John Hewson
What Donald Trump’s re-election would mean for Australia

The possibility of Donald Trump being re-elected as president of the United States later this year is surely the most significant geopolitical risk faced by the world, both directly and as a possible ignition of other risks. His most recent speech and subsequent media comments after the Iowa caucuses were of particular concern.

Apparently, neither the Russian invasion of Ukraine nor the Middle East conflict would have happened had he still been president. Trump boasted of the closeness of his relationship with Vladimir Putin and his capacity to “handle him”.

Such a claim is nonsense, of course. His “summit” with Putin during his first term was a farce, simply providing Putin with an opportunity to elevate his global standing as an equal of Trump’s. Moreover, we shouldn’t forget that, if anything, Trump owes Putin, given the convenient leak of the Clinton emails to assist his first campaign. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has recently, and justifiably, expressed his concern about a Trump revival.

Similarly, there is genuine doubt that Trump would have contributed anything positive to the unfolding crisis in the Middle East, given his past controversial interventions, driven by his son-in-law and then senior adviser Jared Kushner, to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and calling for the validation of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, contrary to United Nations resolutions.

If anything, Trump’s return would embolden Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in sustaining the war and make the possibility of a two-state solution even less likely. The actual danger, of course, would be the risk of an expanded US commitment, beyond the supply of weapons, naval support and diplomatic resources delivered by Biden.

More broadly, there is mounting global concern that under a re-elected Trump the US would become more isolationist – the hint, apart from drawing on the evidence of his first term, is in his oft-repeated commitment to “Make America Great Again” and put “America First”, which I fear will become “America Only”.

As pointed out recently by CNN’s Fareed Zakaria and his Global Public Square team, in their Global Briefing, Trump is likely to scrap what has been a bipartisan American position since World War II in favour of his radically different vision of America’s role in the world.

Namely, he would ditch America’s “expansive vision of its own security, one that recognised that it alone could help undergird stability in the key regions of the world”, a global role that had underwritten what historians like to refer to as “the long peace” and the open global economy. Zakaria’s concern is that a retreat from this view could “create power vacuums” and “tempt adversaries … to heighten their ambitions”.

An important case in point is Trump’s attitude towards the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. It will be recalled that Trump regularly disparaged the US’s European allies and NATO. According to John Bolton, his then national security adviser, Trump wanted to pull out of NATO. Zakaria documents comments concerning the difficult consequences for countries such as Sweden and Finland, which joined NATO after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Finland is of particular interest, given the recently signed Defense Cooperation Agreement with the US that gives the US military access to 15 defence installations in Finland, five in the high north near Russia, and permission to store equipment and weapons on Finnish soil. This is being done while Russia persists as a global security threat and would be compounded by the unpredictability of a renewed Trump.

The recent World Economic Forum saw many of the corporate and political elite express wariness about the possible return of Trump. The concern is that probably nobody knows exactly what Trump would do about these global conflicts. On issues such as trade and climate change, he is completely unpredictable.

It is one thing to claim these conflicts would have been avoided if he was still president and to make the arguably delusional claim that he would end these conflicts in 24 hours if re-elected. It is quite another to speculate on exactly what he would do, in the evolving and volatile circumstances, where there is a very real risk of escalation in the Middle East conflict. Trump seems indifferent to the tension caused by Israeli air strikes on Iranian targets in Syria, further strikes in Lebanon, and US-led strikes against Houthi targets in Yemen, claiming defence against attacks on shipping in the region.

The unfolding question is the possible future role of Iran. The inflationary consequences of elevated shipping costs is already capable of stalling the global thrust to lower inflation, with potentially devastating consequences for the global economy. Trump also doesn’t support trade deals, be they multilateral or bilateral.

Another particular concern has been in relation to the Trump-initiated campaign against the baseless “China threat”, which, as we have seen, has already had significant consequences for countries such as ours, with former prime minister Scott Morrison happy to sycophantically do Trump’s bidding on two fronts – in calling for an independent review of the “Wuhan flu” and for China to lose its “developing country” status in the World Trade Organization.

It is now even more concerning for Australia, with Peter Dutton having embraced Trumpism in much of his electoral strategy. This was well documented by Chris Wallace in The Saturday Paper last weekend, centring on Dutton’s strategy in calling for a boycott of Woolworths. Dutton is clearly attempting to emulate the success he enjoyed from his dishonest and racist opposition to the Voice referendum, spreading the misinformation that saw the “No” campaign confuse its way into our history books. Trump-like tactics on full display here.

So far, Dutton has simply been chewing around the edges of the Middle East conflict, attempting to weaponise Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong’s trip to Israel. It’s a difficult strategy, given the significant Muslim communities in key seats Dutton would aspire to win to form government.

Dutton has, as ever, enjoyed strong support from a media disinclined to report facts, especially Sky News. While the calling out of anti-Semitism by some of Sky’s hosts is welcome and important, it would carry more authenticity if some of them hadn’t also been claiming the Voice would create an apartheid state in our country.

I am concerned our governments could be seriously challenged by events that might transpire under a second Trump presidency. Specifically, I am worried about an escalation of the Middle East conflict. I am worried about strife on the Korean peninsula, initiated by an emboldened Kim Jong-un with Chinese and Russian backing. I am also concerned about China’s response to the recent election in Taiwan, most likely to occur during the US election campaign this year.

All these risks would put pressure on us to back the US and Trump aggression, which we should avoid at all costs. Like a Trump government, a Dutton opposition could be expected to be of little assistance to a sensible government response to such challenges.

Perhaps the most astounding aspect of Trump, however, is that he has sustained such voter support. These people manage to ignore both his poor performance in government and the fact he now faces 91 criminal charges, many for attempts to undermine the democratic and legal systems of the US.

Rather than deliver on the MAGA chants, he has mostly contributed to the demise of the global standing of the US. Indeed, to my mind the global challenge is not concern about the rise of China but rather the demise of the US.

I was very critical of Trump’s initial push for the presidency. I could not believe he had the skill set or experience to be an effective president. I argued in several speeches and presentations that he presented as an awkward mix of property developer and reality TV star.

As a property developer, he relied on other people’s money. If a development was successful, he stood to make a hefty profit; if it failed, his backers stood to lose everything. I could find no evidence of his declared skills in “doing deals”. Similarly, his persona as a reality television star bore nothing that would help a president. You can’t run a government by pointing your finger and declaring, “You’re fired!”

Hence his first term was among the worst in US history – divisive, hateful, without any empathy for those he left behind. The public service was disillusioned, America’s standing in the world rapidly deteriorated. That’s saying something, especially given the very poor performance of George W. Bush.

Having lost his second election fair and square, despite his monumental efforts at voter suppression, even up to fiddling with the postal service and making it more difficult for minorities such as Black and Latinx people to vote, he then launched the totally dishonest and delusional campaign to argue that the election was rigged, fraudulent, stolen.

He had won by cheating the first time, with Russian assistance, so it seems he just couldn’t accept that he actually lost the second time, with all his attempts at voter suppression, and to Biden, whom he despised as someone he considered totally inferior to himself.

Trump thrives on misinformation and disinformation, having moved to assert that any criticism of him or quoted facts against him are “fake news”. A similar strategy is being used here by the opposition, supported by some slavish, slobbering media. Anything they don’t agree with, or more often don’t understand or that is not part of their agenda, is accused of being “woke”. So much for their claim to support free speech and their acceptance of politics as a contest of ideas.

The enthusiasm for the Trump revival, seen right across the media, ignorantly misses or chooses to downplay the risks to the global outlook. It is juvenile and vacuous to be titillated by the colour and movement and to ignore the substance of what is likely to happen. Just how damaging it will be to global power balances, to the world economy and to the already troubled citizens around the globe we may very soon see.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 27, 2024 as "Trump loves hate".

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