The implications for Australia of the forthcoming presidential election in the United States are not restricted to foreign policy. Due to the nature of global information distribution, the way ideas have become borderless and boundless, and the cultural influence that the U.S. has in Australia, there are serious domestic concerns as well. The norms that President Donald Trump shifts as the core of the Republican Party — and those his party allows him to shift — are highly influential on the Liberal Party in Australia. This is creating pressures that could bring similar political instability from the United States into Australian politics.
One of Trump’s legacies will be the ideological shifts that he has inspired in conservative parties worldwide. While this will include the abandonment of both fusionism and neoconservatism as the driving ideologies of these parties’ domestic and foreign policies, most concerning is how his own instinctive suspicion of liberal democracy and his authoritarian impulses are also infecting these parties. Trump’s disdain for the rule of law, hostility toward the media, and his incessant self-servitude are establishing a model for other politicians to emulate. With each outrage he generates it makes the next outrage less outrageous. Were he to win a second term his behavior is likely to escalate, and his model of chaotic and hostile politics will become even more attractive to like-minded parties outside the United States.
The Republican Party itself, with its enabling of Trump, its move to embrace wild conspiracy theories, and its increasingly open flirtation with white nationalism, has now become an “anti-system party” — combative toward the country’s constitution and its system of government. This behavior marks the party as no longer a “conservative” party, but a radical one, and with its outsized influence on the Liberal Party this makes it more difficult for Australia to conserve its own liberal democracy.
However, it should be stressed that the Liberal Party is not in the same degraded state as the Republican Party. It still has a number of responsible actors in senior positions, and Australia’s democratic institutions place greater restraints on party behavior. Yet you can see the same flammable forces that have overwhelmed the Republican Party eating away at the Liberal Party. The dominance of negative identity politics — the politics of whom you are against — in public discourse, the creeping hostility toward expertise, and the hysterical flailing against the modern world are features some Liberal politicians exhibit. In addition is the incessant noise from media outlets that cheer for the party, who are desperate to try to pull the party into their chaotic world.
This approach to politics may have a successful model in Trump. However, unlike in the United States there is no path to electoral victory in Australia by rousing up a “base” and suppressing everyone else. The country’s compulsory voting nullifies this tactic. This makes the importing of political tactics from the United States that are reliant on the U.S. democratic model self-defeating. Yet what will be concerning for Australia is if the psychological satisfaction of Trumpian politics starts to outweigh electoral rewards. When a major party gives up on trying to engage with the broader public, and instead seeks to ferment distrust and unease with the democratic system, then the country has a serious problem.
There are signs that this is starting to occur in the Victorian branch of the Liberal Party. Part of Australia’s success in regard to the COVID-19 pandemic — bar a recent spike in cases — has been the non-partisan way that federal and state leaders have mostly worked together to address the issue as a public health crisis, not a partisan political game. Yet, it was reported recently in the Australian Financial Review that the Victorian Liberal Party is considering replacing its current leader because he isn’t feisty enough in his criticism of the Labor Party state premier on issues concerning the pandemic. The party took these agitated tactics to the last election in 2018 and experienced a resounding defeat. But it seems that the psychological rewards of these identity politics are now being deemed more important than winning elections.
Part of this psychological satisfaction may even come from losing elections. Driving much of Trump’s politics and that of other like minded movements is a sense that the world has left their supporters behind, that they no longer see themselves in the cultures they inhabit. Their belligerent politics is an expression of that anxiety. This is why these parties frequently behave like opposition parties even when they are in power, because they see cultural power as more consequential than political power. If they are unable to win elections it consolidates their sense of outsider solidarity.
Donald Trump has a unique personality that drives his destructive impulses, and it would be almost impossible to replicate his traits. But he can plant seeds of disturbance and confusion in Australia. His current attempts to undermine the voting system in the U.S. can sow suspicion toward Australia’s own independent electoral commission. The QAnon conspiracy theory, which is effectively a Trump cult, has its local adherents down under, creating a domestic terrorist threat in Australia.
These are not things that the Australian government should take lightly. If Trump wins a second term, the Liberal Party will need to make some serious decisions about whether it sees the norms Trump breaks and the culture he has created as opportunities to pursue or critical dilemmas to guard against.