The Politics    Friday, July 22, 2016

Trump and circumstance

By Sean Kelly

Trump and circumstance
How Donald Trump is exploiting the rules of politics and media, and what it means for Australia

A little under two months ago a brief storm of criticism swept down on Bill Shorten for describing Donald Trump as “barking mad”. I criticised him, too, writing on the day that such words “were inappropriate from someone in Shorten’s position”. Turnbull, I wrote, had similar views, but “knows that he cannot say as much out loud. Shorten should have known that too.”

This is the type of “sensible” sentiment expressed in much commentary from people who have spent a lot of time either within or observing the political system (“within” versus “observing” may be a false distinction). It stems from a familiarity with convention, and a parallel acceptance that our conventions tend to exist for good reason. In this case, the convention is that however much a potential or current Australian prime minister might detest a potential American president, such views should never be expressed out loud, for the reason that the two may soon become two leaders who will need to work together.

Eight more weeks into Donald Trump’s campaign, several days into the Republican National Convention, and an hour or two after Trump’s speech accepting his party’s nomination, and I’m not sure I was right.

This is not only because a Trump victory is a miserable and frightening prospect – though it is. You could see it in his speech today. This would be a presidency based on spite and fear and the volatile bluster of a man with a deep terror of being scorned.  Trump has the luridly self-regarding mentality of a character like Felix Shaw, from that great novel The Watch Tower: the domestic bully incapable of seeing the world other than through the dead-end filter of his own grievances.

The Donald presents vivid distortions of actual facts in his mission of scaring the bejesus out of those who might vote for him, in the judgment – so far correct – that he is the most likely beneficiary of those fears. He has no interest in changing America, only in saying that he will change it, a truth simple to deduce from the fact he presents no explanations of how his touted shifts will come about, only assertions that they will occur miraculously, instantaneously, on the day he is sworn in. He is racist, too. He has no interest in foreign policy, no concern for America’s responsibilities to other nations, no grasp on the complex events of recent decades. He spoke today of suspending immigration from any nation “compromised by terrorism”, which presumably includes Australia.

In theory, there should come a moment when it is OK for our national leaders to choose not to stick to the convention of responding to US politics with a straight bat. At some point, honest judgment becomes an obligation. Different people will have different views of when, precisely, that moment would be reached. But it is at least arguable that we are there now. It is up to Shorten whether he wants to make that argument.

That, though, is not my main reservation about my previous criticism of Shorten.

Once you’ve reached this point in reasoning, it’s important to acknowledge the broader conclusion that must result: that while conventions in political life are valuable, and should not be left behind for no purpose, they should also be subjected to regular re-examination. Conventions arise as smart and useful ways of making a system work at a particular point in time; as times change, so can conventions. Often, though, they don’t.

In an article titled “Insider Baseball”, written in 1988, Joan Didion delivered her observations on that year’s presidential contests. Commenting on a day of Michael Dukakis’ campaign in which several campaign stops occurred, with no real connection between candidate and voters at any of them, she wrote:

Among those who traveled regularly with the campaigns … it was taken for granted that these ‘events’ they were covering, and on which they were in fact filing, were not merely meaningless but deliberately so: occasions on which film could be shot and no mistakes made …

That was almost three decades ago, but it could easily have been written about the Australian election campaign that ended just three weeks ago. In the same piece, Didion writes of the regular contrivance of Dukakis tossing a baseball around with his aides so that the cameras could grab footage:

What we had in the tarmac arrival with ball tossing, then, was an understanding: a repeated moment witnessed by many people, all of whom believed it to be a setup and yet most of whom believed that only an outsider, only someone too ‘naïve’ to know the rules of the game, would so describe it.

What is most interesting, reading this today, is that there is no longer any belief among insiders that anyone, anywhere, would consider this anything other than “a setup”. These days voters get that the whole thing is theatre, and both journalists and campaigners know this. And, indeed, most senior political reporters in Australia are now so tired of such practices that they have given up travelling with the leaders during campaigns. They are excused from this particular exhausted convention. It is only those watching at home (and the junior reporters who must relay the details of such events) who are still tortured in this way.

And this is precisely the problem. The population has become more sophisticated in its approach to media. Much of the sausage-making is understood. And yet such conventions persist. They are numerous – and they are not all about interactions with the media, not by a long shot. The convention that Indigenous policy and domestic violence policy “should not be politicised”, in that one side is expected to refrain from criticisms of funding cuts to those areas by the other side. The convention of emaciated political language, systematically emptied of any content that might plausibly mean anything to another human being. The convention that, once a politician has refused to answer a question a certain number of times, it would be gauche to keep on asking, and therefore that interrogation should turn to other topics. The convention that nobody in Australian politics will give an honest accounting of the moral calculus involved in reaching their position on refugee policy.

Voters are aware of these things. Recently, there has been a lot of moaning about the ins and outs of campaigns, the failures to massage opinions with sufficient effectiveness. But really there is a simple explanation for the parlous primary voting totals of both major parties: neither side was offering enough, and the people knew it.

Trump understands a lot of things, but this is what he understands best: that voters see through the common practices that have come to define so much of our political life. Yes, he also deploys the politics of fear and race and hatred. But fundamental to all of this is his comprehension that many conventions have not only outlived their usefulness, but that they are actively preventing engagement between voters and those who would lead them, and, moreover, that voters know this, and want out. Trump offers them a way out.

This is not absolutely a good thing, obviously. Mostly, so far, it is a terrible thing. Many of the conventions for which Trump has no regard involve truth, and accuracy, and accountability, and consistency, and the need to maintain national unity. There is no equivalence between Trump’s recklessness and the slow-building negligence of the wider political class. But it is also true that many of these practices, which our political classes are happy to exploit, are also used to prevent accountability, albeit in more subtle ways than Trump. And it is the widespread obeisance to those conventions that has both enabled somebody like Trump to come up the inside and ignore many of them, and to take advantage of the rest.

And that is why I am reconsidering my position on Shorten’s Trump comments. Perhaps I will arrive where I began. But preventing the rise of a Trump-like figure here (and no, it’s not impossible in a parliamentary system – Boris Johnson got far too close to British prime minister for my liking) demands a willingness to be thorough in our examination of assumptions about “the way politics works”. It’s not a question of getting rid of everything – the baby must be kept, the bathwater tossed. But the work must be begun. The gap between the population and its politicians is larger than it should be. It won’t shrink itself.


Today’s links

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is the author of The Game: A Portrait of Scott Morrison, a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


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