Politics

Federal politics

Australia’s Trump apologists
In the wake of the US Capitol riot, let us review the performances of Trump’s Australian cheerleaders

From left: Paul Kelly (image source) / Greg Sheridan (image source) / Alexander Downer (image source)

The fatal siege of the US Capitol wasn’t surprising. It was promised by the president himself, and enjoyed a long prelude: the storming, by heavily armed Trump supporters, of multiple state Capitol buildings last year. Fourteen of those involved in the breach of the Michigan Capitol were later arrested for plotting the kidnapping of the state’s governor. Others reappeared in Washington.

On January 6, the demented carnival barker watched the siege on television from the safety of the White House, while his vice-president bunkered in the besieged building – one of Trump’s most enduring loyalists now just another victim of his reality TV show. It could have been much worse for Mike Pence: multiple insurrectionists said they planned to hang the vice-president from a tree. Five people died, including a police officer whose head was crushed with a fire extinguisher. Trump later called the rioters “special”.

Since Donald J. Trump descended that golden escalator in 2015 and announced his presidential bid, various Australians have explicitly supported him, equivocated inanely, accused his critics of “derangement” or smothered his aggressively weird term in office in numbing cliches.

Let’s look at some of them…

Greg Sheridan: The Gymnast

In a fawning column last year, The Australian’s foreign editor celebrated Trump’s fulfilment of promises and his “strong nationalism”. Sheridan also commended Trump’s “earthy” persona – which is like describing Pacino’s Scarface as “excitable”.

Perhaps, for Sheridan, the pus-filled blisters of Trump’s psyche resembled some mythic American decency. But when Trump’s “earthiness” revealed itself – surprise! – to be fascism born of a profound and annihilating narcissism, Sheridan performed his triple aerial cartwheel, capped with a backward somersault, and declared that Trump was “always a contemptible and unworthy character. For any serious conservative, voting for him was always a 51–49 decision.”

And for any serious commentator, rebellion against Trump’s incitement of violence against journalists should’ve been a 100–0 decision. For years, Trump has denounced the media as “fake”, “corrupt” and “the enemy of the people”, and attacks upon American journalists increased during his presidency. But here’s Sheridan from 2020, speaking not about the Trump government, but our own ABC: “[It] has become a relentless behemoth of unaccountable and vindictive power that persecutes designated enemies in a grievously unfair and unprofessional way.”

After saying this, Sheridan made three appearances on the ABC within two days – a strange kind of persecution.

During the armed siege of the Capitol building, journalists were attacked. Some feared for their lives. When police, the military and the National Guard were readying themselves for more violence at Biden’s inauguration – primed not by assumption, but the discovery of plots – the Committee to Protect Journalists warned media about wearing their credentials while covering it.

They feared that journalists would be harmed, perhaps murdered – as some House Republicans had feared their own family’s murder if they voted for impeachment. That’s where we are now. Lady Liberty is floridly psychotic, the inevitable result of an actual “behemoth of unaccountable and vindictive power”.

Paul Kelly: The Priest

“Is there a problem of character?” The Australian’s editor-at-large asked John Howard about Trump in 2017, at Sydney University’s United States Studies Centre. As unwitting comedy, it’s unrivalled – the understatement is champagne. Not to be ignored is Howard’s response, which was to pivot immediately to criticism of the feckless, climate-credulous Europeans. There was an hour of fence-sitting and/or uncomplicated fandom of the pure, deathless American democracy. But more on Howard later.

In Kelly’s defence, he correctly described Trump as being like a “gangster” late in the 2016 campaign, and a serious threat to democracy. He’s never been a fan. But Kelly’s solemnities were no match for Trump’s surreal pathologies, and the danger they created for the United States.

The smug, conventional wisdom that emerged early in the Trump presidency – “Take Trump seriously, not literally” – seems to me very Kelly-esque. This popular maxim, born of the cool assuredness of the political class, and implicitly condescending to those who did take Trump literally, was also distinguished by being exactly wrong. 

Alexander Downer: The Patrician

For years, Downer suggested that passionate fear and disgust of Trump was hysterical – a symptom of the left’s primitively enlarged amygdala. It’s patricianly condescension as a form of gaslighting.

Few Australians have been as personally affected by the weird viciousness of Trump World as Downer has, something he invoked as evidence for the high-mindedness of his endorsement of Trump in November. Downer offered this blessing in the last week of the campaign, the same week in which a convoy of MAGA-cultists menaced the Biden campaign bus and Trump, fascistically, cheered them on.

In the column, Downer accused the media of bias, as if its attention wasn’t commensurate with Trump’s historic volume of corruption, venality, negligence and deceit. To suggest media bias is like accusing Woodward and Bernstein of being biased against Nixon.

Downer’s principal argument was that a “slightly crazy, out-of-control” Trump presidency would benefit Australia more than a “bumbling” Biden one. It is interesting that crazy would be preferred to bumbling, and curious that a man who has accelerated American decline, rendering it weaker relative to China, might be thought advantageous for Australia. After the siege of the Capitol, Downer suggested that “all sides” calm down.

Michael McCormack: The Hypocrite

After the obscenity of January 6, the largest concern for our acting prime minister was Twitter’s permanent suspension of Trump’s account. Nor would he censure colleagues for crowing, Trump-like, reckless falsehoods about the pandemic or the insurrection. (E.g. face masks were child abuse; the insurrection was really mounted by the far-left in a sophisticated “false flag” operation.)

When McCormack says that respect for free speech prohibits his criticism of Coalition backbenchers Craig Kelly and George Christensen, he is both wrong and disingenuous. At a minimum, he could say that he respects their right to speak, but that he will exercise his own right and condemn their comments as factually wrong and harmful. (By the way: it’s hilarious to think that leaders don’t privately gag their colleagues from speaking on certain issues. It happens constantly, and, when obliged, is usually referred to in the media as “party discipline”.)

It’s also wrong to suggest that this government, or past governments, are defenders of fulsome, unfettered speech. The government had no problem with federal police raiding the newsrooms and bedrooms of journalists investigating the alleged war crimes of our soldiers.

Nor did it have any problem with the prosecution of Julian Assange, or the denial of visas to radical preachers and creepy pick-up artists that have sought speaking tours. Or consider that in 2006, when Sheikh Hilaly delivered his infamous – and grotesque – “meat” sermon, where he effectively excused rapists and was suspended from preaching for three months, the Howard government described the penalty as inadequate.

With a straight face, McCormack cited his time as a journalist as evidence for his innocent belief in free speech – but for months, his government has strenuously attacked the ABC for its Four Corners episode “Inside the Canberra Bubble”. In the past fortnight, the prime minister told Cricket Australia to shut up about politics, when it decided to pull Australia Day branding from its promos. 

There’s obvious inconsistency here, and that’s because defences of free speech aren’t matters of principle, but of convenience and power. It should be repeatedly called out.

John Howard: The Amnesiac

“I tremble at the thought of Trump being president,” Howard said in early 2016. “There’s an instability about him that bothers me.”

Howard said this well before Trump’s victory, and when Howard believed that victory to be implausible. So this might be Howard’s most honest appraisal, before a time when such candour might incite minor international incidents and headaches for his successors.

This might explain his years of equivocation, but Howard often went further than that. In 2018, after Trump stood beside Putin in Helsinki and declared his faith in Putin’s denial of Russian interference – inspiring mass conniptions within the CIA – Howard said: “I thought he was wrong to have said what he did but he’s now dealt with that, and the important thing is to understand that people shouldn’t take sides too much on Mr Trump.”

There are echoes here of Sir Joh’s “Don’t you worry about that”. I’m also unsure how, exactly, Trump “dealt” with it – unless Howard takes at face value Trump’s long habit of saying outrageous things, only to suggest that he was kidding or that he misspoke. “I find myself in a dilemma,” Howard said in 2016. “The two people who are most likely to square off against each other … if I were an American, I wouldn’t vote enthusiastically for either of them. I don’t think it’s a very good choice.”

But the presidential ballot isn’t a paint swatch or salad bar. Remarkably, after four years of the Trump presidency, Howard found himself in the same dilemma. In July, he told Sky News that he was “still very ambivalent” about the election’s outcome.

John Howard doesn’t really know America – he’s only in love with it. America’s too large and strange and violently contradictory to be contained by his boyishly romantic faith.

Two weeks after September 11, Howard said: “We are all diminished, we are all changed, and we are all rather struggling with the concept that it will never be quite the same again.”

After the Trump presidency, that’s more true now. 

Rowan Dean and co: The Clowns

A professional contrarian, smeared in ideological clown-face, Dean is like the teenage child of a surgeon who takes up smoking. A defining feature of his performance as Sky News host is a bizarre inversion of priorities: nothing is more important or pleasurable than jabbing a finger in the eye of the enemy. Let democracy itself become collateral, if it means his MAGA Boy can keep trolling progressives.   

In November, Dean said that Trump “can, will and must” win the 2020 election – and weeks later suggested him as the proper recipient of Time magazine’s Person of the Year. Today, Dean says the second impeachment is a “show trial”.

In his bad faith and childish love of provocation, Dean is not alone. Here’s Andrew Bolt from November: “How we laugh. Donald Trump could be re-elected! If true, it’s the sweetest victory of all, against the bullies and elites who most needed to be thrashed.”

If Trump is neither a bully nor an elite, the words have no meaning. (I suppose the point is that he’s their bully and elite – just as Cardinal Pell said about Trump in December that he’s a barbarian, but at least he’s their barbarian.) But never mind – I’m glad you laughed, Andrew. Now let me tell you who was really laughing after January 6: Putin and Xi Jinping.

Now here’s Miranda Devine in 2016: “A great force has arrived to rescue Western civilisation and its name is Trump, Donald J. Trump.”

There’s a vaudevillian absurdity to this cheerleading, but it doesn’t make it any less dangerous. In 2019, Devine moved to New York to become one of Trump’s most excited propagandists. Part of this meant quietly reversing her previous, passionate defence of the Iraq war – “What is happening in Iraq is good” – and referring to it for her American readers as “pointless”.

But even Devine eventually declared Trump’s insistence on mass voter fraud delusional. But right now we have Australian parliamentarians acting as loudspeakers for the hateful conspiracies that were once obscurely contained in 4chan and Reddit threads, but now exist as part of the thick psychic smog of America.

And from our prime minister? The man who in December accepted from Trump one of the US’s highest military honours?

Crickets.

Mobsters can be inept, and coup attempts can be clumsy – that they are does not make them illusory. I’ll leave you with comments from Trump’s own former national security adviser, Fiona Hill, following January 6:

“The president was trying to stage a coup. There was little chance of it happening, but there was enough chance that the former defense secretaries had to put out that letter, which was the final nail through that effort. They prevented the military from being involved in any coup attempt. But instead, Trump tried to incite it himself. This could have turned into a full-blown coup had he had any of those key institutions following him. Just because it failed or didn’t succeed doesn’t mean it wasn’t real.”

Martin McKenzie-Murray

Martin McKenzie-Murray is the author of A Murder Without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle.

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