How Trumpism changed Australia and the shocking consequences for us of a second term
Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2023
Australia’s location means that the first thing we often hear or see in the morning is about what happened overnight in US politics. And it likely includes the word Trump.
Bruce Wolpe, a Senior Fellow at the US Studies Centre in Sydney, is well placed to write about on politics in his native US and in Australia. A dual citizen now residing in Australia, he grew up in Washinton DC, worked there for the Democratic Party, and was chief of staff for former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard. He was also an executive at Fairfax Media for several years.
While Wolpe sees great danger to US democracy in a second Trump presidency, he says Australia’s political culture and institutions should protect our country from some of the worst excesses of a second Trump administration. He sees trade and foreign policy, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region, as two of the greatest flashpoints.
While this is a serious study of political culture in the US and Australia, it’s not without lighter moments, such as when Wolpe raises the intriguing prospect of what a re-elected Trump might say to the current Australian prime minister.
Wolpe is a strong supporter of Australia’s system of government and our ‘gold standard’ electoral system. He sees the Australian Electoral Commission’s staunch independence and the system of compulsory voting – or more accurately, mandatory attendance at a polling booth – as a deterrent to extremists coming to power.
The influence of media is a key theme in this book, and as a former Australian media executive, Wolpe is well qualified to comment. He sees an independent and properly funded ABC as a bulwark against the Trump’s ‘war on mainstream media’ and the influence of US Trumpist media such as Fox .
Wolpe quotes other scholars and observers extensively. For me, as a former journalist., one of the most interesting quotes is from Blair Levin, formerly of the US Federal Communication Commission, who argues that Fox enabled Trump.
‘Fox’s great insight wasn’t necessarily that there was a great desire for a conservative point of view. The genius was seeing that there’s an attraction to fear-based, anger-based politics that has to do with class and race … [Rupert] Murdoch didn’t invent Trump, but he invented the audience. Murdoch was going to make a Trump exist. Then Trump comes along, sees all these people, and says “I’ll be the ringmaster of your circus!” ‘
Wolpe describes Trump as a ‘double-barrelled authoritarian’, who uses authoritarian means to undercut democracy, and also uses the tools of democracy to bury it. He poses the dilemma of how to ethically report on such a person, quoting a former president of the White House Correspondents Association, Jonathan Karl:
‘How to you cover a candidate who is effectively anti-democratic? How do you cover a candidate who is running both against whoever the Democratic candidate is but also running against the very democratic system that makes all of this possible?’
Interestingly, Wolpe does not see the Fox counterpart in Australia, Sky News, as an existential threat to democracy in Australia, pointing out that the latter has small audiences and has been spectacularly unsuccessful in trying to influence elections in Victoria and NSW. H also points out that many Australians are concerned about American democracy, including the prospect of political violence in the US.
He also raises the question of whether Australia would remain committed to a close alliance with a Trump-led nation of ‘disunited states’ which was no longer committed to democracy, free trade and international institutions.
There is risk with any book about contemporary politics that some things can date quickly. For example, while the book suggests that a successful Republican presidential candidate other than Trump could pose less of a threat to the US-Australia alliance, Wolpe now believes that Ron DeSantis, formerly a credible Republican candidate, has no chance against Trump. He believes that the only way to stop Trump is at the ballot box.
When I asked if there will be a follow-up book, Wolpe replied, ‘Well we’ll see what happens next year. There could be a second edition. I hope Trump is defeated and then that puts me out of the book business. I think that would be great, – a small sacrifice to make on behalf of the nation. I’m very happy to do it’.
Thank you to Allen and Unwin for the opportunity to read and review this book, and for arranging a fascinating interview with Bruce Wolpe.