At the beginning of 2024, US politics seems more fraught than ever. Presidential elections and Donald Trump’s resurgence loom large. And echoes of history clearly reverberate.

Back in 1860, Abraham Lincoln led the newly established Republican Party to victory. This prompted secession of seven southern states and sparked the devastating US Civil War. A looming question for 2024, is thus not so much who will occupy the Oval Office, but what seismic shifts will occur as a result.

A Trump victory in 2024, as some analysts like former naval aviator Brynn Tannehill suggest, promises a nation on edge, teetering on the brink of chaos. Installation of a new cabinet by Donald Trump would be a mere prelude to ongoing and much deeper chaos, hate, upheaval and dysfunction. The spectre of protests and violent civil unrest would loom large. An incremental move towards a theocratic fascist dictatorship under Trump is a real possibility. Alternatively, a chaotic and Balkanised America could result from Trump’s attempts at dictatorship. Ramifications of either scenario, both domestically in the US but also globally, are as unpredictable as they are profound.

In an alternative scenario where Trump lost to Biden, legal battles would take centre stage and the US would become equally chaotic. The Make America Great Again movement, incensed and howling for blood, would explode. Its refusal to accept the election results, especially if the margin were narrow, would polarise a nation already sitting on a powder keg. The 6 January 2020 attack on the Capitol Building could pale into insignificance compared to what might happen. If Trump were convicted and excluded before the election, a cascade of events would also unfold. Forcing of states to exclude him from the ballot would intensify incentives for southern right-wing states to cease recognising and increasingly undermine and contradict federal authority.

If Trump loses, desperate measures could also unfold – such as fake elector schemes and refusal to certify the election in either the House of Representatives or the Senate, if the Republicans control either. All of this would push the US deeper into political turmoil. An increasingly fractured and democratically weakened society, marked by civil unrest and political violence is thus a real possibility either way.

Traditionally seen as a bedrock of stability and democracy, the US judiciary will find itself enmeshed more than ever in a highly polarised political landscape. The US Supreme Court’s integrity will almost certainly be thrown further into question. Its decisions will increase the risks of Balkanisation, regardless of their political leanings and the election outcome.

2024 will thus be a water shed moment for the US. And it’s going to be ugly. Even if Biden wins and efforts to overturn his win don’t succeed, autocratic and theocratic Republican states will move even further to the right. They will rely on the Supreme Court to bail them out where possible. And they will ignore its findings when not in their favour.

Australia can’t afford to just sit back and observe the unfolding drama. The implications are far too reaching. Shifts in the US political landscape – either towards fascism or via Balkanisation – will have profound effects on us. As just one example, a Trump win will lock in worst case climate change scenarios for us and the rest of the world. Major uncertainties will also emerge for Australia in defence and strategic security, economic stability and prosperity, and for our reliance on the multilateral system. These are all real and major threats. 

The influence of the US Republican Party on right-wing politics in Australia is also a major concern. A Trump victory would embolden and further validate right-wing popularism and deceit as successful political tactics in Australia. This would shape domestic policies on issues like immigration, climate change, gender politics and international relations. It would risk destabilising the fabric of Australian society, especially our ingrained principles of non-discrimination and a fair-go.

When considering the US political abyss in 2024, one thing is clear: Australia must be prepared. Our long-time ally is at a crossroads. It will either adopt values misaligned with ours, and/or it will become more disintegrated, dysfunctional and domestically focused. Which ever path it takes, the US will become a much less reliable partner for Australia.

But perhaps there is a silver lining. Maybe we will realise that we’re a grown up nation. That geopolitically, we are on the other side of the planet from the US.  Maybe we will stand up and be ourselves. Maybe we will choose to invest more effort with our immediate neighbourhood.

Dysfunction and disintegration in the US might encourage Australia to find the courage to choose be the nation that we really are: an independent, confident and multicultural Asia-Pacific democracy that can depend on itself and that invests the most in relations with its immediate neighbourhood.

Gregory Andrews is the founder of Lyrebird Dreaming, Adjunct Associate Professor with the University of Canberra’s Institute for Applied Ecology, a former diplomat and Deputy Board Chair of the Canberra Writers Festival.

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