have left them behind economically and isolated them in society. As a result, they have turned to candidates such as Donald Trump, Nigel Farage of the United Kingdom’s UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) and Marine Le Pen of France’s Front Nationale. Australia, in contrast to the United States and Europe, has tight immigration rules which are targeted to bring in people with skills which are needed in Australia. This system is one that some political parties in Europe, such as the United Kingdom’s UKIP party, wish to emulate. This, in addition to Australia’s tough policies on asylum seekers arriving by boat, shared by both the Liberal and Labor parties, have helped to alleviate Australians’ worries on these issues in comparison to Americans and Europeans.

It is important to note that Australia is not entirely free of populist and anti-establishment politics. The election of several senators from micro parties, usually based on one or a small number of issues during the 2013 election, as well as the continual rise of the Greens on the political left show are evidence of a growing populist element within Australian politics. However, unlike in Europe or the United States, the overall movement is disorganised and disparate, ultimately leading it to have relatively little influence over the governance of the nation. This is particularly true of Australia’s far-right, in stark contrast to the surging popularity of equivalent parties throughout Europe. A change in conditions, such as a recession could prove to be a catalyst in the future for an equivalent of a Donald Trump to arise in Australia. The overall global economic outlook in the near future is not overly positive and Australia is likely to be affected to some degree. Despite this, I am sceptical, at least in the near future, that a broad populist or anti-establishment movement will take hold in Australia to the extent of the United States or Europe.