Donald Trump’s failure to win a second term as president isn’t just important for the future of the United States. It has significant implications for centre-right politics in Australia too.
At least since the Cold War the centre-right has been an alliance between conservatives and classical liberals. Sometimes this alliance has been awkward. But the result has been a balance between relatively free market economics and relatively conservative social policy that we broadly associate with John Howard, Ronald Reagan, and Margaret Thatcher.
The Trump administration represented for many on the right a sharp ideological break with the past. Out went conservative-liberal fusionism. In came working class populism and a suite of starkly different policy priorities: anti-trade, anti-immigration, anti-big business, and anti-tech.
Virtually the moment polls closed in 2016, conservatives around the world started talking excitedly about the virtues of populism, the opportunities of ‘conservative nationalism’, and building their own domestic version of Trump’s America First.
Electoral realignment has led to intellectual realignment. One influential manifesto was published in the conservative magazine First Things in 2019. Titled “Against the Dead Consensus”, it declared that the “pre-Trump conservative consensus” had collapsed and it was time to reject globalism and “warmed-over Reaganism”. A bunch of new think tanks and political magazines have been established with names like American Compass and American Greatness to capture the Trump-era zeitgeist.
On the other side, some traditional fusionist institutions like the Weekly Standard have collapsed, only to be replaced by Trump sceptical publications like The Dispatch and The Bulwark.
Perhaps we should not overstate the ideological change. The Trump administration enacted many traditional Republican policies – appointing those originalist judges, pursuing all that deregulation and the deep corporate tax cuts.
But they set up the two big debates we’re going to see in the centre-right for the next few years. First: could have any Republican president gotten these policies through, or could it only have been someone as confrontational and singular as Donald Trump?
Second: might the political capital spent on tax cuts and deregulation have been better spent on more working class-focused policies like infrastructure investment and paid family leave? Some are already claiming Trumpism didn’t fail – Trumpism was never really tried. If the conservative-liberal consensus is dead, did the Trump administration trip over its corpse?
The result of these debates will have ramifications in Australia. For the most part, the Morrison government has avoided major ideological realignment in the Trump era. The Prime Minister played around with Trumpy language last year when he warned about “negative globalism”. But there’s a big difference between opposing ‘negative’ globalism (by which our prime minister was criticising corrupt international institutions) and the sort of globalism that Donald Trump is opposed to (immigration, free trade, and the network of traditional alliances). Anyway, who could support “negative” globalism?
Ultimately the Morrison government has tried to paint a soft populist tint over its traditional policy agenda. It still claims its free trade agreements as an achievement, for instance (although it has been notably less talkative about those agreements since 2016).
Even if Morrison had wanted to explicitly follow the Trump path, he would have struggled to do so. A small, open, productive economy like Australia is highly dependent on free trade and migration for our prosperity.
One issue where we might say that the Australian right has been influenced by Donald Trump is on China. But these last four years have seen the heavy oppression of the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang, the loss of free Hong Kong, and Xi Jinping’s tightening grip on the Chinese state. It is hard to imagine an alternative history in which Australia was not aware of these events.
The big question for us is whether the old conservative-liberal alliance can be rebuilt. If the Trump administration has permanently severed that alliance, the deep interactions between centre-right intellectuals and activists across the Pacific Ocean mean it will inevitably be severed in Australia too.
And when that happens, we will be faced with a serious long-term challenge for our economic wellbeing.
Unless the Democratic Party or the Labor Party pick up the classical liberal agenda of free trade, deregulation, low taxes, and openness to immigration, then that policy mix – and the prosperity it has created – is at risk.