Early in the first full month of his Presidency, Donald Trump held a phone conversation with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull during which the two got into a heated argument over an Obama era “refugee swap” agreement which Trump sought to withdraw from. After multiple phone calls with world leaders, Trump described his conversation with Turnbull as “the worst ever”.
Turnbull and his political allies in Australia’s centre-right Liberal party clearly represented the left wing of the party. Turnbull’s legacy is therefore clearly one of a politician who represents a brand of centrist politics that is increasingly out of step with the growing strength of the Australian right. As Australian leadership challenges have become a regular occurrence in the Liberal Party, the right wing of the party pounced on Turnbull when Peter Dutton challenge the incumbent for the party’s leadership. While Dutton failed in his effort to oust Turnbull, a fellow conservative Scott Morrison succeeded and is now the new Prime Minister of Australia while Dutton has been rewarded with his appointment as the new Minister for Home Affairs, thus signalling an unambiguous right turn in the Australian government.
It is no coincidence that one of the things things Morrison did upon assuming office was invite Donald Trump to Australia. This contrasts sharply with the touch and go relationship Trump had with Morrison’s ousted predecessor. Domestically, Morrison has attacked environmental regulations, pursued a low tax economy and is sympathetic to the growing opposition to refugees/economic migrants from settling in Australia. In all of these respects, Morrison is decidedly more Trump like than Turnbull. While Trump is anything but an Evangelical Christian, Trump remains popular among the US Evangelical base. As a practising Evangelical, Morrison likewise has something else politically in common with Trump.
While Australia’s foreign policy is not likely to change in any significant way under Morrison’s government, domestically, the country will likely move towards the right in areas ranging from approaches to multiculturalism, Aboriginal rights, immigration, climate change, taxation and matters pertaining to cultural liberalism. In all of these areas, it would appear that Donald Trump has a new friend and likely a political ally.
But while Australia’s close relationship with the United States has never been threatened since the controversial ouster of the left-leaning multipolar minded Gough Whitlam in 1975, the fall of Turnbull to his party’s own right wing demonstrates that far from being an anomaly in the majority white English speaking world, Trump is actually a trend setter.
When Donald Trump won the 2016 election in the United States it was commonplace for centrist parties in Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand to describe Trump’s victory as an unfortunate anomaly that is somehow a reflection of the fact the the US is somehow different from Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand in spite of the objective reality that this set of courtiers has far more in common than almost any other set of nations in the wider world.
With Trump like political movements gaining in popularity throughout Europe including in Italy, Hungary, Poland, Australia, Slovenia, Finland and to a degree even in The Netherlands, it is clear that the United States remains a highly influential trend setter even among nations whose local elites tend to look down at the United States because of a “cowboy culture” that those who lean towards a more classically European cultural approach tend to scoff at.
But just as the US has thus far dictated the terms of the trade war with its traditional partners, so too is the phenomenon of Trump helping to shape the political landscape of multiple nations with similar cultures to that of the United States with Australia being the most recent example. Taken in totality, Trump’s populist right-wing approach to domestic politics and related regional issues have become a sign post to the nations that are most closely linked with US culture. The message that Trump’s Presidency has sent out to similar nations is best described as one that subliminally states: “if the US can do it, we can too”.
This has emboldened populist right wing forces throughout not only the white English speaking world but also in Europe to become more outspoken in their rhetoric and more concentrated with winning elections and forming governments where in the years before Trump many of these forces were seemingly contented with being pressure groups that could at times exert influence on centrist parties but rarely hold power on their own.
Because no Australian Prime Minister has served a full term since John Howard’s final period in power which ended in 2007, it is anyone’s guess if Scott Morrison can survive the fate of his most recent predecessors. But while Morrison’s immediate challenge is bringing internal stability to his Liberal party, the fact that he reached the top of Australian politics by riding a conservative wave makes it clear that Donald Trump was not an anomaly after all. He was indeed a trail blazer whose success is now being emulated across multiple countries who cannot escape the political and cultural orbit of the United States.