Donald Trump

Three deeply discordant notes in sharp succession should serve to illustrate how dangerous for Australia the forces unleashed by toxic nationalism are — especially the variety that is fuel for Donald Trump.

The El Paso murders, perpetrated by a white supremacist motivated by racist myths, has again demonstrated how America — and the world — faces, in the words of the US right-wing bible National Review, “a murderous and resurgent ideology — white supremacy — that deserves to be treated by the authorities in the same manner as has been the threat posed by militant Islam”. Through the cables and nodes of the foul underbelly of the internet, the atrocity links Texas and rural NSW: the El Paso murderer specifically singled out the Christchurch massacre perpetrated by an Australian as inspiration.

Then came Mike Pompeo, the vacuous Koch-brothers plaything masquerading as Secretary of State, a man capable of the impressive feat of making Rex Tillerson look good, and who — like so much of the Trump administration — makes us actually long for the good old days of the Dubya administration where the evil manifest in Washington at least had, via Cheney and Rumsfeld, substance.

Pompeo engaged in overtly hostile rhetoric toward China while speaking in Australian forums and with Australian ministers, even criticising Australia’s economic links with China along the way. “You can sell your soul for a pile of soy beans, or you can protect your people,” he insisted.

It’s one thing to crystallise Australia’s ongoing strategic challenge of reconciling its economic interests with China and its strategic partnership with the US — something we’d prefer not to do, because it suggests a choice is necessary. But it’s another thing to bake it into a lump of glass and start clubbing us with it, as Pompeo did. From his/Trump’s perspective, there’s no need for a choice — both economic and strategic policy involve attacking China, and while we done good on Huawei, Trump is a “what have you done for me lately” kinda guy.

That led to the third discordant note, with sharemarkets tanking on a new outbreak of Trump’s trade war, this time on the currency front with China devaluing the yuan. Whatever legitimate grievances the Americans had with China on trade are rapidly being forgotten as both sides engage in the traditional protectionist ritual of seeing who can punch themselves in the face harder.

The ASX 200 ended yesterday 1.9% down, with more carnage expected today in the wake of the Dow Jones falling nearly 3%. The turbulence now has its own index for traders to finger their worry beads about, the “Cboe Volatility Index”. This all translates into long-term losses for any Australia with a super fund, which is most of us, despite fund managers spending July celebrating another year of strong returns.

The reflexive tendency of many, especially progressives, is to blame all three things on Trump. He is openly racist, and enthusiastically encourages racism among his supporters. And confrontation with China is, along with his fiscally disastrous tax cuts, his only big economic idea, even as it inflicts serious economic damage on US producers and manufacturers.

But Trump is merely the exploiter of a deeper problem of the raging tribalism that has emerged over the last three years and which threatens to dominate western politics for years — perhaps decades — to come. That tribalism, while fanned and enabled by unregulated social media platforms, was created by the reaction against neoliberalism and its obsession with open borders, basing individual worth purely on economic value, handing power to corporations and removing any role for government in the economy, except where it might serve the interests of corporations.

The violent white supremacism of the Christchurch and El Paso terrorists, and many other murderers, is merely the more extreme end of this tribalism, legitimised by Trump, whose own personal, well-documented racism is merely coincidental. But like violent Islamic fundamentalism, it doesn’t emerge out of nowhere: it provides a narrative, however irrational or false, that speaks to those who feel powerless and without identity or connection, and offers to remedy that, through the bloody assertion of a confected identity.

Our own government likes to have it both ways on these issues. Scott Morrison reportedly urged his colleagues to exploit Islamophobic sentiment and demonised asylum seekers. He denies this and has angrily insisted he’s no racist. The government has boasted of cutting permanent migration and stopping the boats while sending temporary migration numbers soaring, losing control of our onshore humanitarian visa program and allowing virtually unchecked exploitation of temporary migrants, driving down wages. Like Labor, it declares itself a strong supporter of free trade while wasting billions in defence protectionism and an anti-dumping regime that imposes huge costs on Australian industries.

Just weeks after Morrison declared, with the enthusiasm of a new-born neoliberal, that a new era of business-led deregulation was upon us, today his government is announcing a dramatic regulatory intervention in the gas market. They’re the contortions of policymakers still glued to neoliberalism while panicking about its political consequences. And the biggest consequences of all are coming from a United States unhinged from global norms and fragmenting into bitter tribalism.

How should Australia navigate these tricky waters? Write to with your thoughts and your full name.