Trump’s ‘evil charisma’ menaces the US – and Australia

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Standing in front of the Sydney Opera House sails next Wednesday, Anthony Albanese is set to host three of the world’s most important leaders: US President Joe Biden, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. Not since the APEC leaders meeting in 2007 has the prime minister’s home town hosted such an important geopolitical gathering.

In a pleasing piece of circularity for Albanese, the summit coincides with the first anniversary of his government. Albanese jetted to Japan to meet his fellow “Quad” leaders just a day after being sworn into office last year, kick-starting a diplomatic debut most foreign policy experts have rated as surprisingly successful.

Donald Trump received a rapturous reception from Republican voters at a CNN town hall last week.Credit: CNN

“Not all prime ministers have started off in the same relaxed and confident way in foreign affairs,” Lowy Institute executive director Michael Fullilove told me last year, noting Albanese was not regarded as a foreign policy guru before his election victory.

Albanese’s Opera House triumph, however, could be derailed by squabbling over the United States debt ceiling. The US government is due to run out of money within weeks, and Biden has indicated he may have to stay in Washington for negotiations with congressional Republicans. Biden wants to make the trip, but there are troubling precedents for a withdrawal. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama both pulled out of Asian summits at the last minute during similar crises.

As well as the catastrophic prospect of a US government default, another spectre hovers over America, and by extension Australia, in the form of a possible Donald Trump return to the White House.

In theory, this year should have been disastrous for the twice-impeached ex-president. After being arrested and charged with 34 counts of falsifying business records, a New York jury last week found Trump had sexually abused writer E. Jean Carroll and ordered him to pay her $US5 million ($7.5 million).

Just as Godzilla gained strength from nuclear radiation, these scandals have allowed Trump to tighten his grip on the Republican Party’s presidential nomination.

The conservative base largely swallowed Trump’s lies about election fraud in the 2020 election and similarly believe his claims of being unfairly persecuted by a biased left-wing legal system. Victimhood is the juice in the Make America Great Again machine, fuelling the sense of grievance that binds Trump and his supporters together.

For all the attention Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has attracted as a potentially more palatable version of Trump, his campaign has floundered before he has even officially entered the race.

At the end of February, Trump led DeSantis as the favoured Republican nominee by just 13 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics average. That lead has now blown out to 31 points. There’s no sign DeSantis has the star power or national appeal to end the love affair between Trump and his base.

This affection was on full, and at times disturbing, display last week when Trump appeared at a CNN-hosted Town Hall in New Hampshire. The crowd of Republican-leaning voters chortled and cheered as he called the female moderator “nasty”, labelled Carroll a “wack job” and said he would pardon many of those convicted for the January 6 storming of the Capitol.

But surely Biden would crush Trump in a general election? Not necessarily. The polling averages show Trump and Biden in a dead heat. That’s remarkable when you remember that opinion surveys have usually underestimated Trump’s appeal.

The final 2020 election polls showed Biden outperforming Trump by 7.2 percentage points; in the end, Biden won the popular vote by 4.5 points. Thanks to the arcane Electoral College system, Trump would have won a second term if just 43,000 voters in three states had switched their support from Biden.

“It should be a pretty big wake-up call for Democrats,” former Biden administration press secretary Jen Psaki said of Trump’s CNN performance. “He has the evil charisma that people can hate but it is happening … This guy is on the path to be the Republican nominee and maybe, likely, give the president a run for his money.”

To be sure, Biden would still be favoured to beat Trump. The Democrats performed surprisingly well at last year’s midterms and there’s no evidence Trump is any more popular with the moderate, suburban voters who cost him re-election in 2020. Young voters and women will be fired up over abortion rights and gun control.

But the 80-year-old Biden will likely appear even more frail in 18 months. He’s weighed down by low approval ratings and an unpopular vice president in Kamala Harris. This makes a Trump return to the White House a serious possibility, one that Albanese and Washington ambassador Kevin Rudd need to be prepared for.

A resurrected Trump would feel emboldened to follow his instincts, making him more unpredictable and dangerous than his first term. America would again become a climate laggard and its support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia would be in doubt.

The implications for Australia would be especially profound given how tightly enmeshed the two nations have become in response to China’s rise to superpower status.

Surely Biden would crush Trump in a general election? Not necessarily.Credit: AP

A Trump tantrum about handing over America’s precious Virginia-class submarines would unravel the AUKUS pact and leave Australia’s maritime security badly exposed. An increasing number of Australians would question the long-term value of the US alliance.

If Biden has to miss next week’s Quad summit, it will be a momentary disappointment for Albanese. A Trump victory in 2024 would be an almighty cataclysm. It’s happened before and can happen again.

Matthew Knott is the foreign affairs and national security correspondent. Peter Hartcher is on leave.

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