October 1972, October 2020: prospects for the United States… and us.

Aug 7, 2020

Decent minded Australians are tending to assure themselves that Trump will be defeated in November; many decent Americans work feverishly for the defeat of Trump. But the defeat of Trump is far from assured.  Whoever is president of the United States next year will not be helpful to Australia, though we will perform our well-established rites of fealty. There are lessons from the elections of 1972.

By October 1972, US President Nixon was deeply unpopular, beset by opposition to the Vietnam war. Then in late October Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s National Security Advisor gave a press conference claiming that peace with Vietnam was at hand. Nixon was re-elected, over a scarcely visible Democrat candidate George McGovern… but by Christmas the United States had resumed bombing of North Vietnam, dropping 20,000 tonnes of explosives mainly on Hanoi, killing at least one thousand people.

In October 2020, US President Trump will probably announce a vaccine against COVID-19 which will be scheduled for distribution by network unknown with priorities unclear, in January. The Democratic candidate Biden, who in August is still scarcely visible and seems concerned to pick a vice-presidential running mate who will not outshine him, will be outclassed.

It seems forgotten that there is an enormous obstacle to Democrat success in the slur of 2016 when Hillary Clinton described half the supporters of Trump as a basket of deplorables. This is an ulcer under the hide of acceptability of a Democrat candidate by a necessary proportion of current Trump supporters. Until Biden can come out in the street and denounce the label ‘deplorable’ he is likely unelectable. Unelectable because the Democrat campaign will remain seen as an elitist patronising force, dependent on the quiet assumption of capacity to win because Trump will lose. We have seen such in the deliberately invisible campaign of Kim Beazley as Labor leader in Australia in 1998.

No amount of charming vice presidential candidate presence is likely to shift Biden from dead centre motionless. Daily the Democrat-sweet New York Times and Washington Post fidget in seeking to present Biden as shifting somewhere to the left, to adopting policies of those he defeated in the primary election process, or of wisely not doing so. Without a visible, vigorous and convincing vice presidential candidate, Joseph Robinette Biden, aged 77, remains a slow-talking, scarcely visible, slightly shuffling disappointment to many who are giving their hearts and energies to his election. Trump’s labellings of Biden as Sleepy Joe, etc have street cred. Here is a New York Times commentary explaining how an invisible campaign is actually good.

We are three months from the US presidential election on 3 November 2020. Nobody knows the practical effect on the elections of COVID-19, or the practical effect of Trump’s work to seriously damage the US Postal Service, having placed in charge people who work for its destruction. It is unclear to what extent public opinion and voting intentions will be affected by Trump efforts to undermine the place of government in infrastructure of all kinds, a core desire of the Republican Party.

In Australia, we tend to take the public sector’s engagement with physical, social, health and other infrastructure, though we may observe the ideologically driven work of the coalition to undo it. We take for granted the place of government in a broad spread of services, believing in the regulation of business as a natural function of government. We, therefore, miss the historical reality in the United States that this public sector engagement with infrastructure has roots no further back than President Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal. And we are not fully aware that the Republican Party has consistently worked against it.

The Republican ideal is that government be as small as possible and services of whatever kind be bought from unregulated private business. The Democratic Party’s view, its readiness to defend the public sector, is far from clear. Just as in Australia the currently scarcely visible Australian Labor Party’s view is at best unclear, some utterances in support of the public ownership of services and the means of redistribution of wealth, but mainly acquiescence to the dismantling policies of the coalition… The ALP’s fealty is particularly evident in foreign and strategic policy.

One thing of which we can be sure is that the Australian government will, in the wake of presidential elections in the United States, express its fealty to the United States and its identification with whatever policies of whichever candidate has been successful. Be proud of our chameleon-like capacity to identify with whoever rules in Washington. But whoever wins in Washington will, in any case, have these qualities:

  • a preoccupation with domestic economic issues in a time of depression
  • an absence of leadership on climate issues, meaning
  • an incapacity, as in Australia, to build new infrastructure, post-pandemic or persistent-pandemic, with new models of energy sustainability and climate change survivability
  • a persistence of American exceptionalism, a rejection of international regulation, a readiness to continue with military adventures illegal and unsuccessful.

Australia will be weirdly hitched to all that. The outlook is bleak.

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