Last week Scott Morrison appeared alongside Donald Trump and Australian billionaire Anthony Pratt at the Pratt paper plant in Wapakoneta, Ohio. Pratt described Morrison as “the Don Bradman of Australian job creation”, quickly telling a befuddled Trump that Bradman was “our Babe Ruth”. “In cricket,” added Morrison. “Oh, wow,” replied the president, “sounds pretty good”.
This morning, news has broken that, shortly before this trip, Trump asked Morrison to help in an investigation to discredit the Mueller inquiry into Russian interference. The official Australian government response: “[we have] always been ready to assist”.
It’s fair to say there hasn’t been a close relationship between a US president and an Australian prime minister since George W. Bush let John Howard sit at the cool kids’ table. Obama and Rudd were amicable, but both men were shackled to the disastrous policies of the Bush era and the burdensome obligations therein. Since then, our revolving door of prime ministers has made it difficult for a real relationship to blossom. The heady romance sparked by Curtin and MacArthur has degenerated into a Tinder-like loop of matching and unmatching.
Turnbull was infamously bagged out by Trump over the phone, after our US ambassador Joe Hockey requested Trump’s phone number from golf legend and Trump buddy Greg Norman. There was always a tragi-farce element to the Turnbull-Trump relationship; Trump being anathema to Turnbull’s brand of hepcat neoliberalism. But with Trump and ScoMo, we may finally have a pairing as grimly suitable as Axl Rose fronting AC/DC. These two things together just make sense — for better or worse.
Morrison and Trump overlap in many uncomfortable ways. Their love of the private sector, and nationalistic and racist political agendas are nothing new for two conservative leaders. Both take pride in policies that see asylum seekers and their children locked up in detention facilities, and both take further pride in the fact that their base absolutely adores said policies. They are men continuing narratives that they did not begin, but are happy to revel in, and even happier to take credit for.
What binds these two men together in an essential way is their status as flukes or, as they’ve branded it, outsiders.
Both their critics and their fans agree that these men should not be where they are, but there they are, being there. If you’re a critic, both appear as abominations within systems designed to keep said abominations out. Neither were expected to win their respective elections, but they did, comfortably. Both set off varying degrees of hand-wringing — be it as existential dread, or Pentecostal praise. Both, somehow, miraculously, obscured the fact that they were inevitabilities in their respective countries.
Our nations’ unique brands of neo-conservatism have been winding steadily down a road of far-right discourse and politicking. Trump is formed by 50 years of GOP radicalism and American decline, a corpulent cartoon character with a fistful of fillet-o-fish and a headful of Fox News. Morrison is a puppet in the mould of Rattus the Rat, stitched together by white Australia’s unchecked bigotry and malformed jingoism. They are both, in essence, hollow men, containing only the collected scraps of their nation’s dark hearts.
This is not, however, the key to making the relationship “work”, so to speak. Like his role model, Howard, Morrison has proven that he understands the base nature of his relationship with the US president. The Australian self-image often prevents us for seeing this for what it truly is. Our pride won’t allow us to frame the US-Aus relationship as anything other than a buddy-cop film. But, since Bush, the buddy cop bonanza has made way for the escaped con caper: we aren’t so much joined at the hip to America as we are shackled at the ankle. It’s keep up or lose a foot, as ScoMo knows.
What Howard and now ScoMo both instinctively understand is that Australia’s relationship with America, and thus the prime minister’s to the president, is one of subservience. It is a pantomime of bowing and scraping that reflects both our self-assuredness as to where we stand in the world, and our indecisiveness. Trump, like Bush, enjoys the company of lesser men, and ScoMo, like Howard, is all too willing to oblige him.
And so the prime minister assure the president Australia is “ready to assist” and he flies to Wapakoneta, Ohio, to tour a box factory. No one in the crowd but the Auspol wonks has ever heard of Prime Minister Scott Morrison or Don Bradman, but if Trump likes him, they like him. It doesn’t matter if the boxes get filled with candy, it doesn’t matter if they get filled with nails, it doesn’t matter if they’re assembled in Flint, Michigan. What matters is the box Trump and ScoMo are in, and their tacit agreement to never think outside it.