Bruce Wolpe
Published by Allen & Unwin
RRP $34.99

On the evening before it was announced that Donald Trump had defeated Hillary Clinton to become the 45th President of the United States, I received a text message from a friend who was very concerned about the prospect of a Trump victory. 

I responded that I thought it was inconceivable that Americans would elect such a grotesque person to lead that nation. How wrong I was, and I was certainly not alone. The author of this brilliantly written book says that:

“I never really understood – I still don’t – how the United States could go from Barack Obama to Donald Trump. How the country could unite and conquer the legacy of race…and yet eight years later elect a man who embodied the urge to divide America to its very core. A man who was so unsuited to be president. A man who did not understand what the presidency meant and what it was. A man who had contempt for democracy’s most basic values.”

Bruce Wolpe is eminently suited to write this book which looks at how Trump and Trumpism changed our country and the consequences for Australia of a second term. It’s hard to think of anyone better qualified with experience of politics in both countries. The inside cover tells us:

“Bruce Wolpe is a Senior Fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. He worked with the Democrats in the US Congress during President Obama’s first term, was chief of staff for Prime Minister Julia Gillard, and a senior executive at Fairfax Media from 1998 to 2009. Bruce is a regular contributor on US politics across media platforms in Australia.”

Many people will feel the same as columnist Sean Kelly when he says: “I didn’t think I wanted to read more about Donald Trump…” That was certainly how I felt, but this book is essential reading for anyone remotely interested in the future of democracy. 

The narrative begins with an analysis of how the Trump transformation of the Republican party began. We are reminded that the hints were there even before Trump when Sarah Palin was chosen as John McCain’s running mate for the 2008 Presidential election. Wolpe quotes Obama:

“Through Palin, it seemed as if the dark spirits that had long been lurking on the edges of the modern Republican Party – xenophobia, anti-intellectualism, paranoid conspiracy theories, an antipathy toward Black and brown folks – were finding their way to center (sic) stage.”

We are then told that Palin helped to pave the way for Donald Trump.

Wolpe doesn’t attempt to sanitise the facts when early on he suggests that:

“If Trump does defeat President Biden, or whoever is the Democratic nominee, he will come to office to wreak vengeance on his enemies, especially in Congress. His administration will be filled with Trump loyalists; he will have no need to deal with well-intentioned establishment Republicans who want to curb his excesses. There will be no effective guardrails on a second Trump presidency.”

This is scary stuff, but when we recall what spewed out of Trump for the four years of his presidency and since, it is clear that there is no element of exaggeration in this, or any other of Wolpe’s comments in the book.

The heart of the book is a consideration of the impact of a second Trump term on Australia and its own institutions, and asks this disturbing question: 

“If Trump destroys America’s democracy, does that pose an existential threat to Australia’s alliance with the United States? What should Australia do to protect its future?”

The book is divided into four parts.

Part I deals with foreign policy issues, particularly as it relates to the Indo-Pacific region and China, and discusses questions such as the future of Aukus under Trump. It is suggested that Australia needs a more independent foreign policy.

Part II examines how Trump’s policies might affect Australia in relation to the economy, trade and climate. In relation to climate, the author notes that Trump’s war on climate action was wide ranging and that it gave cover for our own LNP government to be a laggard on this issue. 

In the trade area Wolpe talks about Trump’s protectionist instincts and that a re-escalated trade war between the US and China will hurt Australia.

Part III “explores the future of democracy in Australia and the United States…” The section begins with an analysis of how “the foundations of America shook when the (US Supreme Court) struck down Roe (v Wade).” Noting the way that Trump stacked the court with conservatives.

What is particularly concerning is the fact that Trumpism is not confined to the person of Donald Trump. In chapter 12 Wolpe explains how Republicans in Texas supported the assertion that the 2020 Presidential election was tainted by fraud and suggested that:

“Homosexuality is an abnormal lifestyle choice,” and that there should be opposition to all efforts to “validate transgender identity.’

Environmental stewardship needs to be revoked and the Environmental Protection Agency should be abolished.

Public health restrictions are the equivalent of Jews being ghettoised and transported to death camps in Nazi Germany. 

Texas retains the right to secede from the United States.

What is really frightening for the future of American democracy is that up to 70 percent of Republicans believe that Joe Biden is not president, that any election which the Democrats win is fraudulent and that the enemies of the Republicans have no right to hold power. This attitude, Wolpe points out, has led to Republican controlled State legislatures restricting voting rights, particularly for the Black community.

Interestingly none of the other candidates seeking Republican nomination for the 2024 election seem at all willing to criticise Trump or his extremist views.

Also very concerning is the way that Trump has characterised the mainstream media as enemies of the people.

The first three parts paint a fairly bleak picture, but in Part IV there is some light when Wolpe “turns to the key safeguards of democracy in Australia, including mandatory voting, the Westminster system, and how some critical institutions here are insulated to a degree from political pressure.”

The author explains that, unlike the US, Australia has the independent and well respected Australian Electoral Commission.

Other institutions that are likely to help Australia avoid a Trump type infection are our anti-corruption laws, a non-political High Court and an independent Reserve Bank, although there are still threats from extremism on social media platforms, the Murdoch Press media model and inadequate political donations disclosure laws.

The book ends with a letter from a friend of the author by the name of Norman Ornstein. The letter concludes with these important words of warning:

“…the American experience shows that any society, no matter longstanding norms, can slide towards authoritarianism and deep irreconcilable internal divisions. The combination of ruthless demagogues, a pliant or complicit mainstream press, pernicious tribal media and manipulated social media can create conditions that lead to a slow movement in a bad direction. No society, including Australia, should be complacent.”

This is a book that all Australians, particularly our politicians, should read carefully. As Sean Kelly also said:

“This is a forceful reminder that Trump is not merely amusing, or old news: He is dangerous, and whatever he does next will affect Australia. True, timely and terrifying.”

Highly recommended. 

John Watts

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