Barry Jones
The end of political complexity

There are, in the possible horrors of 2024, important but unrecognised common factors. These include the existential threat to democracy everywhere, the potential resurrection of Donald Trump, wars and rumours of wars, mob responses rather than collective action based on individual thinking and analysis, and the revival of religious fundamentalism in its myriad forms.

Underpinning these factors is another set of ugly realities, almost like a new collection of capital vices: the fear of complexity, the perceived threats to male hegemony, the hatred of elites, the view of modernity as a threat to traditional values and a sense of self, the rejection of universal values and the institutions that promote them, and the rejection of science and scientific method.

Paradoxically, despite the hostility to modernity, the computer revolution and the mobile phone have become the central element in disinformation, whether in racism, anti-vax propaganda, climate change denialism or the promotion of cults and trolling. Easy access to information has brought with it an age of misinformation. Never before has humankind known more about the world and believed less.

Religious fundamentalism, both Christian and Islamic, seems to offer cheap grace, a superficial transaction promising lifelong, even post-life, guarantees. Individual judgement or knowledge is not required and may be actively discouraged.

Fundamentalism is not merely intellectually crippling: it is profoundly contemptuous of Jesus or Muhammad, whose teachings are far more profound, universal, stimulating, controversial and compassionate than fundamentalists will concede.

Fundamentalism offers a creed without history, without scholarship, without depth, without context, and yet its phenomenal growth confirms it meets community needs and anxieties far more than do mainstream churches or mosques.

In the United States, Donald Trump’s central appeal is not so dissimilar. He presents himself as a kind of radical prophet, a politician who says he’s not a politician and promises to turn America away from the 21st century. He is a master in harvesting fear, rage and humiliation. Bullying is central to his appeal. Revenge is a powerful incentive to vote for him. That he doesn’t know stuff is seen as irrelevant or even as an asset. The 91 charges against him are his stigmata.

Trump’s endorsement by fundamentalist Christians confirms God moves in mysterious ways, because his link to the Gospels is tenuous. He offers simple solutions for complex problems. The answer to gun violence is more guns. Easy. Next question?

His followers see him as a man who speaks for them. Clearly, he fills a gap. That gap is a serious failure by the left generally to provide redistribution of resources to the urban and rural poor, given major economic shifts in society.

Trump’s crudity hurls political discourse into an abyss. Compare his campaigning to The Federalist (1787-88) by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, admittedly aimed at the comparative few who had the right to vote, or the 1860 Abraham Lincoln versus Stephen Douglas presidential election, which was essentially deciding on slavery, and see where once complex and sophisticated arguments have disappeared.

There is another factor assisting Trump in a country with a broken health system: physical pain. A major study by the American Medical Association in 2018 demonstrated an extraordinary correlation between counties with high opioid dependency and those that voted for Trump. People suffering pain every day are unlikely to be happy with the status quo.

There are alarmed people who feel – and there are good reasons to be afraid – they must support a strongman to take charge. Trump looks like a retired wrestler, which appeals to his followers and fulfils their dreams. To understand this, though, it is essential to understand why so many are angry and alienated from modernity.

As Fintan O’Toole reminds us, Trump has asserted that North Korea’s Kim Jong-un rules more than a billion people, that he defeated Barack Obama in 2016, that President Joe Biden was leading the US into World War II, and that his Republican opponent Nikki Haley was in charge of security in the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. Does this worry his devotees? Not at all.

Trump confuses the American War of Independence, or Revolutionary War, with the Civil War. In a speech as president in 2019 he said that in 1781 in Yorktown “our army manned the air, it took over the airports, it did everything it had to do”.

It sounds amusing, but it’s alarming.

Trump has had four years as an elected official and wants to make it eight.

Biden has had 48 years as an office holder and wants to make it 52.

As president, Biden has been far more courageous and effective than expected. His record on tackling climate change and supporting clean energy has been much better than any of his predecessors. The economy is very strong, the environment is more protected and, despite being a practising Catholic, he supports women’s rights to abortion.

Nevertheless, there has been far more media attention on his verbal stumbles than on Trump’s propensity to say anything that comes into his head.

At the age of 91, I am rather doddery, but I look far more robust than Biden, who is close to 10 years younger.

The historian Simon Schama argues the US is deeply split between “Worldly America” and “Godly America”. Worldly America is “pragmatic, practical, rational and sceptical”, while Godly America is “mythic, messianic, conversionary”. Worldly America engages with the world and is nourished by it, while Godly America “turns its back on that dangerous, promiscuous, impure world … If Worldly America is ... a city, a street and a port, Godly America is at its heart … a church, a farm and a barracks; places that are walled, fenced and consecrated.”

Although religion is far less significant as a political or social factor in Australia, elements of this dichotomy are developing here as well. It is central to Peter Dutton’s campaigning, with its attacks on “inner-city elites” and his appeal to regional and remote Australia, especially in Queensland and Western Australia.

Ronald Reagan, both Bushes, Trump, Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak, John Howard, Tony Abbott, Scott Morrison and now Dutton have all adopted a strategy honed in the 1970s by then US president Richard Nixon: winning elections by promoting division, favouring exclusion over inclusion, cultivating “the base”, persuading economic victims to blame those below them and exploiting condescension and the resentment of expert opinion. 

Inequality is not just a by-product of the economic system but a political artefact: not an accident but built into decisions about taxation, education and health.

I am surrounded by people who say, “I don’t know anyone who voted ‘No’ in the Voice referendum” and “I don’t know anyone who would vote for Dutton”. It’s true, but that’s the problem: how to engage with those with whom we have little empathy.

It is essential to avoid condescension and to listen to alternative views, no matter how troubling. These views faithfully reflect the experience of work, family, locality, church and so on for millions of Australians deeply anxious about their security.

I am talking about condescension – but there is another word missing, one even more corrosive and damaging: contempt. Both Trump and Dutton share a recklessness about truth and accuracy that shows an appalling willingness to lie to “the base”. They will not be held to account by their followers. The Morrison government lied on an industrial scale, and in the Voice referendum Dutton and Jacinta Nampijinpa Price followed Lewis Carroll’s Bellman: “What I tell you three times is true.”

Australia’s most significant social, economic, cultural and political division is no longer between the traditional political parties but between graduates and non-graduates, at present about a 40-60 split among voters.

This has been roughly characterised as globals versus locals, or anywheres versus somewheres – that is, people confident of their mobile professional skills versus people looking for security with the familiar.

There must be collective action to engage and unite – but it has to be essentially individual, preferably face to face, respectful, not based on opinion but on evidence, tangible and testable.

I come from a time of explaining. When I was a federal member of parliament, in my electorate of Lalor, most voters had no degrees, no passports, worked in the precariat and were preoccupied with family survival. I engaged with them, and often said: “You won’t like what I am about to tell you.” I won their trust and, even with my fancy language, the response was gratifying.

People such as Harold Holt, Don Dunstan, Dick Hamer, Gough Whitlam, Lionel Murphy and Malcolm Fraser brought about ambitious policy changes because they were prepared to explain. Whitlam, although he drove people mad at times by going on and on with his remorseless didacticism, was an excellent explainer on tough issues.

The age in which we now live is different. We are in a time of division. Information is selective and conditional. There are few agreed facts, few shared ideas. Silos are everywhere and for the cynical and opportunistic they are particularly useful. An essential starting point is to engage but not condescend. Yet how do we do it? How do we bring the country back into the one conversation?

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 3, 2024 as "The end of complexity".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription