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The rise of the common sense bully

Donald Trump's presidency is already making waves all over the world, allowing for a new kind of right-wing populism to claim the breathing space of the declining 'establishment' parties

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Former Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi during Senate Question Time at Parliament House in Canberra, Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017. Photo: AAP/Mick Tsikas

13 February 2017

"Thank you to Prime Minister of Australia for telling the truth about our very civil conversation that FAKE NEWS media lied about." US President Donald Trump resorted to his favourite medium, Twitter, to disperse concerns about the relationship status between the two countries. At around the same time, a man whom Americans recognise as 'The Boss' offered an apology to Australians. Opening his Melbourne concert with a cover of the 1962 pop hit Don't Hang Up by the Orlons, Bruce Springsteen told his audience: "We stand before you, embarrassed Americans, tonight. We're gonna use this to send a letter back home." Springsteen joined his voice with those of hundreds of American citizens offering apologies to Australians for their new president's rude behaviour.

Not everyone is so keen on appeasing stunned Australians, still reeling from their PM being bullied by the US president. Some broke the united-in-indignation Australian front by taking the side of the bully, not least among them One Nation senator Malcolm Roberts, who applauded the US president's hard-line stance.

"It shows the difference between these two leaders," he told Sky News. "Donald Trump understands his main responsibility as a government is to protect people's lives, to protect property and to protect freedom. He is standing up for his country in scrutineering this deal."

Malcolm Roberts, of course, was seen celebrating Donald Trump's electoral win by opening up a bottle of champagne outside Australian Parliament, alongside his party's leader, Pauline Hanson. Now they have other reasons to drink up.

Recent polls show One Nation on the rise, gaining support of 10 per cent of voters, which has justifiably caused alarm to the progressives of the left, the moderates in the right, centrists and all those in favour of science, truth, humanism, compassion and sensibility.

The term 'sensibility' is used here to describe 'common sense', and that is because the latter term has been hijacked by Cory Bernardi, who uses it as the basis for his newly-formed 'Conservative' party, after his recent defection from the ranks of the Coalition. Before deciding to become a headache for the government, the South Australian senator had spent some time in the United States, where he reportedly was inspired by the 'Trump movement'. He's been even seen sporting a red hat with the slogan 'Make Australia Great Again', an homage (or rip-off) of Donald Trump's one. Asked by the ABC if if he felt validated after Trump's election win, Senator Bernardi said: "There's a part of me that does, yeah. You know, because it was very unfashionable to support him. It's not about his character, it's not about all of his policy positions, but I thought, he is the catalyst for change and that many of the issues that he has been targeted about and criticised for I think are absolutely mainstream."

So, according to Senator Bernardi and his like-minded colleagues in the Senate, it is now 'cool' to be a Trump supporter, and though it may be tempting to dismiss this new trend as a kind of 'revenge of the nerds', things are serious. The ascent of One Nation may not be related to Donald Trump, but it is already obvious how his presidency is already affecting the political tectonic plates movement in Australia. The same poll that showed One Nation's rise confirmed that voters are disillusioned by the two major parties.

This kind of disillusionment and rejection of the political 'establishment' is exactly what has allowed for populist forces to ride the political wave. Of course, Donald Trump did this by hijacking the Republican Party and presenting himself as an anti-establishment candidate. This is not something likely to happen in Australia. What might happen is a further strengthening of the conservatives within the ranks of the Coalition (and a possible return to power for Tony Abbott), but policy-wise, there's not much leg room to the right, at least as long as the country still has a healthy middle class. And, for all its setbacks (largely outlined in the property market and the way rising prices forbid young Australians from becoming owners), the Australian middle class is still the backbone of society.

By comparison, both in the US and the EU, it has been struggling recently, threatened by austerity, unemployment, and the low competitiveness of the economy. What is striking is the inability of the left to present a viable, credible alternative. Greece and Spain have been the exception here, seeing a rise in leftist parties as response to the way Europe dealt with the GFC effect on their economies (though SYRIZA in Greece is conducting itself as any centre-left government would), but overall, it is xenophobia and nationalism that is rising to cover the ground lost by the centrists. In a way, this is political karma in action; after doing their best to dismiss the value of the welfare state, after normalising a rhetoric that deems the public sector as a burden and the benefit system as an unnecessary expenditure, centre-right and centre-left parties all over the world not only failed to address inequality, but further expanded it. What is ironic is that now far-right populists are reaping the harvest, using the fear of immigration and security.

It is still very early to make predictions and assumptions about the effect all this will have on Australian politics. But the next few months will be tumultuous, or at least, interesting, as the world turns eyes to Europe, where the two major EU players, France and Germany, are gearing up for elections.
And while Germany will probably see another coalition between the conservatives and the socialists, blocking the rise of populists (the same is expected in the Netherlands, where the rise of Geert Wilders' far right Party for Freedom will be prevented from gaining power by the combined effort of all the other parties), France will be the test tube for what is to come around the world. The election will be, in all probability, a battle between Marine Le Pen and Francois Fillon. Moderates all over the world have already been painting the latter as a centre-right reformist, but his agenda includes tax cuts for the top incomes, and a slash of 500,000 public sector jobs, in a crusade for smaller state. Will voters go for it? And if they don't, if, instead of a Thatcherite, promising foreign investment and offering tax cuts to those already well-off, they turn to the nationalists offering their own version of 'Make France great again', will they be irresponsible and xenophobic, victims of right-wing populism, as the prevailing rhetoric wants them to be?

In either case, it's pretty safe to assume that the welfare state is going to suffer more, that refugees and migrants will still take the blame, bullying will become mainstream practice in the public discourse − and that the financial establishment will remain unaffected by all this.

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