The infatuation of Australian conservatives with Donald Trump continues unabated as the authentic Trump breaks free from the chains of restraint — yet seduction by Trump constitutes the corruption of conservatism and threatens its moral and intellectual standing for many years.
by Paul Kelly
The more conservatives applaud Trump, the more they destroy the foundations of their belief. On display across the democratic world, Australia included, is a remarkable story — the grand narrative of a political movement devouring itself as conservatives succumb to Trump’s temptations, spellbinding populism and victories against the progressive establishments they hate.
Trump’s power is on the ascendant, creating a mood of intoxication, unpredictability and danger. As Britain’s Theresa May and Germany’s Angela Merkel stumble and falter, Trump pursues ever more aggressively his election agenda of transformation, posing as a “man on horseback” figure of destiny.
While deepening the polarisation of America, Trump is eroding the “checks and balances” of the US constitutional system designed to restrain a renegade president.
Convinced America has the stronger hand, Trump has embarked on a trade conflict with China guaranteed to damage both nations; at home he is about to deliver a 5-4 Supreme Court conservative majority that can reshape US social and political outcomes for a generation.
With his contempt for allies undisguised and his hostility towards NATO more intense, Trump is visiting Britain and Europe amid a mood of alarm that he will dismantle the postwar security alliance; the sequel will be Trump’s bilateral talks with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and the fear that better relations with Russia mean an appeasement that gives Putin a recognition he does not warrant.
Trump governs when the wheel of history is turning. The two decisive disruptions are the internal crisis of Western democracies — part economic, part cultural — and the shift in geo-strategic power equating to the demise of Western hegemony.
These forces helped to bring Trump to office; he grasped the comprehensive failures of elites over the past 20 years and the alienation of Middle America. Among US political figures Trump was unique, not just in picking these trends but in offering a radical transformation as the solution.
Herein lies the crisis for conservatism. It loves Trump’s boldness in slaying its enemies. But after enemies are slain, what is the nature of the peace?
Conservatives are bankrupt in their failure to evaluate the world Trump now seeks, the transactional confusion he foments and the flawed, half-baked prescriptions he propounds.
Trump is revolutionary among US presidents since World War II in his hostility to global arrangements and the alliance system the US created to make a world that reflected its liberal capitalistic values. Trump denies the central strategic fact this system has worked to America’s advantage. It has led to a far better, more prosperous, more stable world that also saw the demise of Soviet communism.
Trump doesn’t see this. There are two pivotal ideas he cannot grasp: first, that alliances are instruments of multiple empowerment that generate influence beyond the dollars spent; second, that trade is never a zero-sum game because it offers reciprocal benefits and a sharing of prosperity.
This makes Trump a double mercantilist. He cannot grasp the utility of alliances or the financial power of multilateral trade. His mind belongs to an earlier age when power equated with domestic assets and wealth came from export revenues.
He refuses to grasp the ideas that have created the success of the modern, postwar world. He repudiates the outlook of leaders from Churchill to Truman, from Thatcher to Reagan.
It is true the NATO allies don’t spend enough on defence; they are complacent and rely too much on America. Trump is obsessed about these numbers. He is irritated and impatient with EU leaders, notably Merkel. When the German Chancellor is in domestic trouble he kicks her. He attacked Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, in language he would never use about Putin. He champions Brexit. Indeed, Trump seems hostile to both the EU and NATO. He tried to persuade France’s President Emmanuel Macron to leave the EU.
This is not a US president just seeking change; Trump evinces hostility to the institutions that have enshrined the authority of the West and global stability.
During the presidential campaign he said he would “look at” leaving NATO and that “it is costing us a fortune”.
Interviewed by The New York Times, he refused to say he would support the Baltic nations if attacked by Russia. He says Crimea ought to be part of Russia, raising fears that at some point he will acknowledge Russian sovereignty after its aggression.
Having told the G7 leaders last month he wants Russia restored to the group, nobody knows what surprises may emerge from the Trump-Putin summit.
The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg reported that a US official told him Trump liked to keep allies and adversaries “perpetually off-balance”. If so, the method is having a far greater impact with the battered allies. A senior White House official confirmed there was a Trump Doctrine — “We’re America, Bitch.” In short, no more apologies from America.
The pattern is obvious: Trump dislikes the US alliances and fancies his ability to cut deals with the autocrats in Russia, China and North Korea.
This is where he wants to make his mark. His celebrity summit with Kim Jong-in at the expense of pledges to South Korea offers a spectacular warning. Trump declared denuclearisation had been agreed, an exaggerated or even a false claim, but he reaped a domestic benefit knowing this negotiation is unlikely to unravel in the near term.
On trade, Trump’s irrational obsession with punishing nations running bilateral trade surpluses with America has triggered his trade protectionism against US partners China, Europe and Japan, among others. China is retaliating in words designed to rally wide support, saying Trump is jeopardising global economic recovery.
Trump has quit the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal; he is contemptuous of the multilateral trade system and the World Trade Organisation; his trade war may expose China’s fragile underbelly, but it will weaken the US globally and offer nothing but illusory short-term gains for the US along with lots of losses.
Trump stands for a populist “America first” nationalism. He wants America to be strong, but his views mean only an America weaker than it should be. He repudiates the brand of US leadership from liberal and conservative presidents for the past 70 years. It is one thing for the US to adjust as it must, but it is another thing to embrace Trump’s “America first” credo.
As for Australia, two of our strategic pillars have been fidelity to the alliance system and globalised free trade. We must deal with Trump but never forget the menace he represents.
This reaches an almost incomprehensible level when Trump rejects the assessments of his own intelligence agencies about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election against Hillary Clinton and his acceptance instead of Russian denials. As a man and President he demands loyalty, from others but offers no loyalty in return, just indulgent flirtation with the autocrats.
If you don’t accept the value of alliances and free trade you are a primitive. If you have the power to ruin them because you are the US president then you constitute a danger to the world. With Trump there is no trust, no stability, no better world order. Conservatives who sign up to the Trumpian agenda have lost their judgment and their better selves. They should beware, the price they pay will be fearsome.
The mistake conservatives in the US and Australia make is elemental. They applaud Trump for specifics — being tough on immigrants, withdrawing from the Paris climate accord, huge company tax cuts, attacking political correctness and reshaping the Supreme Court. They forget what Trump’s alternative and incoherent “big picture” means for America and the world.
Trump is showing two things — conservatism is weak, desperate to be tempted, ready to be seduced. Beyond that it is intellectually confused by the Trump phenomenon, too battered for too long, too keen to see its opponents under pressure, its judgment and integrity in the process of being fatally compromised.
First published at The Australian, Tuesday July 10 2018.