ABC Radio National Between the Lines

Donald Trump is crude and rude, but he may be a symptom of a wider problem in the United States and perhaps the western world.

We’ve all heard of Donald Trump. Not just a loudmouthed American real estate magnate and reality television celebrity, he’s emerged as a Republican presidential frontrunner, and his vulgar expressions have outraged many.

He said many Mexicans crossing the border are ‘rapists’ who bring crime and drugs into the US. He declared Republican Senator John McCain (who was tortured for more than five years in a Vietnamese prison camp) was ‘not a war hero’, because he was captured and ‘I don’t like people who were captured’. And he suggested that Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly was menstruating after she questioned him forcefully at a recent Republican presidential debate. No wonder the Beltway class has refused to take Trump seriously.

Yet ‘The Donald’ still dominates the Republican race. Why? Why has this political outsider shaken up the establishment? Why does he continue to confound the most seasoned observers of American politics?

For answers, I spoke with a former Republican presidential candidate who himself shook up the Washington establishment 20 years ago when he won the New Hampshire GOP primary, and did so with a populist message not dissimilar to Trump’s. I am, of course, referring to Patrick Buchanan. A former senior media adviser to presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, Buchanan is a widely read columnist and bestselling author of several books.

Buchanan’s explanation for the rise of Trump is simple: Trump is tapping into the anxiety of a significant segment of Americans fed up with the political elites, both Republican and Democrat, in Washington. Disoriented by both the rapid pace of socioeconomic change and the failure of political leaders to arrest American decline, these folks are attracted to a political outsider who rails against illegal immigration and free trade.

The deeper meaning of Trump is not ideological: it’s that globalisation is out, nationalism is in; political insiders are out, outsiders are in. The Chinese government’s recent devaluation of its currency adds fuel to Trump’s argument on the hustings. By weakening the Yuan, China’s imports become cheaper in the US and Europe, which in turn strengthens Chinese manufacturing and hurts US and European companies and jobs.

Moreover, the Trump-led campaign may represent a global phenomenon. According to Buchanan and other commentators such as liberal columnist EJ Dionne, politicians from traditional, broadly-based parties are facing scorn across the western world. Voters are increasingly turning off to deftly-cultivated professional politicians and embracing more authentic figures who will say what is on their mind, come hell or high water.

In Europe, for instance, left- and right-wing populist fringe groups that attack Brussels, globalisation and open borders are increasingly being rewarded at the ballot box. Although they express themselves in different ways, parties in Britain, France, Spain, Denmark, Sweden and Greece have embraced a potent brew of populism and economic nationalism. Meanwhile, centre-left and -right mainstream parties are increasingly losing support and even fracturing.  

Australians should hardly be surprised. After all, we experienced a similar movement two decades ago. Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, far from representing some kind of fascist threat to democracy, represented a protest vote against decades of rapid socioeconomic change.  Dismissed as a know-nothing fish and chip shop owner, Hanson rose in the polls by tapping into the anxiety felt by a segment of the Australian electorate. Ultimately, she flopped, in part because the very free market economic reforms she railed against had helped guarantee a long era of prosperity.

Critics on the liberal left and conservative right say that Buchanan is putting lipstick on a pig. Trump, the argument goes, is just a know-nothing populist whose simplistic solutions provide no panacea to complicated and deep-seated problems.

Take immigration: this week Trump called for the deportation of millions of immigrants living in the US illegally, and for the end of automatic citizenship for children born to foreigners on American soil. Never mind that the Trump outline would tear up families who have been living in the US for more than a decade. Law enforcement authorities would need to search from door to door to arrest 11 million people. And several border-state economies — where undocumented workers, especially in agriculture, hospitality and child-care, account for about 10 per cent of the workforce — would be damaged.

Whatever the merits of more hardline border protection measures, the political reality is that demography is working against the Republicans. As the Latino population rises, the white share of the electorate declines. To the extent that these trends continue, the Buchanan-Trump argument carries less weight in voter land.

Or take trade: Trump wants to stop countries like China from gaining an unfair advantage in trade negotiations. But no nation (not even the US) has the power to reverse the information revolution and economic globalisation. After all, you can’t stop China, India and Vietnam from growing.

Like Trump and the socialist Bernie Sanders — who’s gaining traction against Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries — Buchanan frets about free trade deals, such as the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership. He warns that the US — which unlike Australia has a relatively vibrant manufacturing sector — will have to compete against low-wage countries. The truth, though, is it’s too late.

As Fareed Zakaria has pointed out, the average tariff in the developed world is about 3 per cent. And in the past three decades, developing countries have cut their tariffs substantially as well. As unfashionable as it is to say so, market capitalism has undeniably contributed to higher growth and lower poverty rates across the globe.

Still, whatever the intellectual weaknesses of the Buchanan analysis, the point here is that Trump phenomenon cannot be easily dismissed. His slogan ‘Make America Great Again!’ appeals to a significant segment of conservative Americans. And it may resonate with other disillusioned folks who loathe mainstream politicians. 

Trump, like Buchanan himself in 1996, may eventually flame out. At this stage of 2012 cycle, the leading Republicans were Michele Bachmann (who?) and Herman Cain (crikey). The GOP will not remain a 17-candidate race indefinitely. When the field shrinks, Trump will find himself in a different, more competitive battle against well-heeled establishment candidates like Jeb Bush. 

Nonetheless, Trump may be a symptom of a broader problem in American politics. And if Buchanan is right, he may also be a symptom of a much bigger problem in western democracy.

This article was originally published at ABC Radio National Between the Lines