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America's predicament is a wake-up call for Australians

You know, Donald Trump didn't win the Australian election. Sorry if you're onto that already, but I can't help the feeling this needs to be clarified. The past fortnight seems to have cast a strange pall across Australian politics, as though we must now proceed beneath the veil of Trump's election.

Just about every Australian gesture since has been vaguely pathetic. From the bizarrely exuberant media coverage of the fact that our Prime Minister actually got to speak to the President-elect on the phone, to the Prime Minister's own proud comparisons of himself to Trump, to Labor's instant reheating of its 457 visa anti-rorting campaign. Then finally came Peter Dutton's declaration that the Fraser government made "mistakes in bringing some people in the 1970s" – those people he later specified as Lebanese Sunni Muslims.

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To be sure, none of these themes is particularly new. Labor first raised its 457 concerns several prime ministers ago, under Julia Gillard. And Dutton has been dishing out inexorably more retrograde fare for months now. Remember during our election campaign when he argued we were in danger of being besieged by "illiterate and innumerate" refugees who would simultaneously take our jobs and clog our dole queues? The point is it's no accident we've seen such a flurry of this stuff all of a sudden. Trump's win has apparently sent everyone scurrying for the nearest nationalist gesture they can find.

There's a pattern emerging, here. The shock of the US election first triggers a wave of rote pledges to learn lessons and to change offerings. That quickly becomes an exercise in repackaging established routines as some kind of response. Everyone seems to agree Trump changes everything. Then everyone proceeds to change nothing. It's just easier to say Trump proves you were right all along.

It's a problem for two main reasons. First, we're not America. We don't have an American economy, American hyper-capitalism, American inequalities, or anything remotely like American levels of illegal immigration. Nor do we have the American sense of wounded pride at the thought of losing our dominance as a superpower. We have versions of these things, but we tend to underappreciate to just what extent the American pact is falling apart.

Theirs is an economy in which one part (led mainly by tech industries) is cannibalising another (characterised mainly of blue-collar manufacturing). Accordingly, it is an economy in which education is a brutally powerful predictor of success; in which social mobility is disintegrating; in which the middle class is being hollowed out; in which masses of working-class people are waking abruptly from their American dream.

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Our crises are just more modest than that. We have struggling states, and some dying industries. But we haven't had a deep recession – or indeed a recession at all – and the relationship between income and education isn't quite so stark. Our tradies earn significantly more than their American brethren, for instance. All this is partly why we have a One Nation vote that, when it surges, merely hits double figures.

But that leads us to the second problem: it won't be this way forever. Last week's Bureau of Statistics report, which confirmed a long-term trend towards increasingly part-time and casual work, left the news cycle far too quickly. If our unemployment figures can be called low, it's only because they're hiding a falling participation rate and a swathe of underemployed people. We keep adding jobs, but our wages are barely growing because we're adding low-hour work. That means we're adding insecurity: people who have jobs but not reliable work; income but no hope of, say, getting a home loan. When the next crunch comes, there will be plenty of vulnerable, dispensable people.

What will become of us then? Well, if the way we're handling our relative prosperity based on the result of an election on the other side of the Pacific is any indication, it's going to get damn ugly. America is a nation built with a strong, civic national identity. It's a country built on the mythology of individual freedom – an idea that is political, rather than ethnic. The American miracle has been to hold together all manner of people under its banner – from white supremacists through to civil rights activists – because the idea of being American was somehow open even to people who couldn't stand each other. That's why, in spite of its pockets of deep, enduring racism, America has remained extraordinarily good at absorbing migrants.

We have been, too, but not in the same, deliberate way. We don't do it through some powerful national mythology. We do it almost by accident, through a kind of pragmatic accommodation. We are routinely suspicious of migrants, but we lack the kind of hard-edged ethnic nationalism of Europe that has resulted in their suite of fascistic movements.

That means our ability to handle diversity, while considerably better than Europe's, is fragile. More fragile than America's. And yet here we are, watching as the Ku Klux Klan hold a post-election victory parade, and as a speaker at a white supremacist conference exclaims "Hail Trump" before an audience responding with cheers and Nazi salutes. We're watching a President-elect have to disavow these movements, even as he appoints advisers who are worryingly sympathetic to them. In short, we're watching the worst of America's possibilities unfold; its civic identity – which has held it in such good stead – begin to disintegrate.

If we're to avoid something similar, we'll need to tend our garden now; to build a concept of Australia that carries the diversity we now irreversibly have. We'll need to do better than to capitulate to nationalist reflexes, visible in another country with problems that aren't yet ours. Because one day that test will come properly. And when it does, our apparent desperation to adopt other countries' catastrophes as our own will have been no use at all. It will mean only that we're well practiced at enacting their failures.

Waleed Aly is a host on The Project and a Fairfax Media columnist.

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