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An Authoritarian Turn in the United States: Implications for Australia?

28 Jan 2022
By Professor Derek McDougall
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, Jr., meeting with his Australian counterpart Chief of the Defence Force Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin, in Washington. Source: DOD Photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Dominique A. Pineiro.

Australia will inevitably be affected by the future political direction of the US. The Australian government must exercise caution and focus on pursuing more independent international policies.

“A republic, if you can keep it.” (Benjamin Franklin, 1787)

While a week is undoubtedly a long time in politics, speculation is rife about a resurgence of Trumpism in the United States (US). In the short and medium-term, this speculation focusses on the outcome of the 2022 midterm congressional elections and  the 2024 presidential elections. In the latter case, even if Donald Trump is not the Republican candidate, a “Trumpist” is highly likely to be. With Republicans in different legislative contexts across the US promoting voter suppression designed to minimise the Democratic vote, and also trying to control the electoral machinery in numerous states, the stage is being set for elections that could be highly contested. The 2022 midterm elections will give a good indication of how the Democrats under President Biden are faring. Added to the mix is the investigation of the 6 January, 2021 insurrection under the auspices of a select committee of the House of Representatives, as well as the continuing prosecution of the foot soldiers who attacked the Capitol. Clearly, a Republican goal is to shut down this investigation and to deflect attention from Trump and leading Republicans whose culpability has been obscured. Whatever the outcome in relation to 6 January, this episode demonstrates the extent of polarisation in US politics, with some analysts predicting a rise in low-level violence, or even a civil war.

Even if the civil war forecast is overly pessimistic, one needs to ask about the likely political direction of the US, should Trumpism secure the upper-hand in the 2022 midterms — and then the 2024 presidential and congressional elections — as well as looking further ahead in the current decade and beyond. Is the US likely to become more authoritarian, and in what sense? What would such a trend mean for Australia?

The Trump administration of 2017-2021 provides some evidence regarding whether Trumpism is likely to mean an authoritarian turn in the US. It would be an exaggeration to describe this administration as authoritarian. The slogan, “Make America Great Again” essentially meant attempting to implement right-wing policies domestically on issues such as immigration and the environment, as well as a willingness to pursue more protectionist policies in relation to the economy. The position on the “culture wars” embodied a traditional US patriotic perspective — similarly, there was a rejection of the narrative underpinning the Black Lives Matter movement and the emphasis in the 1619 Project on the role of slavery as a dominant factor in American history. Internationally, Trumpism meant an “America First” approach with a scepticism about multilateralism and the post-1945 liberal, international order. None of these policies in themselves means authoritarianism. If there were any such tendency, it was shown in the attempts to pressure the Department of Justice to pursue an agenda favourable to the political objectives of the Trump administration, including the appointment of Trump loyalists, such as William Barr as Attorney-General — although even Barr refused to pursue Trump’s claim of “the big steal” in relation to the 2020 elections. The administration also followed a policy of appointing conservative justices to the Supreme Court and other federal courts. Again, this policy was not illegal — but it was not highly respectful of the doctrine of “separation of powers.”

Whether there is a second Trump administration — or simply a return to Trumpism being politically dominant at some point — we can expect a similar approach to that prevailing in the 2017-2021 administration, in relation to policies and the centralisation of executive power. One might anticipate an attempt to remain within the letter of the law, while at the same time acting on the basis of an extreme interpretation of executive power. There is also the question of how strong the opposition to Trumpism is likely to be, particularly with the Democratic Party. A Supreme Court, even with a conservative majority, could still provide some constraint on authoritarian developments. Another dimension, highlighted in the civil war scenario, concerns the role of right-wing militias. Are they likely to act as the “storm troopers” for an authoritarian Trumpism? Would they be constrained by a politically compromised judicial system?

While I am suggesting some caution about an inevitable descent into authoritarianism in the US,  steps in this direction are highly probable. Allowing for swings in the political pendulum, a Republican Party dominated by Trumpism is likely to have a majority position in Congress, possibly as soon as 2023. The Republicans could control the White House in 2025-2029. The best case for the Democrats is winning the presidency again in 2024, under Biden or another candidate, and then being strong in at least the 2025-2027 Congress. Should the Democrats do well in terms of these possibilities, then the authoritarian turn would be more constrained. But some shift in the Trumpist direction seems highly likely.

Unlike Canada, Australia does not have the issue of being a neighbour to the US. However, there is a strong political attachment to the US as the leading liberal democracy within the English-speaking world. The relationship with the US has also been reassuring for Australians in terms of the strategic culture of reliance on “great and powerful friends.” Both the more general perception of the US and its role as Australia’s major ally would be challenged by an authoritarian turn in the US.

Australian trust in the US fell during the Trump presidency as compared with the Obama administration. This highlights the fact that Australians identify more with the US when its liberal democratic and internationalist credentials are foremost. The disillusionment experienced during the Trump presidency is likely to return, should a more authoritarian direction be followed by the US. Intense political conflict in the US is also likely to undermine Australian trust of the US, in addition to such conflict diminishing US power and prestige.

Such disillusionment in turn would undermine the political basis of the Australia-US alliance, based as it is on a perception of the two countries being fellow democracies with many cultural similarities, albeit reinforced at a political-bureaucratic level by a significant degree of defence integration. Apart from the general weakening of the alliance, there would be issues arising from the “America First” approach. These might manifest themselves at one level in a negative  approach from the US towards more liberal trading arrangements — such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Suspicion of multilateralism can occur in relation to US alliances, most obviously NATO, but extending also to the Australia-US alliance. Differences might arise with specific issues such as US tensions with China, Russia, or Iran — keeping in mind that Australia, under the current coalition government, has been hawkish on the China issue. It is also important to consider the implications for Australia as a result of its proposed new submarine fleet under AUKUS; this fleet will be highly integrated with naval operations by the US in the Pacific. Is Australia tying itself to US chariot wheels in a situation where its ability to opt out will be difficult?

Australia will inevitably be affected by the future political direction of the US. While an authoritarian US is not inevitable, some move in that direction is highly likely. This situation will weaken Australia’s close relationship with the US. Under AUKUS, Australia has been strengthening its ties with the US. This is occurring — and will play out in the future — at the very time when the US political situation is very problematic. To “keep its powder dry” Australia needs to distance itself more from the US, pursuing more independent international policies. Cooperation with the US can still occur, but this should be on the basis of Australia judging that the direction of the US polity and US policies are in line with Australia’s interests and values.

Derek McDougall is a Professorial Fellow at the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence, and may be republished with attribution.