This is, or is meant to be, a blog about representations of Australianness, so I was intrigued to see in yesterday morning’s (Mon 28 Aug. 17) Crikey roundup:
Why Germany will never have a Trump (Der Spiegel): “Who could emerge as a German Trump? There are no men like him in the German political world, nor are they prevalent in other areas of German life either. This aggressive, primitive archetype is no longer accepted here. The American masculinity myth stretches back to the cowboy, while the German equivalent is rooted in the soldier — and the latter died in World War II.”
Like the American cowboy, the Australian Legend has its roots in the myth of the Noble Frontiersman – a simple, honest man living in and conquering nature – while I guess the author is saying that the German equivalent is derived from the ideal Prussian officer. But what is the connection between “masculinity myths” and elections? And are we as equally likely as the Americans to elect a Trump?
Here is the central question of the essay: “Why does the U.S. — the political, moral and military leader of the Western world since the end of World War II — now have a dangerous laughing stock, a man who has isolated his country, as its president? Why does Germany, a former pariah, now enjoy a more positive political standing than ever before?”
The author’s thesis is that since Hitler and since the Holocaust, Germans have been frightened by what they were capable of, and have made a conscious effort to be both moral and conservative – ie. slow to change.
In the U.S., the individual may prevail, but in German politics it is the system that rules. This means that the circumstances in Washington change more starkly depending on who is in office. The governing system in Germany is more stable, uniform and enduring.
Before Trump, America and Germany both had mostly centre-right governments and were both run by competent career politicians. However, though the author doesn’t say so, Trump did have precursors in Ronald Regan and George W Bush. Regan was best known for being an actor and Dubya was a cipher. Both were fronts for competent, if seriously right wing cabinets. (It is my theory that much of the present incivility in politics arises from right wing anger at and retaliation for the general derision that Dubya attracted). The Der Spiegel essay attempts to analyse what it is about America that made Trump possible, and I will attempt to do the same for Australia.
Dreams: In Hollywood anything is possible and Regan, Jesse Ventura, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Trump himself, best known to Americans as a reality tv star, demonstrate that there is only a low bar to crossing over into ‘real life’. Germans take themselves more seriously.
Salvation: Right back to the Mayflower Americans have believed that the One will come, to save them. Hitler makes this belief impossible for modern Germans.
Freaks: The US primaries offer aspiring politicians the chance to appeal direct to the public; an opportunity that does not exist to the same extent in the party systems of Germany and Australia.
Media: There is no German equivalent to Fox News, not even the right wing Axel Springer Group which is constrained by its constitution. Australia’s nearest equivalent is the poorly watched Sky TV and the (Murdoch owned) tabloid newspapers. This difference may decline in importance as consumers follow more targeted news sources on the internet.
Business: Germans see themselves as engineers, Americans as entrepreneurs. Trump the property speculator would not be so admired in Germany. In Australia? – I give you Alan Bond.
Change: The US four year cycle offers opportunities for radical discontinuities in policy. Germans prize continuity. The Australian system, which is much closer to the German than the US, nevertheless has the American tendency for severe directional changes, eg. from Whitlam to Fraser or from Rudd to Abbott, which implies that the difference is cultural rather than systemic.
Class: Germany does not have the enormous divide between liberal, educated, metropolitan elites and the red-necks of the mid-west and the south which characterises the US. Red necks have more opportunities to influence policy in America (and Australia) than they do in Germany. The author does not discuss the significant underclasses in both countries.
Egotism: America believes that it has a duty to lead the world. Americans react inconsistently when their leadership is challenged. Germany also has a leadership role, but its history leads it to work through consensus.
Morality: Americans are moralistic but Germans are moral, arising of course out of their guilt for the Holocaust, and demonstrated most recently in their enormous intake of refugees.
Dynamism: The Americans have a huge appetite for reinvention which the Germans lack and which the author regrets: “our nation of splendorous boredom isn’t particularly well-equipped for the future.”
This is an interesting essay. The author investigates how the way Americans and Germans see themselves influences the sort of government they choose, though without really addressing the issue of cowboys vs (ex-) soldiers. As for Australia – I would say our stolid, suburban middle classes have far more influence than any image of ourselves as independent, larrikin bushmen, and that the outliers – Latham, Abbott – thrown up from time to time by our party system are evidence of the influence of extremists within the factions, rather than of weirdness in the electorate.
So, are we as equally likely as the Americans to elect a Trump? Of course the answer is Yes. Leaving aside Pauline Hanson who is only a minor irritant despite often being mentioned in this context, and taking into account the differences in our political systems, there is no doubt that the 2013 election of a leadership team headed by Tony Abbott and containing Barnaby Joyce, Joe Hockey, Peter Dutton, Scott Morrison, Kevin Andrews, George Brandis … contained all the elements – narcissism, clownishness and incompetence – to qualify.
Dirk Kurbjuweit, A Tale of Two Countries: Why there won’t be a German Trump, Der Spiegel Online, 23 Aug. 2017
The World Today, ABC, Mon. 28 Aug. 2017, contained an interview with the editor of Der Spiegel re this essay (here)