By Dom Knight
Wednesday was a baffling day for many Australians. A man who we knew primarily from his grandstanding on The Apprentice, and whose campaign blended Wall Street with Animal House, was elected President of the United States.
From 20 January, Donald Trump won’t be firing hapless celebrities. He’ll be firing missiles.
To win, the president-elect defied the polls, scandals that ranged from the amusing to the thoroughly disturbing, and a public persona that once led The Simpsons to use “President Trump” as a punchline.
Seventy-seven per cent of Australians supported Hillary Clinton, according to the Lowy Institute, while only 11 per cent plumped for Trump.
The president-elect seems like a uniquely American creation, coughed up by a culture that doesn’t consider ‘reality tv’ an oxymoron. He’s relentlessly brash, has a torrid personal life, and loves lawsuits almost as much as he loves holding rallies in front of his Trump-branded 757.
We might assume that in Australia, an idiosyncratic billionaire couldn’t win office through bluster, chutzpah and well-targeted populism that struck a chord with discontented voters. And yet we’ve already had our very own Donald Trump.
Like Trump, Palmer offered tax cuts while simultaneously boosting infrastructure and health care. And although he didn’t put it on a baseball cap, he promised to make Australia the ‘lucky country’ again, presumably unaware that the term’s origin is ironic.
For months, the former Member for Fairfax was on the news every night doing something outlandish, grabbing the ‘earned media‘ that later fuelled Trump’s success.
Australian hopefuls have to toe the party line
But unlike Trump, Palmer only won 5 per cent of the vote. And that’s because of one of the major differences with our system: the primaries.
In America, pretty well anybody can run for either party. Trump was considered a Democrat for many years before switching to the GOP, while Bernie Sanders is still an independent senator despite coming second in the Democratic race. And you don’t need to have a ‘serious’ public profile to compete – ask Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, wrestler Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura or satirist Al Franken.
In Australia, celebrity candidates either start their own party, like Palmer or Derryn Hinch, or fit in with one of the majors. Peter Garrett had to drop his opposition to uranium mining when he joined the ALP, and whether you’re Nova Peris, John Alexander or Cheryl Kernot, you have to toe the party line.
Unlike Trump’s capture of the GOP and subsequent abandonment of its core economic principles, Australian parties remake recruits in their own image. What’s more, disagreeing with your colleagues gets you dumped, even if you’re the prime minister. There’s really no Australian precedent for the recent showdowns between Trump and many congressional Republicans, including the Speaker, Paul Ryan.