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11 March 2016

Trump’s success should sound alarm bells for politicians everywhere who fail to register voter dissatisfaction, John Hewson writes.

As Donald Trump’s campaign for the Presidency of the United States continues to gain momentum, electoral and media elites are starting to recognise the reality of their own demise.

Traditional politicians, parties and parliaments are increasingly “on the nose”, and much more so than has ever been the case. Just as many politicians are congratulating themselves for being part of the “professionalisation” of the business, and somewhat wallowing in their own self-interest and self-importance, voters are beginning to register their dissatisfaction with them, political correctness, and the political process.

Politics has very much become an exclusive and self-centered game for the small “political elite”. It has become increasingly short-term, opportunistic, and mostly negative, much more focused on winning the daily media contest, than on providing leadership, solving problems, and delivering good government to the majority.

In the end, Trump may not win the Presidency, but he will have clearly started to redefine politics and the process of government, as he lays bare the inherent weaknesses and irrelevance of the US Republican Party, and more broadly the US political system and system of government.

Trump’s initial appeal was mostly to low to middle-income white males who haven’t seen an increase in their standard of living in 15-20 years, and more broadly to those who feel isolated and disenfranchised by Washington and the US political system.

The initial reactions of the commentariat, and traditional Republicans, was that “he won’t last”, only to then, every time, see him surge further ahead in the polls, and to watch as he broadened the base of his political support, even to “evangelicals” and various ethnic and religious groups.

Ironically, it almost doesn’t matter what he stands for overall or, indeed, how whacky or undeliverable some of his commitments might be, it is the consistent challenge to tradition and orthodoxy that matters, and from which he builds momentum.

More on this: Political reality bites: why authenticity in politics matters, and how to spot a fake authentic | Quentin Grafton

He is building constituencies, and broadening his base, as he commits to “build a wall along the Mexican border and get the Mexicans to pay for it”; or to “ban Muslims”; or to oppose “free trade and trade agreements”; and so on.

He is tapping issues and moods that, rightly or wrongly, individuals can “blame” for their circumstances and difficulties. So far, at least, the hierarchy of the Republican Party has had no answer. Their various responses, mostly by way of very personal attacks on Trump, having only further fuelled his momentum.

This is not just an American phenomenon. You can see it in the Brexit debate in the UK, and in the rise of extreme both right and left groups right across Europe. And it can happen here in Australia!

Both our major political parties have been increasingly on the nose, despite the short-term respite driven by the emergence of individuals such as Rudd and Turnbull, from time to time.

Gone are the days where we could expect that an elected government would serve at least two terms – think of Victoria and Queensland in recent times – even when the incoming team seemed to be without a policy strategy, and were clearly not ready to govern.

Moreover, cutting through all the spin, and despite nearly a quarter of a century of sustained economic growth, a clear majority don’t feel significantly better off, with about half living from pay day to pay day, while a small elite have appeared to do obscenely well.

Almost every area of government is in need of reform. And having been left to drift, any reform will now need to be significant and electorally difficult.

Turnbull may be able to do it, moving the Budget forward to create the room for an early, double-dissolution poll, to “clean out the Senate, and to gain a mandate for dramatic change.

If he fails, watch out for an Australian Trump!

This article was also published in the Southern Highland News.

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Hewson, J. (2016). Playing the Trump card - Policy Forum. [online] Policy Forum. Available at: