Monday, November 21, 2016
When someone so unattractive surprises us by winning, it's tempting to conclude he must have done so because of a massive surge of anger over immigrants, Muslims and jobs lost through trade agreements.
We connect this with the Brexit surprise and the resurrection of One Nation and conclude we're witnessing a worldwide populist uprising against globalisation and "neo-liberalism".
Pollies on both sides wonder whether they should protect their backs by reverting to more protectionist policies, rejecting more Chinese investment and shouting louder about Australia-first.
But such a reaction much exaggerates the popularity of populism in America – as is clearer now more of the vote has been counted.
First, note that Hillary Clinton got over a million votes more than Donald Trump did. He actually got fewer votes than Mitt Romney in 2012 and John McCain in 2008.
How is such a wide discrepancy between the popular vote and the electoral college result possible? Because the many smaller states get a disproportionate number of votes in the college.
So Trump won because he got more votes in the right places – three or four smaller "swing states" in the midwest Rust Belt, which normally vote Democrat.
It's true Trump won these states because enough white males without college educations found his plain-talking and promise to "make America great again" – that is, bring jobs back to the Rust Belt – more attractive than establishing a Clinton dynasty.
But let's not kid ourselves America is seeing a nation-wide upsurge in populist protectionism, any more than One Nation's ability to exploit an ill-judged double dissolution represents an existential threat to Labor or the Coalition.
Next, remember populist sentiments can't be satisfied. They're about the expression of emotion – anger, frustration, envy, fear of foreigners, resentment of city-slickers and the better-educated – not about rational choices.
They're about wishing the world hadn't changed and wishing some saviour could change it back.
Populism is about ignoring the things that have changed for the good – such as much lower prices for clothes, groceries, hardware, electronic goods, cars and much else – and assuming we can reverse the changes we don't like without losing the benefits we've come to take for granted.
Populism is about explaining the decline in employment in manufacturing, and the shift in economic activity from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt, solely in terms of free-trade agreements – which were made by governments and so supposedly can be reversed – while ignoring the much greater role played by technological change, which happened in spite of governments and can't be stopped by governments.
It's perfectly possible for America to make no further trade agreements, but only an American could delude themselves that their government could tear up longstanding agreements with other countries while those countries sucked it up.
Protectionist moves lead to retaliation by your trading partners. That leaves both sides worse off.
Consider all the wild promises Trump made to con the Rust Belt's white male workers into voting for him: a wall along the Mexican border, a 35 per cent tariff on Mexican imports and 45 per cent on Chinese imports, plus renegotiation of the North American free-trade agreement.
Assuming he wanted to, he can't actually do these things. Assuming somehow he could, they wouldn't fix the problem the way his dupes imagine, while introducing a new set of problems.
This says it won't be long before the Rust Belt's plain talkers realise they've been conned.
Add to them the majority that didn't want him in first place, and the many who held their nose and voted Republican because they couldn't stomach any Democrat, and it's not hard to see Trump setting records for the time it takes a president to become thoroughly on the nose.
Sound like a winning formula for our pollies to copy? Since populism fosters aspirations that can't be satisfied, it's suited to new, minor parties, but a high-risk tactic for parties that stand a chance of getting to government and having to deliver on the expectations raised.
None of this says the Rust Belt revolters don't have legitimate grievances.
A small group of business heavies and well-educated city-slickers has grabbed almost all the benefits from the structural change that's so disadvantaged the rust-belters, without governments – even Democrat majorities – doing much to oblige the winners to share with the losers.
For once in their lives, rather than going lower when they see the Yanks go lower, our pollies should, to quote Michelle Obama, "go high when they go low".