When his orangeness Donald Trump ascended to the White House in 2016, the hunt was soon on for the Donald Trump of everywhere.
There were some actual candidates such as Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, some for whom the designation was a bit of a stretch, such as Boris Johnson in the UK, and some for whom it was always ridiculous.
That last group included Scott Morrison, who was only Trumpian in the sense that his very existence put progressives into a sort of fury at the very direction of history. There was really no place in the Westminster system to be a Trump — such a role and persona relies on the sovereign power of the presidency to project the notion of being an unmediated representative of the people.
And Morrison cultivated an image that moved back towards the procedural centre-right, from Tony Abbott’s “blue gonzo” schtick. Morrison’s — or Team Morrison’s — ability to come up with centrist slogans, such as “the promise of Australia”, couldn’t be more different from Trump, and visibly so, when Trump was on the world stage.
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But Trump is gone, and the populist moment appears to be passing for the moment. Johnson, in pursuit of the Tory party’s rarely interrupted 200-year mission — co-opt policies from the left to create a One Nation party by fusing them with right-wing principles — is busy creating a green capitalism, or the appearance of such, in which the “animal spirits” of “human ingenuity” etc will solve all the problems of humanity in the usual manner of the “free market”: i.e. the state reregulates sectors of capital to allow for massive windfall profits.
But Johnson, having done his time on the denialist side, has now seen the sudden, rapid and epochal shift of attitudes on climate change and understood — once again, “Boris Johnson has understood” might mean his advisers have understood; there has probably been hours of yelling at the blond bombsite — and determined that adopting it was essential to be the party of the nation.
Elsewhere, Macron has recovered from a fairly dire period in his presidency; the gilets jaunes have dispersed; no populist emerged in the recent German elections. Some reconsolidation of politics has occurred. Having won some gains such as Brexit, Macron’s abandonment of some neoliberal “reforms” etc, and a stepping back from the full fusion of the state with woke cultural politics, the energy has gone out of populism.
There is not much further that it can go, since its politics are always nostalgic: a return to high industrial capitalism, a pre-multicultural society with non-whites at the margins, and a sense of working-middle-class life — rather than knowledge-class life – being the centre, and the motor, of social existence.
Did someone say nostalgia for a lost world? Australia will be there! With yet another repackaging as “the Australian way”, Morrison shows his artfulness once again. Everything about “the Australian way” is crap, a round-the-table dodged-up ad campaign, cheesy, a whiff of British technical wizardry, with the spirit of a margarine commercial.
Morrison’s performance has been, well, peak ScoMo, that ability to plough through obvious and exposed contradiction, and to turn things back quite fast on his interrogators and antagonists. Various commentators seem amazed by this, but it’s simply ad-man mode, the pitch meeting, the ability to turn on a five cent piece.
In the pitch, your most important task is to sell yourself, not the idea you’ve got, but you do it by selling that idea. The idea itself is a McGuffin, since everyone knows it will change out of all recognition in the making. What matters is to find someone who can attach themselves to whatever piece of junk they’ve come up with and push it through whatever the ridicule.
Thus, with the absence of Trump, a Trumpian slot has opened up on the world stage. Australia is a natural fit, as a decultured extractive backwater frontier settler capitalist colony. But you can’t do Trump if you’re not Trump — it would look ridiculous. So the ScoMo schtick — done on a world stage, but for domestic consumption — fits perfectly.
Morrison appears to, and has to, play a double game, in which he communicates to a slice of voters back home that, yes, he agrees that global warming is real, but also that he’s not going to be pushed around by a bunch of foreigners about how to deal with it.
If he can do both of those things, it may well be enough to persuade slices of voters in Higgins, in coal country, in Bass, that he’s done just enough of what they want to give him a pass on it, and vote for him again as the guardian of property values. Indeed, in the coming election he may well lose some Liberal knife-edge seats and gain some Labor ones (of which there are a greater number) for a result which has almost no overall change in major party numbers.
In service to this, he appears to have developed a novel political virtue, that of querulousness. This is the litest of Trump-liteness. Trump snarls, like a two-dollar shop goombah, an imitation of a tough guy. Morrison snips and snipes. He gives the impression that his relationship with the press and the public is more like the last innings of a tired marriage than a grand cause. He is a man who perpetually sounds like someone asking where the remote control is; would you bloody put it back where it lives. He is a walking advertisement for a regular prostate check-up. He … well, you get the drift. He has turned the essential evisceration of the middle-aged family man into a superpower.
There are many men and women out there who will identify with his irritation and disdain for the great and good of the world, as those grandees lecture him, which is why he is making it all about Australia. Even as he acknowledges climate change, he is making himself into the patron saint of the nation’s put-upon. Since that is most of us, the potential yield is rich.
No, for the record, I don’t think this sort of approach was deliberate, planned, thought ahead. It seems desperately tactical, responsive, improvised, as the contradictions of the period start to grind away at the right — or at least, at its preferred politics of austerity economics and an authoritarian state. But tactics will get you through a period like this, and spare you the illusion that having a strategy might make a difference.
As we sneer, ridicule and moan at the absurdity and unseriousness of the Coalition’s response — the grudging acquiescence, the document that’s proverbially just a ring-bound front and back cover — we need to remember again and again that in purporting to speak for the nation it doesn’t need to speak to the nation. Just to slivers of votes in a dozen electorates that would give it the election, and its 30-year era.