If Donald Trump secures the Republican nomination and wins the U.S. presidential election in 2024, what could that mean for Australia: for our regional security, our political culture, our democracy? How likely is it, anyway? And with that possibility looming, what should we start thinking about and doing now?
These are the questions that Bruce Wolpe set out to answer in his recently released book, “Trump’s Australia.”
Mr. Wolpe, who has worked both as a senior adviser to Henry A. Waxman, Democrat of California and former U.S. House member, and as the chief of staff to former Prime Minister Julia Gillard, spoke to The Times about what could lie ahead. This interview has been edited and condensed.
In your book, you write that the possibility of a Trump presidency in 2024 raises an existential question for Australia. The way you put it is: “Does Australia want to stay in an alliance with the dis-United States under Trump?” Can you unpack that?
If Trump becomes president again, there are two classes of issues. There’s the whole agenda on foreign policy, economic policy, trade, international institutions, values. Things that Trump stands for and will prosecute — and they have to be managed.
But underneath that is something which I think gets to an existential issue in the U.S.-Australian alliance: If Trump sends troops into the streets to promote and protect “law and order,” if he starts arresting journalists, if he refuses to obey laws passed by Congress, if he refuses to obey orders of the U.S. Supreme Court, if he intervenes in elections and overturn the results of elections — if he engages in that pattern of activity, those would be the first steps of the beginning of the end of America’s democracy as we know it.
Australia is associated and aligned with the U.S. because they share certain values: liberty, freedom, human rights, democracy, the rule of law. If the U.S. no longer stands for those things, what is Australia aligned with and why? That has enormous implications for Australia’s standing in this region and what it does globally, and it’s something that I think we have to start thinking about.
How likely do you think it is that Mr. Trump will win the 2024 U.S. election?
I think his chances for the nomination today are over 50 percent. I think his chances for election are less than 50 percent.
There are two things which really temper his prospects for being elected again. The first one is just his raw extremism — I think most Republican voters can live with it, but most of the rest of the country cannot.
The major driver of the election will be the economy and the economic outlook. I think right now, Biden feels that if you look over the horizon, inflation is receding, interest rates may be on the verge of coming down, job growth is strong, employment is strong. If there is a rising economic tide, that will lift the presidential vote. But if things go badly economically, that is Trump territory.
What implications would a second Trump term have on security in the Indo-Pacific?
I think Trump feels most strongly about trade and making sure that America’s trade relationships with China favor the U.S. Trump has a much less robust affinity for security arrangements that the U.S. has in the Pacific and Asia-Pacific. He was within an hour of signing a piece of paper on his desk to remove all United States troops from South Korea. He has complained about the cost to the U.S. of having troops and bases in Japan.
One scenario: Trump sees that he can get an immense trade deal of benefit to the U.S. And maybe President Xi Jinping of China says, “The Quad and AUKUS agreement that the U.S. is part of — I don’t really like that very much. It’s a threat to me. Let’s just diminish the profile and engagement on those two entitles.”
And then of course, with Taiwan — does Trump, in order to get trade and to reduce America’s profile in the Asia Pacific, say to President Xi: “I understand your aspirations for Taiwan, and I’m not going to be a major obstacle for those to being fulfilled. I don’t want war. I don’t want you to do anything horrific. But I don’t want to be an obstacle.”
For me, that’s one scenario that could develop.
How does Australia safeguard its interests in the face of that possibility?
This is what all these senior officials from both parties in across both countries said: It’s in Australia’s interests to erect and deploy a commanding posture of engagement in the Asia Pacific, to have deeper strategic engagement across the region, find partners, have high-quality trade deals, strengthen Australia’s independent relations with countries throughout Asia. More foreign aid, and more assets in Washington to manage that side of the equation.
And that is actually happening. That has been exactly the road that Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Foreign Minister Penny Wong have been on since this government came to power.
You write about how a Trump-like figure couldn’t succeed in Australian politics in the same way he has in the U.S. Can you speak to that?
Before I started writing the book, I observed that things would happen in America and people here would get really afraid this was going to happen here. Could we have some extremist like Trump lead the country?
The answer is absolutely not. Australia has guardrails that I think many Americans wish they had.
First and foremost, no blow-in like Trump could become prime minister. To be prime minister, you have to be the head of the majority party in the House of Representatives. So you can’t have an outsider come in and just win some support somewhere and become the leader of the country.
Number two, compulsory voting means that extremists never win. Issues like guns or abortion are so powerful in the U.S. because they are such a driver of voting participation. Gun owners are among the most avid voters. When you have compulsory voting, it means that it’s always going to land center-left or center-right. It means that minorities cannot control the direction of the country on important issues.
But has Trumpism, to some extent, seeped into our political discourse?
It seems that things that Trump says seeps into the debate. Politicians now talk about fake news. They never did that before. Pauline Hanson suddenly stands up in the Senate and she doesn’t like the “Welcome to Country” that greets the Senate every day. So there are these echoes of extremism that comes from Trump that leach into the environment in Australia, and politicians pick them up and mimic them.
During the last Australian election, Prime Minister Morrison’s candidate, Ms. Katherine Deves, ran on a huge anti-trans agenda. It’s taken off in America. There are dozens of bills introduced in dozens of states across the U.S. to that are really anti-trans, anti-gay. But that doesn’t happen in Australia. She was badly beaten in the last election.
So we hear it, but we don’t follow it. And I think that’s a tribute to the strength of Australia’s political culture and its resilience.
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