Whether you consider yourself one of “Trump’s Aussie Mates” like Mark Latham, or view the President-elect as one of the Four Businessmen of the Apocalypse, one thing cannot be denied about Donald J. Trump. Of all the candidates who ran in the US election, he was undoubtedly the most entertaining.
Hillary Clinton was predictable, safe and samey, a policy wonk who probably spends her holidays devouring briefing papers by the pool. Whereas Donald Trump spent his career slapping his name on gaudy buildings, and firing people on television. If the voters had been looking for traditional qualifications like experience, it would have been as easy as choosing between Trump University and Harvard.
But they weren’t. They were looking for something to shake up the status quo and add some entertainment to the dreariness of politics. When Trump speaks, policy challenges seems simple, and victory seems inevitable. Many Americans knew and liked him, so they gave him a shot.
I loved watching The Apprentice, and not because I enjoyed the “business” tasks, which generally involved cheesy promotion for Trump-brand bottled water and neckties. It was all about Trump in the boardroom. He’s a brilliant, unpredictable performer, and his confidence and charisma were compelling.
I didn’t come away from the series convinced that this was the man to guide the free world through a complex, threat-filled era. But it left me well disposed to Trump, so much so that I once stayed in his Hawaiian hotel out of sheer curiosity. And I was certainly keen to keep watching.
Trump’s carnival barker talents made him an unprecedentedly successful first-time campaigner. He cut down his Republican rivals with brutal, brilliant attack lines, and then crafted a message that connected with swing state voters. Despite a long career of being in it for himself, he convinced millions of Americans that he’d fight for their interests as effectively as he has fought for his own. Voters agreed that they needed a president who wrote the who wrote the Art of the Deal, even though we learnt during the campaign that somebody else had.
Ever since Trump descended those escalators to launch his campaign, he’s been all we’ve talked about. His presence dominated even the debate that he boycotted. Covering the campaign on ABC Radio, I was constantly drawn to the candidate that our audience knew, and who wasn’t another cookie-cutter Republican.
Reading a transcript of his speeches at his rallies, he seems rambling – the Ross Noble of politics. But watching him is a far more engaging experience. He was selling the same product as on The Apprentice – Trump, the passport to a better life. He lives in a giant penthouse atop a skyscraper with his name on it, the clearest embodiment of the American Dream since Gatsby – and there’s no sign of a tragic ending.
Celebrities have done well in American politics before – Reagan, Schwarzenegger, and who can forget Jesse “The Body” Ventura? But Trump nevertheless seems like something new. The self-promotion abilities he honed as a celebrity businessman and TV presenter made him an unbeatable politician. How long until others with his communication skills make a similar move into politics?
Wouldn’t Australians respond better to a budget delivered by Kochie, or a plan to improve public health crafted by Commando? And wouldn’t Lisa Wilkinson or Waleed Aly retain much of their adoration as prime minister?
We have our own businessman-turned-public figure-turned politician in The Lodge, of course, but Malcolm Turnbull must envy Trump’s unfiltered candour. Every time he speaks his mind on an issue like the republic, his colleagues get nervous.
The closest analogy in our system is Derryn Hinch, whose long media career has prepared him perfectly for the Senate. His maiden speech, full of outrage yet tinged with humour, sounded like an editorial on his old TV show. We can’t elect engaging mavericks prime minister, because of the party system, which certainly seemed to hold back Peter Garrett during his time with Labor – but personal popularity can certainly get them to the crossbench. Ray Hadley and Alan Jones could well follow him, if they can stomach the pay cut.
Machine politicians are so buttoned down and media managed nowadays that anyone different intrigues us. Even Rod Culleton has charmed many Australians with his Darryl Kerrigan-esque struggle against the legal system.
So, don’t be surprised if the Democrats try to beat Trump with an entertainer of their own. There’s a growing call for Tom Hanks to unseat the other side’s celebrity president. Maybe Meryl Streep will step up, or Alec Baldwin will run in character?
If Trump is a disaster, we will no doubt return to safe but bland Hillary types. But if voters continue to value personality and popularity above policy nous, we could be seeing the first in a line of President Trumps, with Ivanka next. And perhaps prime minister Richard Wilkins isn’t so implausible here, either?