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Bread and circuses in modern Australia and America



I have witnessed what motivated vast numbers of working-class Americans to vote for Trump. I agree with the view that it wasn't so much hatred of minority groups — although that is how it's been manifesting — as anger at their own deteriorating living standards and hope that an 'outsider' can fix the situation.

Donald Trump in Joker makeupMy husband and I took a six-week road trip around western USA the year after the start of the Global Financial Crisis. I set 'shortest route' on the GPS to intentionally avoid the faster freeways and travel off the tourist track.

What we saw in small-town and middle America horrified us. Not just the odd person sleeping in their 25-year-old cars but whole families camped along the smaller roads.

Vast trailer parks, not at all like Australia's lovely caravan parks, squat on the outskirts of any sizeable town. Row upon row of shabby demountables are set on weedy gravel only a metre or two apart. No gardens, no playgrounds, no privacy; just a pall of palpable hopelessness hanging in the dusty air.

Crumbling roads and houses also demonstrated that widespread poverty was not a recent phenomenon. The GFC had simply accelerated the process.

In lower-middle class areas, whole streets of deserted and already dilapidated new homes bore silent witness to dodgy developers and repossession by the very banks that had caused the crash. It was heartbreaking to see starving, abandoned pets roaming their old neighbourhoods, furry avatars for their desperate and departed owners.

I spoke to service workers on 12-hour shifts after observing one waiter eat several bowls of the free popcorn in the bar after his shift ended at midnight, because meals were not included. He couldn't afford to buy dinner on the then minimum wage for tipped workers of $2 an hour. The new federal award is still only $7.25, after taking tips into account.

Workers have no chance of ever buying a home, educating themselves, or even eating well. There is no way up for working-class Americans, and the middle class is sliding down to meet them. The claim in the Declaration of Independence that 'all men are created equal' is a farce for most Americans. It's easy to see how anyone seen as non-establishment, however erroneously, can feed their anger.


"I fear for my own future as a new senior. After working full-time for 40 years and with my husband recently retired after 50, the future looks bleak for us, despite a lifetime of paying taxes and modest living."


Something similar is happening in Australia. Our own workers and large sections of the middle class are now struggling and falling ever further behind, as the gap between the well-off and the other 80 per cent continually widens. I can foresee a time when an Australian Prime Minister will make Donald Trump look like a 'sensitive new age guy'.

My husband and I are baby boomers, so we own our own home and I benefited from a decent education. This is fast becoming a dream for the generations after us; a fantasy for the millennials who face a casualised work future and high-priced vocational or tertiary education. There will soon be no way up for working-class Australians either.

I fear for my own future as a new senior. After working full-time for 40 years and with my husband recently retired after 50, the future looks bleak for us within a very short period, despite a lifetime of paying taxes and modest living.

Neither of us drinks, smokes or gambles, but we've been forced to supplement my labourer husband's income from our now vanished savings since I retired early for health reasons seven years ago. New Disability Pension rules ensured only 15 per cent of applications succeeded in 2015-16 and I'm not eligible. I also cannot get an age pension for another seven years, at 67.

My husband's half-couple pension covers only our non-discretionary expenses of rates, insurances and car registration. Food, clothing, fuel, medical expenses, utilities, car and house maintenance all come from our small superannuation nest eggs. These will obviously not last long, even after giving up our health insurance just when we're beginning to need it.

And we're the lucky Boomers. How will future generations fare in their old age without the good start we had in life? They must be much more afraid than I am.

So I can understand the Trump phenomenon. Hard-working Americans and many Australians are blaming various minorities as responsible for their decline over the last two decades. They are deliberately being blinded to the real culprits: our own governments and their wealthy business backers. Juvenal's 'bread and circuses', designed to keep the people docile and distracted in Ancient Rome, have simply been updated to Maccas and manufactured news. And hatred. 

Are we really so easily manipulated? Is the American model the future Australia wants for itself?


Julie DaviesJulie Davies is a rural Central Queensland writer, originally from New Zealand. She became an accidental migrant after falling in love with Australia while on holiday in 1978. Julie has had a chequered career, ranging from farm labourer to environmental scientist and political minder to human rights advocate.

Topic tags: Julie Davies, Donald Trump



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Existing comments

I can only agree. Our cities won't necessarily turn into rust-belt America, but unless our politicians stop seeing justice as a drag on the economy, we're in danger. Those of us who don't own our own homes after a lifetime of work (and there are a surprising number of us) are facing that danger already.

Joan Seymour | 24 January 2017  

What a clear eyed view of our declining future. I feel for those younger and with so much uncertainty before them and I fear for my own tenuous future. With the direction our government is taking, smitten as it is with the neoliberal agenda and the myth of trickle down economics which has been so roundly discredited, I cannot for the life me understand how the powers that be think more of the same will change anything for the better.

Michele | 24 January 2017  

So true. More, it seems to me that governments of all stripes around the world deliberately starve services of funds - thereby allowing them to say that the government doesn't work and selling the services off to the private sector. Meanwhile, of course, there is plenty of money for armaments and for trips on the taxpayer (and for law enforcement, lest the proles get restless). In short, we live in a world where the wealth trickles up, rather than down. In a world where 8 people own half the planet's wealth, people are right to feel hard done by. Even as we recognise that demagogues and charlatans are turning people against each other to the detriment of the weakest, it is important to understand the very real causes behind the anger of the excluded.

Justin Glyn SJ | 24 January 2017  

But 'there has never been a more exciting time to be alive than today and there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian' according to Malcolm. 'We have to recognise that ... volatility and change is our friend... if we are agile and smart enough to take advantage of it'. That's a big 'if', and the implications are that 'if' we're not, the future will not be so rosy. And Malcolm's 'We' is not just a collective noun, but also a plural 'we', that is each of us rather than all of us. And while Julie and her husband can work 'full time for forty years' and still be at risk but our federal politicians can go on brazenly claiming their 'entitlements', and when they fail big time as Treasurer, be posted to plum jobs in Washington, is there any wonder that the plebs are becoming increasingly restless and ready to follow the demagogue?

Ginger Meggs | 24 January 2017  

Excellent article and I would also endorse Justin's comments as a valuable addendum. Interesting, those protesting against Trump's inauguration included the trash talking, intellectually vacuous, so yesterday Madonna, who is wealthy beyond most Americans wildest dreams. Hillary and Madonna personified the wealthy, connected elitist world which Trump voters rejected. There is also a religious element - from the Evangelical Christianity of the Bible Belt - to Trump's success. I can actually see a 'Trump scenario' playing out in Australia. It is interesting that someone like Joe Hockey, who stated the age of entitlement was over, takes both his generous political pension and an ambassadorial salary (plus perks) whilst you don't qualify for the DSP. Our self-aggrandising politicians in both parties had better heed those words of Kipling: 'By all you cry or whisper, By all you leave or do, The silent sullen peoples Will weigh your gods and you.'

Edward Fido | 25 January 2017  

Thank you Julie. A most timely and incisive wake-up call. And just in time for Australia Day! Time now to wake up, to realise our own opportunities that lie so frequently disguised by the circus.

Jim Bowler | 25 January 2017  

An excellent article, a wake-up call for Australia. Julie's picture of America already applies in much of regional Australia, with higher rates of unemployment, under-employment and homelessness than in the major cities. Since about ten years ago, whenever I walked down the main street of any country town or regional city, the number of business premises empty, with a forlorn "Available for rent or lease" sign in the window, was a strong indicator of the economic direction the area was moving. Before we elect a Donald Trump lookalike to lead our nation, our current politicians have to take rural Australia seriously, and invest more in building and maintaining economic futures.

Ian Fraser | 25 January 2017  

What Julie has experienced is like the sort of empirical evidence a physicist might assemble to test a scientific hypothesis. Social scientists cannot conduct such experiments. Suppose a sociologist proposes the hypothesis: If a society does not adapt its governance to changes in the production, distribution and exchange of goods it will disintegrate from within. All he/she has is economic history. And yet the Collapse of Wall Street in 1929 taught different lessons to different people. Many committed suicide. Others agitated for a greater role by government in the economy. This led to President Roosevelt's New Deal _ the closest America ever came to experimenting with Socialism. America's political system does not help it adapt to the changing industrial base.. Its voting system makes it necessary for candidates and their parties to spend massive amounts of money on getting eligible citizens to register and to vote. Many seats are so gerrymandered that the result is a foregone conclusion. The Electoral College was meant to protect States Rights but ended up leading to 5/7 States becoming battleground States. Battles that Trump's strategists won. Trump may be the experiment that gets America to wake up to itself.

Uncle Pat | 25 January 2017  

Another symptom is the CHANGE in income distribution in the US. Since the war up to 1982, the top 10% of earners took 35% of income, and this had been steady. Since 1982, this has risen to 50%. This means that even as the pie grew, the growth went to the rich and those on middle and low incomes saw little of the economic growth. Hence the picture painted here. Australia is following a similar path of allowing the rich to get richer, taking more of the pie. These are the symptoms. What is the illness? And, what is the cure?

Peter Horan | 25 January 2017  

Meanwhile, we and our great and powerful ally spend billions on armaments, as our well-off national security elites stoke up hatred and fear against imagined enemies, Russia and China. Money that should be going towards social needs in a decent society is being squandered on defence spending against these magined enemies. Reading this article together with other articles today on a trip around poor trailer-park America , and the working class masculinity crisis, leads me to the thought that both Trump, and the huge Russophobia in US , are manifestations of deep,social ills in our own western societies. The enemy is us - our failure to run decent societies that care for all their people, not just the richer ones., Our political class do not all live in Point Piper mansions, but too many aspire to, and shape their social values and public conduct accordingly, A sad and worrying time.

Tony kevin | 13 February 2017  

So beautifully put, Julia. Agree with you 100%. The new rise of Hansonism is a sure sign that Australia may go the way of USA (as it often does) when a mere few global capitalists and an ingrained political aristocracy dictate terms for the running of our country.

Andrew | 24 February 2017  

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