Why are we surprised?

OK, let’s try a thought experiment. Imagine the 2016 United States election was held in a country with a parliamentary, not a presidential, system, and one that wasn’t a military superpower.

Donald Trump would have beaten Ted Cruz, not for the Republican nomination, but for leadership of a party with a parliamentary majority.

As a result, there wouldn’t have been quite such obsessive attention to Trump’s personal idiosyncrasies. Commentary wouldn’t focus so much on the things he could do off his own bat, without going through cabinet or parliament. And cabinet, being less his own choice, might be a bit less of a freak show.

Foreign affairs and the military wouldn’t occupy nearly so big a place in the public debate. (Mr Putin might not have found him to be worth shaking down.) And without the history of being an imperial power, there probably wouldn’t be so much of the crude, explicit racism.

But otherwise not much would change. You’d have the same tribal politics, dividing the country and the world into “us” and “them”. You’d have the same aggressive ignorance, the same arrogance, the same reduction of complex issues to simplistic nostrums that usually come out wrong.

You’d have the same denial of – or simply failure to understand – any constitutional limitations on power, or any distinction between the interests of the state and the personal interests of the leader.

You’d have the same hatred of immigrants, and refugees in particular. There would still be concentration camps for “illegals”. More generally, you’d have the same visceral rejection of cosmopolitanism, of the benefits of free movement of goods and people.

You’d have the same pandering to the very rich, and general fawning on the most thuggish elements of that class. With the greater need to work with a centre-right parliamentary party, you might have more support for the free market, at least on a rhetorical level, but certainly no deep commitment.

You’d have the same casual bigotry, the same reflex to beat up on the poor and on minorities (Muslims especially, but the Jews are never far behind). You’d certainly have the same hatred of environmentalism, including denial of climate change and embrace of the fossil fuel industry.

Although foreign affairs wouldn’t be big, it’d still show the same tendencies when it did appear on the agenda. You’d have the same worship of force, including defence of war criminals. It would be of a piece with contempt for the rule of law at home.

Hatred of the rules-based international order and multilateral institutions such as the European Union would still be a key theme. And you’d have the same instinctive sympathy with xenophobes and autocrats around the world, albeit with less ability to tell other countries what to do.

And throughout it all, you’d have the same failure by the media to do their job and alert the country to the assault on democracy and humane values. The Murdoch press would act as a faithful cheer squad, and the rest of the media would take the leader’s idiocies seriously and report his activities as “good copy”. The abnormal would have been normalised.

There would be no electoral college, of course, but a parliamentary system with single-member districts can easily produce the same sort of capricious results. Opposition from more liberal-minded parts of the country could still be just written off: only voters with conservative social values count as “real”, even if they’re actually a minority.

The leader might have to compromise with independents or minor parties to get his bills through, but that wouldn’t worry him much. Some of them would be like-minded extremists, or could be bought off – and failure wouldn’t be a real concern, since he has little interest in a legislative program. His politics is tribal, not constructive.

There would be no threat of impeachment, of course, but the need to retain the confidence of his own party would impose a degree of restraint. Probably not much, though, since the party has plenty of extremists of its own (Trump was symptom of the Republican Party’s degeneration more than cause), and most of the rest of its members worship power and success.

It’s one thing to oppose a Trump when you expect him to lose an election; some would be found who were willing to do that. But recall how quickly Cruz and the others caved after Trump’s victory. Electoral success soothes even the most tender consciences.

Pressure from the party might also lead to greater emphasis on social conservatism. Certainly you’d have the same hostility to gay rights, and maybe the same weird fixation on which bathrooms people use. And white evangelicals, with their devotion to social hierarchy, would remain the most reliable supporters of the leader and his power.

All in all, you’d have something very similar to the actual Trump. Different in the detail, but recognisably the same phenomenon, and part of the same global movement.

In short, you’d have Scott Morrison. And we do.

Why are we surprised? Isn’t this what we voted for?


4 thoughts on “Why are we surprised?

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