Oh no, Donald Trump doesn’t understand the United States constitution! Images are evoked of King Kong atop the Empire State Building swatting biplanes in flagrant disregard of aviation safety regulations. The Trumpmonster, capitalism’s bastard child, will destroy the institutions of democracy because he wasn’t concentrating during civics in primary school.
Uh … I don’t think so. Trump’s doing what Trumps do, what he’s been doing all along. He’s very very good at it. And, with his sudden tweet of doom for putative American flag-burners, he’s interestingly copying our own closest approximation to a political Donald — the celebrity National Party nativist George Christensen.
Trump caused apoplexy among American constitutionalists with a single tweet in which he blithely trampled on not one but two sacred rights: freedom of speech and citizenship.
Specifically, Donald tweeted:
Oddly, nobody seems to have picked up on the most bizarre feature of this particular tweet from the President-elect: it is grammatically correct. No “Horrible!” or “Sad!”, no adjectives at all actually. This tweet might have been Trump’s idea, but I bet he didn’t type it.
This call to action is deliberate, calibrated and wickedly clever. Trump almost certainly knows, and definitely doesn’t care, that the US Supreme Court has comprehensively squelched any suggestion that an American’s citizenship can be taken away against their will. And it has made it 100% clear that burning, stepping on or otherwise desecrating an American flag is an act of free expression, fully protected by the First Amendment. What Trump suggested cannot happen by legal means, not that he gives a crap either way.
Of course, while we’re all watching the hand that’s waving the burning flag, the real action is taking place in the subliminal recesses of the national brain.
Before we get to what’s really going down here, the parallel between Trump’s latest distraction and some prescient antics of our own colourful Christensen is quite compelling.
It was back in February this year that Christensen introduced the Flags Amendment (Protecting Australian Flags) Bill 2016 to federal Parliament, which would criminalise the acts of defacing, defiling, damaging, destroying, desecrating, dishonouring, mutilating, burning or trampling upon an Australian flag. Evidently the thesaurus had been given a workout; not so much the dictionary, since that list of offences would comfortably outlaw most of the uses to which the national flag tends to be put every Australia Day.
Claiming that flag-burning is an act of hate speech against Aussies and calling on section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act in head-spinningly ironic support, Christensen planted his Southern Cross be-thonged feet firmly in the sand of nativist idiosyncrasy and declared war on the “self-proclaimed elite”, which apparently loves nothing better than a good flag burning. Ah, the elite. This was February, remember, for those who still think the Prime Minister isn’t raiding the right-wing language cupboard for his talking points these days.
No coincidence lies in the fact that Christensen self-consciously plays the part of Australian politics’ big buffoon. Cory Bernardi scares children in supermarkets, but Big George is our cuddlesome friend. A bit eccentric, and you wouldn’t let him near the barbecue unsupervised, but excellent lazy afternoon entertainment.
Of course, nobody thinks George will ever get close to the gun cupboard. Just like they used to think that Donald would be happy playing with the car keys and not actually work out how to unlock the car.
Fools, the fools have played us for fools. And now, one of them having played his way to the throne, the game just goes on. Why call out flag burning? So that flags will be burned. Which, sure enough, is exactly what happened outside Trump Tower the same day. What’d I tell you, says Trump, they’re burning flags. This freedom stuff has gone too far.
And here’s the really interesting thing. Trump obviously doesn’t care about the law, but the law will prevent him from breaching a long list of protected freedoms by any other than illegal means. Meaning, his administration will have to engage in overtly unconstitutional acts if he ever really wants to take the autocratic path.
No such thing in Australia. Christensen’s bill can become law here by parliamentary vote, with a good chance of surviving legal challenge. We have the wafer-thin protection of the implied constitutional freedom of communication on government and political matters. As the High Court repeatedly says, it is not a right; we have no right to free speech or association.
America has proven more vulnerable to demagoguery than anyone imagined, and nobody knows where Trumpism will take it from here. Australia may like to think that we’re smarter than that. We’re not, in truth, but there is one big difference between us and them: their constitution was designed to protect against the worst impulses of executive government. Ours merely assumes that the government will restrain itself. In the world towards which we’re moving, that won’t do.