The Trump train is pulling out of Washington DC for the final time, but the legacy of The Donald’s four chaotic years in power could linger over Australian politics for a while to come.
“It will stick around. Even if Trump goes, the forces he unleashed will still exist,” said Dr Emma Shortis, of the Social and Global Studies Centre at RMIT University.
“If even the Prime Minister won’t condemn his own MPs for spreading Trump-esque conspiracy theories, it will continue circulating in Australia.”
As Mr Trump reluctantly leaves office after a decisive election loss, Anthony Albanese ignited a political firestorm on Wednesday.
The Labor leader thundered that Scott Morrison had gone “too far” in his support for the defeated President, claiming “Trumpists” were the “bedrock” of the Prime Minister’s supporters.
While it’s no secret Mr Morrison enjoyed a far better relationship with Mr Trump than most world leaders – feted with a state dinner, lauded as the “man of titanium”, and awarded the Legion of Merit – what is less clear is how the Trump era changed Australian politics.
Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull suggested Australia could be the “last outpost of Trumpism in the southern hemisphere”.
Labor Party president Wayne Swan, a former deputy PM under Julia Gillard, claimed conservative parties were locked in a contest “over who is the more Trumpian.”
Trump ‘licensed’ Australia’s far-right
Associate Professor David Smith, of the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre, said possibly the biggest mark Mr Trump would leave on Australia would be the “language” and encouragement he gave to far-right politicians.
“He licensed a lot of views and postures which would previously have been considered beyond the pale in Australia. A lot of people, aligned with the far- or hard right in Australia, used the language and symbols Trump provided, as part of a global community,” Dr Smith told The New Daily.
“He’ll be a symbol here, of the possibilities of politics which had been previously been marginalised.
“There are politicians who previously would have avoided doing things seen as racist. That’s no longer the case.”
Mr Trump came to power in November 2016, just four months after Pauline Hanson dragged herself and three fellow far-right One Nation senators back into Parliament.
It was two decades since Senator Hanson had been elected to office, and she saw a kindred spirit in Mr Trump.
Her colleagues literally popped champagne bottles on the Parliament House forecourt to celebrate his election, and lobbied for tickets to his inauguration.
One Nation quickly and blatantly copied Trump-esque politics and rhetoric; adopting his catch cry of “fake news”, attacking media reporting, calling for a “Muslim ban”, lambasting multiculturalism, railing against crucial global agreements, and cosying up to far-right groups.
Each of these had been long-term tenets of the One Nation philosophy, but Dr Smith said Australia’s hard right had been emboldened by Mr Trump’s victory.
Perhaps not coincidentally, One Nation and Mr Trump’s electoral fortunes seemed somewhat tied.
As Mr Trump and Ms Hanson were surprisingly elected to seats of power in the same year, the President will leave office just months after One Nation suffered similarly humiliating election failure in its traditional heartland.
“Trump has shown politicians a different way. The true political superpower is shamelessness, an inability to be embarrassed,” Dr Smith said.
“It’s persisting with views that put you beyond the pale, but which you know have a constituency somewhere.”
The sincerest form of flattery
An odd thing happened last week, when Mr Morrison took a week’s leave; even as Mr Trump prepared to leave office, Nationals leader Michael McCormack stepped up as acting PM, and began copying the President.
“There is no reason we can’t make Charters Towers great again,” Mr McCormack said, from the rural Queensland town.
“Facts sometimes are contentious,” he said from Townsville, comments reminiscent of Mr Trump’s former adviser Kellyanne Conway’s infamous “alternative facts”.
He also criticised the Black Lives Matter movement; saying “all lives matter,” a catchcry used by Mr Trump and opponents of the BLM rallies.
Others have gone further in emulating Mr Trump.
Nationals MP George Christensen posts social media graphics featuring red “Make Australia Great Again” caps, regularly tees off against global compacts like the United Nations and Paris agreement, and appears on alt-right media channels.
Liberal MP Craig Kelly took up the hydroxychloroquine crusade after Mr Trump raised it, staying hooked into the disproven treatment long after the President stopped boosting it, and sharing debunked claims about election rigging.
“Fake news” is thrown as an insult, without a hint of irony, by conservative politicians against media reporting.
Dalliances with far-right commentators or talking points are common. Sneering “political correctness” and “wokeness” are standard barbs to rubbish legitimate calls for social reform.
But with Mr Trump dumped from office, other experts say those flirtations with Trump-esque politics may dwindle.
‘A cautionary tale’
“He is seen as the start of a populist wave, and that the way for candidates to maximise their popularity was to mimic his approach as anti-establishment,” Dr Zareh Ghazarian, senior lecturer in politics at Monash University, told TND.
“But I think his approach and performance would now become a cautionary tale for Australian politicians.”
Dr Ghazarian believes Mr Trump’s example of using social media for outrageous comments, inflating small issues into national conversation topics, has “rubbed off” on fringe parties and minor figures in the major parties.
“He opened the door to politicians pushing things further to the edge, pushing the envelope more than they would did before,” he said.
Dr Shortis agreed.
“Our government’s closeness to Trump has given further licence to those forces in Australian politics; people like Craig Kelly, with that very Trumpian disinformation and conspiracy theories,” she told TND.
“With the PM not condemning that, they’re getting licence to keep doing that, from the PM who is close to Trump. It’s a cultural exchange.”
Dr Shortis, a historian whose works focuses on the Trump administration and the Australia-US alliance, believes that type of politics will endure long after Mr Biden takes office.
She pointed to a new wave of Trump acolytes among young Republicans in the US, predicting Australian politicians would – as has occurred for decades – draw influence from American counterparts.
“Trump unleashed and encouraged it, but it’s more than Trump. He just harnessed it for a while, then lost control of it. It’s important to be honest about how deeply connected the stuff happening in Australia is to the US, with our MPs and the arms of some of these organisations,” she said.
“There’s a young guard in the US that sees a path to power through Trump politics. We have a different way of doing politics, but you can see Australian politicians taking their cues from America.
“Biden would have noticed how close we were to Trump. That should be noted. The way we got so close will have consequences going forward.”
It’s a thought echoed by Mr Turnbull. In an interview with Bloomberg, he slammed his former Coalition colleagues for “sycophancy” towards Mr Trump, claiming their support for him could harm future relationships with Mr Biden.
Former Australian Prime Minister @TurnbullMalcolm on whether Australia has pandered to Trump “Sycophantism is always a mistake…in the imperial capital, whether it be Beijing or Washington, they regard deference as their due” https://t.co/HYVb7Iqro1
— Haidi Lun Stroud-Watts 伦海迪 (@HaidiLun) January 20, 2021
“People in the Liberal Party, many of them felt they were very aligned with Trump on this climate stuff. They are now utterly at odds with the new administration,” he told Bloomberg.
“They’ve got to decide whether they want to be a last outpost for Trumpism in the southern hemisphere. I don’t think that’s a good place to be.”
In his speech, Mr Albanese said Mr Biden’s ascendance to the presidency marked “the cusp of a new chapter in international relations”.
It’s still to be seen whether it will mark a new chapter in Australian politics.