scott morrison donald trump state dinner G20
(Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

As Americans wince at the smouldering wreckage of the Trump presidency, many in Australia chuckle nervously. Surely, we tell ourselves, this couldn’t happen here?

Conventional wisdom has always said no. A lack of open primaries and a compulsory voting system that pushes politics toward the centre makes the chances of a bombastic demagogue storming to the Lodge seem unlikely in the foreseeable future.

Populists, the story goes, have tried and failed here. Pauline Hanson’s race-baiting has been a feature in Australian political life since the 1990s, yet One Nation holds power nowhere. Clive Palmer tried shitposting and multi-million dollar scare campaigns but remains little more than a very, very rich troll.

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But in 2021, Trumpism has mushroomed into a force far bigger than the figure leaving the Oval Office next week. It’s a politics built on hostility to truth, rage against perceived enemies, and making progressives mad at all costs.

It’s enabled by online disinformation and media outlets which peddle the same outright racist lies. And it’s become eagerly adopted by the right across the world. Trumpism is no longer the ramblings of a suspended Twitter user, but the lifeblood of modern conservatism.

And looking across the political landscape in Australia, it’s hard not to conclude that Trumpism is already here.

The conservative lifeblood

This story begins long before Trump descended a golden escalator in 2015 and began his quest for the presidency.

After the Berlin Wall fell, once neoliberal capitalism had become so dominant that it was dogma even for centre-left parties in the West, the right faced something of a dilemma. Where do you go when you’re tired of winning? When the right looked bereft of ideas, when neoliberalism was fraying at the edges, Trumpian populism turned up with a brutally effective solution.

Your lives might be shit, Trump said, but here, I’ll give you an outlet for your rage. We might be working to line the pockets of our super rich friends and family while you toil away working four different de-unionised jobs in the gig economy, but here’s why you should direct that hatred towards Democrats, China, Muslims, immigrants and Antifa instead.

Trump made people feel good about themselves. And he gave conservative politics, for too long the terrain of khaki-wearing careerists and Bible-bashing dorks, a sense of fun and energy.

Even now there’s something oddly exhilarating about going back over the 2016 Republican primaries and watching him steamroll party hacks like Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush. In public, many sensible conservatives expressed revulsion at the spectacle. Privately, they started to warm to it. Then Trump won.

By the end of his historically awful presidency (no president before him has ever been impeached twice), Trump still commands a 78% approval rating among Republican voters. Sure, 10 GOP reps voted for impeachment. And yet, after last week’s Capitol riots it was only 10. The GOP remains his party.

And yet, despite this historical awfulness, it’s hard to think of a Republican president since Ronald Reagan who’s had such a profound ideological influence on the trajectory of the modern right. Trumpian conservatism has no answer to the greatest challenges of our time: in denial about the climate crisis and uninterested in stopping millions dying of COVID-19.

Instead, Trump simply offers more bluster and reaction. A heating planet, a pandemic, a broken economy seem less important than triggering the left. Trump has dragged conservatism in America to an incredibly nihilistic place. And around the world, many on the right have come along with him.

A visit to last year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, an off-Broadway Australian version of the main program in the US, was an instructive look at just how Trumpian conservative politics has become over here.

As results trickled in from Florida, a series of Sky News Australia pundits, YouTubers and LNP politicians spent the day screeching about the left, political correctness gone mad, transgender children and cultural Marxism.

No mention of climate change, except to make fun of the few Liberals who believed in it. No mention of COVID-19, except to get mad about lockdowns and “Dictator Dan”. Plenty of time making fun of progressives while the world burned.

Such people are easily dismissed as the fringe. But they included Australia’s formerly most popular radio broadcaster, a former opposition leader, plenty of sitting MPs, and columnists at national newspapers.

Look beyond the normies in Canberra and that style of Trumpian politics is pumping through the veins of Australian conservatism.

In Queensland, the LNP is perpetually on the brink of takeover by an army of “Christian soldiers”. The ACT Young Liberals semi-ironically passed a motion calling for far right pundits Candace Owens and Ben Shapiro to be Republican nominees in 2024. The Young Nationals was branch-stacked by neo-Nazis.

The line separating an increasingly revved up, Trump-obsessed base and the Coalition government is now paper-thin. It might well be non-existent.

A Trump-curious party

When Prime Minister Scott Morrison finally spoke out about last week’s storming of the US Capitol, he chose his words carefully.

“The riots and protests we’ve seen in Washington DC have been terribly distressing. They’re very concerning,” he said.

There was no room for condemnation of Trump, who’d egged on the rioters. But what remains on the record was Morrison’s glowing description of Trump from last year — “a strong leader who says what he’s going to do and then goes and does it”.

Through Trump’s four years in the White House, as he lauded white supremacists, pissed all over the conventions of the office and contributed to the deaths of thousands of Americans during the pandemic, the Coalition government has been loathe to criticise. Even post-riot, as Republicans with far more at stake cynically jumped from the sinking ship, Liberal MPs seem more distressed by the president’s Twitter ban.

We can chalk some of this deference down to history, geopolitics and the ANZUS alliance. But a more obvious conclusion is that many in the Liberal party, and the right more broadly like what they see.

They like that he’s a strong leader who brushes aside his political opponents and says what he likes with no consequence. They like that he pitched himself as the voice of a disgruntled America ignored by pundits and progressives, the “quiet Australians” of the midwest. They like that he’s funny.

And they like a lot of what he actually achieved in office. A massive tax cut transferring billions into the pockets of America’s richest families. Stacking the courts and the public service with conservative ideologues. All pretty consistent with the Liberal Party’s agenda under Morrison.

On the fringes of the Coalition, they make no apology for their love of Trump. Craig Kelly, in hot water this week for consistently flogging the same fake COVID-19 cures as the president, constantly rails against what he calls “Trump Derangement Syndrome”.

But there’s a more subtle, insidious manifestation of Trumpian influence in the Coalition party room that goes beyond the unhinged ramblings of the “Facebook uncle caucus”.

See, Trump would have gotten nowhere without his enablers; sycophantic Republicans who swallowed their principles and did his bidding, even when everyone knew he was a bigoted misogynist dragging the presidency through the mud.

Those Republicans have spent years doing very public mental gymnastics to make Trump seem very reasonable. It’s Ivy League-educated senators like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley backing Trump’s attempts to overturn the unequivocal results of the 2020 election as rioters stormed the Capitol because… something about the Constitution?

Sure some of this was pragmatic politics by cynical men and women who crave power and who saw riding Trump’s coat-tails as the means to an end. But some of it was also because they liked a lot of what they saw and did. At this point, is there really any difference?

Either way, a key tactic Trump’s enablers used to maintain the cosplay of being reasonable Republicans who cared deeply for the country and institutions they were helping the president torch was through concern-trolling and whataboutism.

It’s the frequent railing about the Antifa threat while real fascists committed murder on American streets. It’s the absurd pretence that the president was doing something about a pandemic when he continued to let it kill and maim. Republicans claiming to not know, or care, about QAnon rotting the brains of their supporters.

There’s a similar sense of cynical enablement and false equivalence that is on display when Australian conservatives deal with Trump, and the far right more generally.

Consider the way so many Coalition MPs have suddenly become very worried about the Twitter ban and not the attempted coup. Or how Michael McCormack spent the week comparing the insurrectionists with the people marching for racial justice, and using the term “All Lives Matter” now a common refrain among those on the reactionary right used by people who oppose black Americans telling police not to kill them. McCormack probably knows the significance of the phrase — after all, his own party voted against it in the Senate last year.

And that’s just the last four days. Time and again, Australia’s conservatives have had a chance to distance themselves from the dark places where Trump has dragged the right.

Time and again they have laundered and legitimised. During the Trump years, the far right has been emboldened around the world. The most horrifying example of that was when an Australian man murdered 51 Muslims in Christchurch last year. The response from the Coalition remains shockingly illuminating. Morrison spent the week after the attack mumbling platitudes and threatening to sue Waleed Aly. Peter Dutton said the Greens were also bad.

Every time ASIO warns about the ever-growing threat of right-wing extremism, he and other Coalition MPs whinge about how the term is offensive to conservatives, rather than grapple with the substance of a very real danger to the lives of Australians.

It doesn’t really matter now whether a Trump could get elected here. Because he’s already changed the face of modern conservatism. He’s already showed that many on the right will look at racism, disinformation, the flagrant destruction of institutions and merely shrug.

Faced with a Trump test, the Coalition followed the example of the president’s most spineless Republican enablers, held their noses, and jumped into the cesspit. Many of them liked it there.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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