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Trump’s ‘Hail Mary’ play for re-election

Trump’s ‘Hail Mary’ play for re-election

By Daniel Smith

Donald Trump’s march across Lafayette Square to hold a Bible for a photo opportunity in front of St John’s Episcopal Church was a political ‘Hail Mary’ pass designed to get him back into the political game.

It was a calculated communication to his white, culturally conservative, working class base that was simultaneously designed to elicit a response from his enraged opponents that pushed his supporters further into his arms in an election year.

To many of us, it looked like madness.  How could tear gassing your own citizens to clear the way for a photo opportunity at a time when Americans are suffering from both the health and economic impacts of COVID-19, as well as deep emotional pain at the killing of George Floyd be anything but electoral suicide?

To understand Trump’s thinking, we need to understand two realities.  First, Trump is in deep political trouble.  Second, motivating white, working class people to vote is his most plausible path to another come-from-behind victory.

But, first to Trump’s political problems.

The dominant narrative following Trump’s surprise victory over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election was that a surge in support from white non-college educated (working class) voters propelled Trump to victory in former industrial states that had traditionally voted Democrats.

Like most narratives, this represents only part of the story.

Trump’s victory also relied on college-educated Republicans, despite serious misgivings, holding their nose and voting for Trump over the even more unpalatable former Secretary of State, as well as African American voters not turning out to support Clinton at the same levels as they had to support Barrack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

According to modelling undertaken by the Centre for American Progress and FiveThirtyEight following the election, Trump wouldn’t have won in 2016, if any of these three conditions hadn’t been met.

Which is where Trump’s re-election problems begin.

In the highest turnout midterm election in more than 100 years, Democrats swept to a majority in the US House of Representatives.  Their largest gain in seats came in traditionally Republican suburban districts that not only voted for Trump in 2016, but also voted for Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate for President, in 2012, with this swing delivered by largely college-educated, predominantly female former Republicans.

At the midterms, Trump lost a chunk of what used to be the Republican base, and there has been no evidence yet that he is winning it back.

Trump’s problems are magnified by the outrage among African Americans at systemic racism and their ongoing brutalisation at the hands of police, which was made most visible by the killing of George Floyd.  The fact that both the health and economic impacts of COVID-19 are disproportionately impacting African American communities will be compounding this rage.

In this environment, the sharp decline in African American turnout experienced in 2016 may well be reversed, particularly if Democrat Joe Biden picks an African American as his running mate, which he is reported to be strongly considering.

As things stand, two of the three foundations of Trump’s 2016 victory are wobbly.  Which is why Trump is seeking to reinforce the third - his base.

More than any other politician, Trump understands both the angst and potential political power of the white, American working class.

In their well-researched book, Deaths of Despair and the Future of American Capitalism, Anne Case and Angus Deaton describe how Americans without a college degree have few prospects in an economy where globalisation and technology are taking lower-skilled jobs.  This has led to social decay and falling life expectancy in white working-class communities, on the back of rapidly increasing levels of suicide, drug overdoses and alcohol related illness – the deaths of despair.

Trump’s strategy in 2020 is the same as it was in 2016, being to position affluent, university educated Democrat politicians and journalists as elites who care more about ‘minority issues’ than they do about American workers, offering himself as the only one who understands the latter’s plight and, therefore, as the only one who can reverse it.

With white, non-college educated Americans representing about 40 per cent of the electorate, and historically having the lowest turnout rates at Presidential elections, Trump sees new voters and a path to victory in the family and friends of the people who voted for him in 2016.

Will Trump’s strategy be successful? There are signs, on the ground and in the polls, that some of his people aren’t buying what he’s been trying to sell in recent weeks.  But, even if they did, whether this would be enough to offset what promises to be a much higher turnout rate among African Americans and any further drift of college educated Republicans to the Democrats is unknown.

One thing is certain, should Trump be re-elected in November, he will see his base as having delivered it and his Hail Mary law-and-order play as the start of his comeback.  Draw your own conclusions about what this would mean for the tone and substance of a second Trump term.

Daniel Smith is executive director and founder of CGM Communications.


Policy whirlwind necessitates strong government engagement

Policy whirlwind necessitates strong government engagement

By Daniel Smith

The rapid change in government policy Australia has witnessed in the first half of 2020 hasn’t been seen since the early days of the Whitlam Government.

And, with the health, economic and political impacts of COVID-19 still playing out, the current policy whirlwind is set to last for some time to come.

For two weeks following his election win in 1972, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam formed a ‘duumvirate’ with his Deputy Lance Barnard.  Together, they used executive power to implement many of Labor’s election commitments, including ending conscription, opening relations with China, removing sales tax from contraceptive pills, appointing an interim schools commission and banning South African sporting teams from Australia.

Whitlam’s duumvirate was about fast-tracking the implementation of policies that had been developed over 23 years in opposition and were clearly laid out in Labor’s platform.

During the COVID-19 crisis, neither employers nor employees have had this visibility of impending policy change. In responding to a crisis that few foresaw six months ago, we have seen a newly formed national cabinet develop and implement policies to address the health and economic impacts of COVID-19 in real time.

In response to the health crisis, borders have gone up and down, businesses have closed and opened, with the number of people we can associate with, as well as how close we can get to them, changing numerous times.

Changes in economic policy have included the introduction of wage subsidies and an effective living wage, free childcare, fast-tracked regulatory approvals and tighter foreign investment rules.

But we are not done, yet.  In front of us lies the rolling back of some, but probably not all, of the COVID-19 emergency measures. New approaches to economic stimulus designed to mitigate the ongoing economic impacts of the crisis are certain, whether they be from the withdrawal of current government measures, or from a drop off in trade and international investment, as our major international partners face their own COVID-19 challenges.  Further regulatory reforms designed to unlock private investment and job creation are also highly likely.

The risk of ongoing trade and diplomatic tension on the international stage is also real, with associated policy responses in Australia also possible.

The upside for both employers and employees as we move through this period of rapid change is that both the federal and state governments have been increasingly consultative in their development of COVID-19 period policy, as well as being open and responsive to feedback.

We all know that industry craves policy certainty, but, the reality is, policy certainty won’t return for quite some time.  In this environment, all stakeholders will need to allocate resources to both shaping and responding to the change that will continue to come.

The Whitlam duumvirate lasted for only two weeks.  The current period of rapid policy change could last years.

In this environment, all stakeholders need to keep their relationships with government strong and look for ways they can both shape new policy and assist its refinement in implementation.


WA skills review needs industry input

WA skills review needs industry input

By Daniel Smith

The urgent review of skills, training and workforce development announced by Premier Mark McGowan this week will provide important opportunities for industry to engage about skills needs during the COVID-19 recovery period.

The necessary public health precautions that were put in place to fight the coronavirus severely disrupted many businesses, forcing many to re-think the way they do things, as well as their resulting current and future skills needs.  This thinking has been complicated by both international and interstate travel restrictions, which are likely to compel businesses to recruit locally for some time to come.

This review will seek to identify the skills needs of industry, the availability of those skills in Western Australia and, where there are gaps, how we can re-train local workers with these skills as quickly as possible.

Performed well, this review should be a win-win for West Australian businesses and workers. WA businesses will have the skills they need to drive recovery, and local workers will have the skills they need for the jobs that are available.

If this review is to deliver to its potential, it needs industry to engage.  Our understanding is that this will not be a typical government review that takes months, if not years, to complete and is delivered with pages of recommendations and, sometimes, a shelf to sit on.   The aim is for it to be responsive and nimble, providing advice and recommendations to government for implementation as it goes.

If there are positives to be found in the current crisis, the development of a local workforce that fully meets the current and future skills needs of WA industry is one we would all celebrate.

We encourage industry to engage with this important review.