Is Australia ready for four more years of Trump?

Donald Trump looks to be heading for defeat tomorrow if national polling averages that are giving Biden an 8- to 10-point lead hold. But the president is still competitive. This is partly due to the effects of negative partisanship in the US electorate, which is driving high turnout on both sides, as well as the structural advantage of around 5 points that Republicans enjoy in the Senate and electoral college.

It also remains to be seen how much Trump will benefit from a multilayered Republican campaign of voter suppression, which includes redistricting, social media targeting of black voters to depress votes, strict voter registration laws, removal of polling stations, legal challenges—including in the Supreme Court—to mail-in ballots, and voter intimidation via militia ‘poll watchers’. And of course all this is taking place against a constant backbeat of disinformation from the administration aimed at discrediting the integrity of the election.

So in the unlikely yet still possible event that the current status quo remains after the election—Trump in the White House, Democrats controlling the House of Representatives and Republicans the Senate—is Australia ready for another four years of a Trump administration?

It’s worth sketching out some of the possibilities of this scenario, and not only because a Trump win is still a realistic outcome. If Trump wins again, he can’t be seen as a momentary disruption to normalcy, but a transition to new alignments on both sides of the traditional two-party structure.

This realignment has changed the way the world sees America and its power. The Trump effect has seen public approval of the US in democratic nations hit new lows.

Allies believed that the US would, in the final instance, always support democracy, the rule of law internationally, and strong and competent governance. And they believed that the US calculated its national interests in the roughly same way they did. The shadow side, the American gothic of racism, authoritarian conspiracism and violent extremism, was always there, disturbing but not culturally dominant. Better angels would always prevail.

But it’s clear that the anti-democratic and conspiracist politics associated with Trump would be consolidated in a second term. On the Democrats’ side, the revulsion towards Trump, which has bred a new broad coalition that spans the progressive left to Republican never-Trumpers, would also remain.

The divide in US politics is now an extremely unstable one. On one side are those who want to keep working towards an inclusive liberal democracy and a global system of multilateral governance to deal with shared challenges, along with a level of decoupling and competition with an assertive China. On the other are those who see America as better standing alone without foreign encumbrances. This instability is likely to drive domestic turmoil in the US for years to come and will continue to have a critical impact on the US presence in the world.

Since 2016 much has been said by current and former national security figures in the UK, Australia and US about the strength of our shared alliance. They have sought to reassure anxious publics that the pact is bigger than any one administration, pointing to the increasing interoperability of our forces, our Five Eyes intelligence sharing and cooperation, the personal connections between commanders and senior government officials, our common liberal democratic values and our shared history of fighting for them.

But many of these same figures in the US have broken with tradition in the past year to call out Trump and the politics he represents as a danger to both US national and global security.

The departure of one side of US politics from shared democratic values and governing norms present allies with difficult questions. Trump will certainly continue damage democracy in the US. How far will allies go in support? How much will they be able to politely ignore? What kinds of loyalty tests might Trump apply to allies?

This will inevitably prompt realpolitik reflections about values and interests, as if the two are not entangled. But how stable is an alliance without a shared worldview?

Such a dilemma might present itself as early as election night. Republicans have been remarkably open about a legal strategy to invalidate ballots in close state races via complaisant courts.

If Trump declares an early victory with decisive ballots still to be counted, some countries will rush to congratulate him, helping to bolster his claim. Will Australia be one of those? Whatever we decide will send a signal about where we stand on the legitimacy of Trump’s actions.

Another issue for Australia is that a new Trump administration would likely be embroiled in internal conflict for the duration of the next four years. It might have less interest and perhaps capacity to consistently and effectively prosecute shared interests globally.

The continued strength of the anti-Trump political coalition of Democrats and never-Trump Republicans, and the likely intensification of protests over Trump’s likely moves against reproductive, assembly and voting rights, could make quelling internal opposition a priority for national security agencies.

The US is also about to go into a winter with Covid-19 out of control, no federal plan for containment, and a stalled stimulus package. With stretched hospital systems and burnt-out responders forced to ration care, and more economic pain to come, the national mood is unlikely to be one of quiet resignation.

To neutralise opposition, Trump will probably triple down on his administration’s efforts to enlist national security and legal institutions in the fight against domestic political opponents. Preferred methods of replacing expertise and experience with loyalists and leaving key posts empty will continue to bleed competence from the national security sector. Trump’s foreign policy, to the extent that is intelligible, will likely remain a campaign of culture war gestures.

In this campaign, traditional alliances are less interesting, and friendships with states like Poland, Hungary, Israel, Brazil, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey become important in consolidating illiberal ideas abroad and propping up minority rule at home. Initiatives like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s Geneva consensus declaration on reproductive rights are probably a sign of things to come.

Australia would remain operationally embedded with the US and important in the fight against China. But it would be less relevant to Trump’s key priority of retaining power and immunity from prosecution.

US leadership on global terrorism would continue to be marked by Trump’s habit of valourising extremists, especially when involved in suppressing internal opposition. And that approach will continue to encourage the global spread of far-right violence, creating further headaches for allies.

China would remain the exception to this embrace of illiberal values. Under Trump, the US has hardened its rhetoric on China’s authoritarian abuses and has acted to check China’s technological ambitions.

The tough rhetoric will remain, but China will perceive opportunity in Washington’s distraction on the home front and weakened institutional capacity and its contempt of international institutions and traditional alliance systems.

A second round of obvious US dysfunctionality—which could include a 2022 QAnon caucus in Congress and a foreign policy and security apparatus suborned to Trump interests—could see global trust in Washington’s leadership on shared challenges evaporate.

New problem-solving coalitions encompassing state, substate, civil society and market actors will continue to be built around the EU and China. The urgent problems of pandemic recovery, climate change, nuclear proliferation, global debt and technology norms won’t wait on Washington.

Australia may be bound to the US on traditional security issues but may also need to think hard about participating in new centres of political gravity.