Trump, Brexit, Humanities and Citizen Scholars

By Institute Associate Dr Kearrin Sims

On Tuesday November 08, 2016, the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States saw progressive thinking suffer a serious blow.

Described by long-term editor of The New Yorker David Remnick as a "sickening event" in the history of liberal democracyi, Trump's victory shocked American pollsters – and millions of people around the world.

Yet, given the United Kingdom's recent Brexit debacle and the rising influence of conservative nationalist parties in France, Germany, Australia and elsewhere, it is worth pausing to consider why so many of us believed America would choose the 'rationale' vote for Hilary.

Indeed, before we in Australia despairingly shake our heads at 'stupid America', we need remind ourselves that in our most recent election almost 600,000 Australians voted for Pauline Hanson's vulgar One Nation partyii – and that Trump's outrageous claims to build a wall along the Mexican border are little worse than our own offshore detention centres, which the United Nations has found violate the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.iii

In the wake of Trump's widely unexpected victory, there are three important questions that progressive thinkers in Australia must ask themselves.

First, how/why was Trump elected – and could we see a similar political/moral tragedy here?

Second, what does Trump's victory mean for the future of global political and economic relations, environmental conservation, gender and ethnic equality, peace and conflict, and so on?

And third, where do we go from here?

While we can only speculate on the second question, answers to the first and third are now coming in thick and fast.

In this piece I suggest that avoiding the (further) expansion of similar 'Trump-style' racist, homophobic, sexist, climate change denying politics here in Australia requires increased investment into education – and particularly the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences.

Riding a wave of discontent

One of the more common, and arguably more convincing, explanations for why Trump was elected is his successes in tapping into the deep discontent American voters feel for their current political and economic system. A deceitful demagogue that has capitalised on the vulnerabilities of the disenfranchised, Trump provided an outlet for the fears and prejudices of people that have seen their livelihoods and wellbeing eroded by decades of neoliberal policies of deregulation, privatisation, austerity and corporate trade. These scared and frustrated people have lost jobs, pensions, safety nets and the belief in opportunity for their children's futuresiv. As Naomi Klein notes in one of her recent reflections on Trump's victory – In a country that is both the world's wealthiest and most unequal, "Donald Trump speaks directly" to the pain of "a hell of a lot of people".v

Of course, to emphasise the significance of economic inequality in Trump's political success is not to downplay the complexity of other factors that saw him elected.

Hilary Clinton's 'email scandal'vi and the general sense of distrust that much of the American public has shown toward her surely played a role. So too did the extensive free coverage the media offered 'rating-boosting' Trump rallies, and the willingness of many wealthy and middle-class Americans to accept (if not support) a deeply xenophobic and misogynistic leadervii. Just as Pauline Hanson's relative electoral success demonstrates here in Australia – one of the most saddening realities of Trump's victory is that racism (and particularly islamophobia) is far more accepted within Western liberal democratic societies than many would like to think.

Yet for all these factors, it seems unlikely that Trump's success would have been possible without a large number of voters experiencing severe economic hardship. Nor would it have been possible without widespread misunderstanding on how the global economy operates, the root causes of job loss and inequality within the United States, or the central role that plutocrats have played in dismantling public services.

Indeed, perhaps the saddest irony of Trump's victory, and the support he has received from many low-income families, is that it would be difficult to find a more suitable 'poster boy' to represent elite privilege or the exploitative "1%" than a man who travels in a private, gold-plated, plane while boasting that he does not pay tax.viii

Moving forward

If there is something constructive to be pulled out of Trump's election it is that it must serve as a powerful wake-up call for progressive left.

While many people can see that neoliberalism has failed them, the left must recognise that this will not naturally result in a progression towards a more just and equal society. On the contrary, the severe social and economic cleavages wrought by neoliberalism now appear to be pushing many countries towards the path of fascism.

Trump's victory reminds us that social, political and ethical progress are not the same as scientific progress. As John Gray eloquently argues in his beautiful book The Silence of Animals, (and also here for the RSAix), ethical, moral and political progress does not 'stay learnt', but must be continually fought for and reaffirmed.

Or, as Professor Liam Kennedy has stated in his reflections on the recent US election:

'Trump's victory should remind us just how fragile the social and political order we take for granted is – and how quickly an advanced democracy can be dragged into barbarism'.x

Such observations must lead us to the important question of what we can do to keep the fight for social and environmental justice moving forward. One important response that I propose for Australia, is to reinvest into public education – and in particular to increase funding to the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (HASS).

Building an informed citizenry

The very same neoliberal policies that saw Trump elected have been waging a war on public education in Australia for many years. Funding cuts have been felt across primary, secondary and tertiary education platforms and, as has now been widely documented, the increasing casualisation of the academic sector has had detrimental impacts on teaching performance. Right now, our current government seeks to cut funding to higher education by 20% – including cuts of $152.2 million to the Higher Education Participation Program, which assists universities in providing educational opportunities to Australia's lowest socio-economic groups.xi

When funding is cut (or disproportionately allocated), it has generally been the HASS departments that have suffered most. Just last week, for example, the Australian Research Council (ARC) announced its 2017 funding allocations for new research projects and, as has been the case for many years, HASS projects were poorly funded.xii

Why this matters for politics – and for freedom and social justice – is because much of Trump's political success has been garnered around public misunderstanding that transforms systemic structural inequalities and elite exploitation into the racist and homophobic views of a vulnerable population searching for a more vulnerable 'other' to target their fears, uncertainties and frustration.

Education is the most powerful weapon that we have against misogyny, homophobia, sexism, racism, climate change denial, and all the other fears and prejudices that Trump tapped into during his election campaign, and one of the most valuable disciplines for building active, informed and ethical citizens is the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences.

To ensure that Australia does not join the US and UK on their current paths of ill-informed nationalistic isolationism we, as a nation, need to reinvest in the social and moral lessons that education provides. We must look beyond economistic, neoliberal, conceptualisations of education as a tool for fostering skilled workers towards the need of education to provide students with – in the words of our 2012 Prime Minister's University Teacher of the Year Professor James Arvanitakis – a "set of skills and cultural practices" that educate and empower them beyond their disciplinary knowledge so that they may develop a strong "ethical framework" and aptitude for "cross cultural engagement"xiii. In short, we must recognise that education provides a means for cultivating socially engaged and reflexive "citizen scholars".

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