The rise of Donald Trump in the US has similarities to the rise of Pauline Hanson in Australia two decades ago

The rise of Donald Trump in the US has similarities to the rise of Pauline Hanson in Australia two decades ago

For the Australian observer, the rise of Donald Trump stirs the distant memory of a populist movement two decades ago. I am, of course, referring to One Nation. Like Trump today, Pauline Hanson promoted divisiveness, damaged her nation's reputation and threatened to splinter the conservative establishment.

Sure, there are differences. Whereas the Ipswich fish-and-chip shop owner was just an Independent member of Parliament, the casino and real-estate magnate and reality television star could become president of the United States. And whereas Hanson was innocent and inarticulate, Trump is crude and conniving.

But the similarities between the brash New Yorker and the Queensland firebrand are far more instructive.

Both led nationalist movements railing against Washington and Canberra and appealing to voters abandoned by globalisation and betrayed by politicians. Trump reflects a deep-seated belief that Americans have lost the country they know and they want America to stand alone on top again. Hansonism was as much a reaction against Paul Keating's cultural agenda as an isolationist backlash against Australia's engagement with Asia.

Illustration by Dionne Gain.

Illustration by Dionne Gain.


Both have been purveyors of conservative red meat: thick, juicy cuts of the stuff. But both also blurred the ideological left-right divide. Hanson was an agrarian socialist, who opposed Telstra privatisation and foreign investment. Trump distinguishes himself from fellow Republicans by defending entitlement programs and attacking free-trade deals, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Just as One Nation threatened to split the Coalition vote at both the 1998 and 2001 federal elections, Trump is capable of splintering the Republican Party this year. Which helps explain why both insurgents attracted hostile responses from conservative grandees.

But every criticism Malcolm Fraser, John Hewson and Jeff Kennett made – every dire warning issued by the elite in politics and the media – only entrenched Hanson's status in the eyes of her supporters as the outsider who was taking on the forces of political correctness and economic rationalism. The Republican establishment finds itself facing the same dilemma today. Indeed, former presidential candidate Mitt Romney's recent attacks, far from upending Trump, have emboldened the maverick businessman.

Like Trump, Hanson was a political novice who rocked the nation's establishment with repugnant views. Who can forget her claim that Asians were swamping Australia? Or Trump's claim that Mexico is exporting its rapists and criminals to the US, not to mention his call for a ban on all Muslim immigrants?

No wonder they earned the wrath of the urban sophisticates. In recent months, Trump has been compared to Hitler and Mussolini. In the mid-to-late 1990s, analogies were all too often drawn between post-Keating Australia and pre-Mandela South Africa.

Were supporters of One Nation racists? Some no doubt were. But, as John Howard astutely recognised at the time, most were just ordinary folks simply disoriented by the creative destruction that accompanied the dramatic socioeconomic changes of recent times.

Trump, like Hanson, has pitched his campaign to a wide range of grievances in society. In the process, he has emerged as the most reckless and demagogic figure on the American stage in nearly half a century. Some of the impulses he is seeking to exploit are pretty ugly. But others are not. After all, many alienated blue-collar workers have seen their real wages either stagnate or decline in the past decade.

It's just that these people deserve more than what Trump has found it convenient to accord them. Like Hanson, he offers no genuine answers to their problems, only hapless fantasies of revenge and dangerous solutions in the form of protectionism and racial divisiveness.

You might say Trump reflects European trends. Just look at the many nationalist movements that are threatening to wreak havoc on the European Union. Political angst is most apparent in France, Belgium, Finland, Holland, Denmark, Greece and Sweden, where far right populist parties are on the ascendancy. In Poland and Hungary, they have even won power.

Above all else, these movements represent a backlash against mainstream politicians who have surrendered their nations' sovereignty to Brussels. They fret about economic insecurity, lax border controls and Islamic terrorism, problems to some degree exacerbated by political dysfunction and a screaming media.

But the kind of populist nationalism that is proliferating across Europe does not resonate in today's Australia. Hansonism is a spent force. Why? Because we have not experienced a recession in nearly a quarter of a century. Nor have we lost control of our borders.

Thanks largely to Labor and Coalition economic reforms from 1983 to 2007, Australia has experienced a less inflation-prone economy, consistent wage growth and a wider choice of goods and service at lower (real) prices. And although recent leaders have failed to kick-start a new wave of reform, the economic management of Keating and Peter Costello has meant we have been able to weather external financial storms and keep growing.

Thanks to leadership of Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison, Australia's tough border protection policies have boosted public confidence in large-scale, legal and non-discriminatory immigration. The lesson: strict controls help dampen down xenophobia.

The rest of the West looks on with envy. In Europe, failure to control "who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come", as Howard put it in 2001, is a recipe for political extremism. In Obama's America, income inequality has widened and the economic recovery has been the most sluggish in generations.

Whatever the more responsible Republican leaders decide on how to deal with Trump, the worst mistake they could make is to label his supporters "racists" and deliberately suppress public discussion of the challenges of living in a modern, multi-ethnic society.

Like the battlers attracted to Hanson two decades ago and those outcasts who support European populists today, many Trump supporters are simply disoriented by the changes around them. Handle him badly, and there is a danger the ruptures exposed by the demagogue could split the Republican Party and damage America irreparably.

Tom Switzer is a research associate at the University of Sydney's United States Studies Centre and host of Between the Lines on the ABC's Radio National.

Most Viewed in National


Morning & Afternoon Newsletter

Delivered Mon–Fri.

By signing up you accept our privacy policy and conditions of use