How do you solve a problem like One Nation? Or, what the Trump phenomenon can teach Australian leaders about handling the second coming of Pauline Hanson
Originally written for The Guardian’s Australian edition, but the domestic news cycle went nuts on us, so it never saw the light of day. Enjoy!
I recently immersed myself in One Nation’s campaign literature and social media following. Comments like this one are not unusual:
“Just saw the Muslim leaders calling Pauline a racist for her out spoken views against islam…… I guess that this barbaric death cult is just one race of Neanderthals. Any one who calls Pauline a “racist” is nothing more than an “OCKAPHOBIC”.”
I really hope Pauline Hanson’s online fans are an extreme fringe of her support base. I’m not sure they are. And regardless of how representative it is, I want that ugly xenophobic sentiment gone from our politics quickly. In that respect, Australian leaders can learn from the opponents of a similar American political brand — the newly minted Republican nominee and so-called billionaire, Donald J. Trump.
The parallels between Trumpism and the second coming of One Nation are striking. They oppose similar things: foreigners buying domestic assets, over-educated ‘elites’ and political correctness. They make opportunistic nativist appeals. They use social media to skirt a disapproving mainstream media. They are configured around a charismatic leader, and they desire to restore the country to an unspecified period of former glory.
The first lesson is a historical one — if you stoke nativism for political gain, don’t act surprised when it catches fire. Politicians need to distinguish terrorism from legal immigration and our humanitarian refugee intake, or pay the price when people conflate them into a single ‘other’.
That’s long-term. The short-term options are these:
The Obama Response. Both the President and First Lady’s speeches at the Democratic Convention emphasised America’s optimism, ingenuity and inclusiveness — as Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high”. This embodies the Democrats’ overall strategy of uniting their base around a vision of America diametrically opposed to Trump’s pessimism and division. It’s a great strategy for turning out supporters and attracting Independent voters — plus I would love to see a positive ‘Australian exceptionalism’ appeal across the political spectrum. But I doubt One Nation supporters are open to idealistic messages about multicultural Australia.
Go on the offensive. Former Daily Show host Jon Stewart did this: “This country isn’t yours… It never was. There is no ‘real America’.” It feels righteous to get angry. But as one Republican operative said to me: “At no point in human history has someone been told they are an ignorant racist and said “you’re right”, then gone home”. Unfortunately, when Hanson’s supporters see her as a truth-teller fighting the same old politicians, that approach is counter-productive.
Attack the leader’s credibility. This works well for movements based around a presidential figure, especially when they’re running for executive office — see Hillary Clinton’s attack that “a man you can bait with a tweet can’t be trusted with nuclear weapons”, which has set off a national discussion of Trump’s temperament.
Pauline Hanson isn’t launching wars anytime soon (thankfully), but there may be a closer parallel with Sarah Palin. The Palin example shows that the more effective charge is dishonesty, not ignorance — as funny at Tina Fey’s impression was in 2008, it read as bullying to Palin’s supporters. Clinton’s Vice President, Tim Kaine, got thundering applause (and focus group traction) by criticising Trump’s deceptive business dealings. It positioned him as looking out for Trump supporters’ real interests. This would be an effective tactic for Hanson, but perhaps not a fair one. Her electoral fraud convictionwas overturned, and unlike Trump, she does believe what she says.
Find a convert. Convention speakers like comedian Sarah Silverman helped the Democrats unify around Hillary Clinton — a diehard Bernie supporter, she argued that the hold-outs were “being ridiculous”. Perhaps Sonia Kruger, if she has a change of heart, would be a candidate.
Re-focus the conversation. Or as one Republican operative memorably put it to me, “show them a shiny object”. The salience of immigration and terrorism have varied substantially in polling over recent years. The media’s narrative — that Trump has ‘tapped into’ something deep — is only partly true. He has also helped to create it, and benefitted from a large primary field splitting the Republican vote. Raising other issues could peel off weakly committed One Nation voters.
Ignore it and give them enough rope to hang themselves. These days, denying a point of view the oxygen of traditional media attention won’t prevent the cultivation of a base through Twitter, Facebook and — as Pauline Hanson has threatened — the app NewZulu. Moreover, sixteen defeated Republicans would argue waiting for Trumble (a Trump-stumble) failed. However, it may have been a mere question of timing. He provoked a new level of outrage by attacking the family of a fallen American Muslim soldier, and it feels like the tide really has turned. Clinton’s polling bump reflects that.
Remembering the collapse of One Nation 1.0 — like an iceberg, slow but inevitable when exposed to heat — the ‘give-them-enough-rope’ approach might be the best bet.