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Too scary to be true: the second coming of Trump

VIC ALHADEFF talks to BRUCE WOLPE about his book on Trump and Trumpism and the nightmarish prospect of him winning the 2024 US presidential election.
Vic Alhadeff
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Political commentator Bruce Wolpe (Giselle Haber)

Published: 2 January 2024

Last updated: 5 March 2024

VIC ALHADEFF talks to BRUCE WOLPE about his book on Trump and Trumpism and the nightmarish prospect of him winning the 2024 US presidential election.

Bruce Wolpe pulls no punches when discussing the figure at the centre of his latest book, Trump’s Australia.

“Trump never repents, recants, reverses or admits,” says Wolpe in his trademark laconic style. “He lied 30,000 times during his presidency, he invented the notions of `fake news’ and `alternative facts’, and the only elections he believes are legitimate are ones that he wins.”

As for Charlottesville – the 2017 rally when neo-Nazis yelled “Jews will not replace us” and Trump’s response was “there were very fine people on both sides” – Wolpe said the former president “was not ashamed to echo Hitler and Mussolini. He wants neo-Nazi power behind him in the street and at the voting booth. He talks as if he’s immune from being stopped. He believes racial extremists have had enough of identity politics and he’s created an atmosphere where he can say that with impunity.”

As if the world is not in enough turmoil right now, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and Israel at war with Hamas in Gaza, and the advent of AI, the coming year heralds the frightening prospect of Donald Trump attempting to run again for president in the US elections.

A former staffer for US Congressman Henry Waxman, Wolpe served also as senior adviser to Prime Minister Julia Gillard, as her chief of staff after she left office and as head of corporate affairs at Fairfax (now Nine Newspapers). His analyses appear frequently in the latter’s newspapers. His new book on Trump and the implications of his presidential run has just been published.

There are four threads to Trump’s worldview, says Wolpe: America First, populism, nativism and isolationism. “He was within an hour of withdrawing US troops from South Korea,” recalls Wolpe. “John Kelly, his chief of staff, pulled the paper off his desk and he forgot about it. If he wins again, he’ll do it.

“He wants out of arrangements which require international co-operation - UN, NATO, World Health Organisation, Asia alliances, the Iran nuclear deal. It’s about America First, even if that means subverting the international structure that has prevailed since World War II. He knows what he didn’t get done in his first term and he’ll do it next time.”

Even though he’s not a moral man, evangelical Christians love him because they know he’ll deliver on abortion.

Trump “came within inches of overturning the US Constitution on January 6, 2020,” Wolpe reflects ruefully. “Thank goodness for the vice president. Trump disregarded everyone who told him he lost and who told him he can’t overturn it because he’s lost over 60 court cases, including several times in the Supreme Court. Yet he still maintains his position.

“Trump's insistent claim that he won the 2020 election is The Big Lie. What’s amazing is that he’s not isolated. He has tapped into white working-class non-college educated voters who believe he will deliver for them, that trade deals hurt their livelihood, that foreign wars are hurtful to America.

“They believe he will take care of that, so they put up with his meshugas. Even though he’s not a moral man, evangelical Christians love him because they know he’ll deliver on abortion.”

An astonishing 70 percent of Republicans believe the election was stolen, notes Wolpe. “He says if they’re coming for me, they’re coming after you. So if Nikki Haley or Ron DeSantis attack him, he says they’re attacking Trump's Republican voters. That’s why no-one is in a strong position to take the nomination away from him. He turbocharges his base when he is indicted, as he did when the Colorado Supreme Court ruled he could not be on the ballot in that state.

“He ran through multiple secretaries of state and defence secretaries, national security advisers, chiefs of staff. When he couldn’t get them to do what he wanted, they were gone. Which is a lesson for the second term: he won’t hire anybody he thinks has the capability to resist him, from vice-president to White House staff.

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“He will hire appointees who would enable everything he wants. He’ll pardon almost everyone who was convicted as a result of the January 2020 insurrection. And he’ll exercise executive power to implement his policies, some legal, some illegal. He’ll appoint his people to the courts.

“He may well disobey laws passed by Congress or orders of the Supreme Court. He will instruct troops to put down protests and agencies to go after his enemies, such as closing newspapers and jailing opponents. You wouldn’t have much of a democracy left.”

As he gears up for 2024, “he’s getting increasingly erratic and he’s ageing. He’s determined to take Biden down and exact vengeance against his enemies."  

Trump is “cunning and a master of how to communicate,” said Wolpe. The former Fox News chief Roger Ailes said he’d never seen anyone who understood television like Trump does. He attacks mainstream media as fake news and convinces people they’re not getting the truth from sources where they’ve got it for a long time. His media adviser Kellyanne Conway came up with the phrase “alternative facts”.

“Trump  owns his audience. He takes the oxygen out of the room. He’s unique. Obama could do it. Jack Kennedy could. Ronald Reagan too. But no-one today can match Trump.  He doesn’t dog-whistle; he uses a megaphone. He hides nothing.

The US is more polarised than it’s ever been, says Wolpe. “No-one has the answer. There is no person who can unify the country in a moment. Can the US come back from this? If Trump loses, you won’t eliminate Trumpism, but you can reduce it by beating Republicans successively at elections. He lost the popular vote in 2016, then the House, the presidency and the Senate; you’d think that after three losses people wouldn’t stick with him, but here we are. This is why 2024 is so crucial.

Our Westminster system means a blow-in like Trump or Pauline Hanson or Clive Palmer will never be pM.

“While the Republican base loves Trump, the leaders want a change but can’t say so publicly because he would destroy their careers. So they fake it. As for Trump’s impact on Australia, polarisation is a key issue. Wolpe maintains Trump's extremism has, to a degree, leached into Australia's political culture. “The demonstration outside a synagogue in Caulfield. The Neo-Nazi marches in Melbourne and Ballarat.  Gallows outside The Capitol to hang Vice-President Mike Pence and gallows in Melbourne against the Daniel Andrews government.

“A major difference is we have guardrails to protect Australia’s democracy,” says Wolpe. “Compulsory voting means we’ll always have a centre-left or centre-right government. An extremist can’t come in on an anti-abortion platform or on gun rights. Our Westminster system means a blow-in like Trump or Pauline Hanson or Clive Palmer will never be prime minister.

“We won’t have a prime minister who denigrates minorities as Trump did; he or she could enter the debate but not control it. So democracy is safe here; we have the tools to protect it.”

That said, concludes Wolpe, the existential question remains - what does it mean for this country if Trump destroys American democracy? What does it mean for the rule of law, international order, Australia’s Pacific alliances? If the US is no longer the US, where does that leave Australia? If Trump wins the Republication nomination, and knowing what we know, it will require a major recalibration.

Trump’s Australia is published by Allen & Unwin

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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