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Trump's Lessons For Australian Politicians

Build trust and don't leave anyone behind or watch as divisive figures like Pauline Hanson re-appear.

22/11/2016 10:49 AM AEDT | Updated 22/11/2016 10:49 AM AEDT
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"The fear of growing inequality in this election was real, even if not always based on facts."

The name 'Trump' has just been removed from three New York buildings, following successful petitions by residents to remove it, while protests in the streets of New York continue. It's been two weeks since that eventful US Election and much of New York is still in a state of shock and fear for the future. New Yorkers feel like aliens in their own country, detached from the reality they now live in. Despite President-elect Trump living in New York, only 10 percent of Manhattan voted for him.

New York is a city that stands for those core American values laid out in the US Constitution, which embraces all the good America represents. So it's no wonder three days after the election the Governor of New York Andrew Cuomo wrote, "whether you are gay or straight, Muslim or Christian, rich or poor, black or white or brown, we respect all people in the state of New York. It's the very core of what we believe and who we are."

The feeling on the ground on that fateful day was that Hillary Clinton would definitely become President, as the polls suggested. But staying in Manhattan is perhaps like living in a bubble, compared to the rustbelt states where manufacturing industries have been devastated by cheaper imports. Obama won all of the rustbelt states at the 2012 election, but Trump, a man who has never held nor ran for public office before, won them all in 2016, apart from Obama's home state of Illinois.

Why did Clinton lose these key states? The uncomfortable reality is that Trump spoke to disaffected voters, who feel alienated from the political system, in a way that resonated, and resonated strongly. His dog-whistles to bigotry and misogyny, and his attack on the establishment and the media allowed his voters to vent their anger. But through all his shocking one-liners, the real reason for his populist uprising (in the immortal words from the other Clinton campaign), was 'the economy, stupid'.

While Australia under Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard outperformed the rest of the world after the GFC struck, America was hit hard. The forgotten workers in the rustbelt states suffered particularly badly from the Great Recession, as it's known in the US. Unemployment more than doubled, millions of jobs were lost, and median household income fell by more than 10 percent. The rise of China during this period, powered by cheap exports to America in particular, spelt the end for many struggling American businesses, and sowed the seeds of resentment that Trump has harvested for this win.

Despite Trump's appalling personal behaviour, his economic statements resonated with voters who feel unconnected to politics, and left behind by globalisation. Just like Obama before him, Trump gave hope to the disaffected, albeit a very different group to the voters that Obama mobilised. Trump's promises to return the US to a 1950s protectionist state, imposing high tariffs on imports, along with his criticism of China and Mexico for 'stealing' American jobs, tapped into the psyche of millions of Americans who feel betrayed by free trade and alienated from the political system.

It's a stark reminder for all Western democracies of the value of trust in our political institutions, and in the key policies that have underpinned global growth for decades. Without trust, people lose faith and may turn to divisive narcissistic figures like Donald Trump, who feed on their dissent with polemical statements and outrageous behaviour.

Building trust begins with treating people with respect, listening to their fears, and actively working to help them. The fear of growing inequality in this election was real, even if not always based on facts. The irony is the Clinton campaign was in fact addressing inequality -- increasing the minimum wage, extending unemployment benefits, affordable healthcare -- but it didn't resonate.

There are lessons here for political parties and politicians in Australia -- build trust and don't leave anyone behind or watch as divisive figures like Pauline Hanson re-appear. But building trust in a democracy where freedom of speech is taken to the nth degree is not easy. Around half of all Americans get their news directly from Facebook, and this number is growing in Australia too. The use of Facebook to spread false stories during the election campaign, particularly about Hillary Clinton, was astonishing.

These hoaxes generated a lot of online interest, promoted by Facebook's automated news trending module to push out the false stories. This led to voters being bombarded with stories such as the Pope endorsing Trump (he didn't), Hillary Clinton being an illegal arms dealer (she isn't), and the Clintons spending $200 million on an island home in the Maldives (they didn't).

President Obama has since made the important point that "if we are not serious about facts and what's true and what's not, if we can't discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems."

Despite the fake news and Trump's incredulous win, he only received around the same number of votes as Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's losing campaign in 2012. The difference in 2016 wasn't so much voter turnout for Trump, as the lack of voter turnout for Clinton in the key electoral college states. Yet, once all absentee votes are counted, Hillary Clinton will win the popular vote by more than two million over Trump.

Whether Trump can deliver on his economic promises of massive tax cuts and building the 'great big wall' didn't matter to his voters. Much more important was his status as an outsider, who they could trust more than the establishment, and his voicing of their anger and resentment.

As New York and the rest of America prepares for Thanksgiving and the flag hangs from buildings and homes across the nation, the feeling is the United States remains a country deeply divided along racial, cultural and ideological lines.

Trump's anti-immigration policies only add to that division. So it's no surprise states like New York are speaking out, with New York Governor Maria Cuomo saying, "We won't allow a federal government that attacks immigrants to do so in our state." He's been backed up by support from Mayors and politicians in cites including Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Chicago, telling immigrants "we've got your back".

Whether economic inequality is actually addressed under a Trump presidency remains to be seen. But with a candidate who exploited people's fears and mistrust, by using the most divisive and hurtful rhetoric against many of the people who make up the modern US, the road to common ground and a united America remains long... and winding.

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Senator Lisa Singh is currently based in New York on a secondment to the United Nations.

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