Over the last few decades, Australian politics seems to have
become more like that of the United States. Politics in this country was once
several degrees to the left of America, with the Labor party advocating
socialism – and proposing extensive government ownership of business
enterprises. However, in both countries the progressive side of politics is now
focused on an environmental and affirmative action agenda, while the conservative
side seeks to moderate those tendencies. Both sides seek to appeal, in different
ways, to aspirations of people for higher material standards of living.
That was how it was before Trumpism came to America. Viewed
from this side of the Pacific, American politics seems to have taken a bizarre
twist. Given that Australians tend to follow social and political trends in America,
does that mean we are also destined to experience Trumpism?
Before attempting to answer that question, it seems
important to clarify the nature of Trumpism.
Salvatore makes the point that populism and authoritarianism
are polar opposite strategies for political legitimation:
“Populists appeal to the innate common sense of ordinary people,
while authoritarians appeal to tradition and the prestige of established
Salvatore is not particularly flattering to former President
Trump. He refers to Trump as a narcissist, in making the point that “you can’t
be an authoritarian when the only authority you recognize is yourself”. He also
refers to Trump as “a paranoid populist with a persecution complex”.
Salvatore claimed, “Trump will never be a hero to anyone but
himself”. That assessment now seems to have been wide of the mark in the light
of the extent of ongoing support for Trump, despite his unwillingness to accept
the result of the 2020 presidential election. Trump now commands a sizeable
support base of people who love him, view him as a source of truth and wisdom,
and seek to please him. Trumpism seems to have developed into a personality
cult, in some respects like Peronism.
It is important to remember that, like members of other
cults, Trumpists are guided by moral impulses. They may be misguided, but most
of them are good people.
The development of the Trump cult seems to be partly
attributable to echo chambers in the social media (discussed here)
but I think it is more strongly attributable to demonization of Trump within
mainstream media. Trump attracted populist support by attacking the consensus
wisdom of the expert class and disparaging anyone who disagreed with him. His
opponents responded in kind by suggesting he is as an ignorant buffoon, bully,
and admirer of tyrants. Trump’s strongest supporters have come to love him
because they think he is unfairly maligned for expressing views they endorse.
The strength of the Trump cult is evident in its impact on
the behavior of many conservative politicians. Until recently, American
conservatives have had a well-deserved reputation of being principled supporters
of the U.S. Constitution and the federal system of government. Nevertheless,
many leading conservatives, who have hitherto been opponents of judicial
activism, supported the unsuccessful efforts of Texas to have the Supreme Court
overturn the presidential election results of Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan,
and Wisconsin, on the grounds of procedural irregularities.
If those efforts had succeeded, the implications would have
been far-reaching. John Yoo, an American legal scholar, has noted
that “under Texas’s theory, any state could have sued any other in any
presidential or federal midterm election over irregular procedures”. If the
Supreme Court justices had been inclined to put political loyalties above legal
principle, they would have undermined the federalism that is integral to the
process of electing American presidents.
The strength of the Trump cult is also evident in the efforts
of some conservative politicians in challenging the Electoral College votes
when they were formally opened before a joint session of both housed of
Congress on January 6. Those antics had no chance of succeeding. They only make
sense in terms of pandering to Trump and his support base.
It is evident that Trump’s bizarre behavior following the
election has opened up a deep rift within the Republican party between those who
have regard to the Constitution and the conventions associated with orderly
transfer of power following elections, and those who set no limit to the
lengths they would go in pandering to the Trump cult. At the forefront of the
first category is Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who supported
Trump’s efforts to challenge the election results, but recognized Joe Biden as
President-elect after the Electoral College confirmed that he had won the
election. The latter category includes Senator Ted Cruz, who apparently still
has presidential aspirations.
Looking ahead, an association with Trump and his support
base is likely to be an ongoing electoral liability for the Republican party.
Trump’s ability to get his supporters to cast a vote is more than offset by his
apparent inability to avoid provoking other people to vote against him. Conservative
politicians who oppose Trump will continue to be punished by the Trump cult.
The electoral future for the Republicans seems no more promising
even if Trump leaves to form his own Patriots party. His electoral support is likely
to be great enough to enable him to split the conservative vote and enable
Democrats to win more contests.
Could a conservative populist wreak havoc in Australian
I don’t think it would make sense to argue that Australians
differ from Americans in fundamental ways that would make it impossible for something
like Trumpism to happen here. I don’t have data on this, but it would not
surprise me if the proportion of the population who think expert policy advisors
ad career politicians have too much influence on government is as high in
Australia as it is in America.
Over the years, a substantial number of Australian
politicians have advanced their careers by thumbing their noses at the “ruling
class” of politicians and expert policy advisors. It would not be beyond the
realm of possibility for a person with such views to become prime minister of
Australia. As I noted
several years ago, former prime minister, John Howard was viewed as an outsider
by the ruling class of policy advisors in Canberra. However, Howard was a
career politician and could not be described as a populist.
The important point to note is that if a Trump-like populist
was elected prime minister of Australia, she or he would not last more than a
few months with popularity ratings as low as those
of Donald Trump throughout most of his presidency. Australian prime
ministers are elected by parliamentarians, and do not last long if they appear
incapable of winning the next election. It is a desirable attribute of the
conservative side of Australian politics that parliamentarians are able to
change their leader as frequently as they wish, until they find one that voters
think might be worthy of the role of prime minister for more than a few months.
Australia is fairly safe from Trumpism unless it becomes a
republic, with an elected presidency like that in the United States. Recent events
in the United States have convinced me that Australians would be wise to vote
against any proposal to become a republic with an elected head of state.