By Mark Kenny
This article was originally published by The Canberra Times.
If Donald Trump had ever wondered about the world beyond Mar-a-Lago or Manhattan, he might have viewed South Dakota's famous Black Hills as his "Great Dividing Range".
After all, he shamelessly appropriated the Black Hills' most famous peak, Mt Rushmore, to further fracture America and obscure the moral abandon of his eponymous administration.
Instead it was the hyperbolic content of Trump's roiling Independence Day speech that got closest - call it his "great dividing rage".
The fulminating orange one railed against indoctrinated newsrooms and schools and against liberals and "left-wing fascists" trying to foment a "left-wing cultural revolution".
This, at least, was partly true.
The 45th president is nothing if not a gifted aggregator of grievances, including, somewhat inconveniently for him, those of his numerically greater detractors.
Under the chiselled likenesses of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and "Teddy" Roosevelt, the shifty mercantile narcissism of Trump was manifest - their legacies carved into the land itself, all the more monumental for Trump's puniness of heart, the smallness of his tawdry divide-and-conquer patois.
What a contest. The stately permanence of stone versus the gaudy ephemera of fake truth, fake tan, fake leadership, fake conservatism.
Just months from electoral D-Day, the President's cynical pantomime is reeling from its own incoherence, his contempt for process, its leader's graceless victimhood.
Defiantly the novice, Trump remains as unprepared for office as he was four years ago and determined to stay that way so as to repeat the upset.
Hillary Clinton's extra 3 million votes would have been enough had her campaign not arrogantly failed to sandbag the industrially ravaged states in which Trump's populist message resonated.
Presumably the Democrats won't make that mistake twice.
In any event, the President has since turned the natural advantages of incumbency into negatives, beginning with the most durable asset of all: the dignity of the office itself.
Even the economy - turbo-charged through colossal, debt-funded corporate tax cuts - is now in the doldrums, thanks to Trump's mulish denial of the COVID-19 threat.
In fact, national public debt exceeds $US25 trillion, having reached 110 per cent of gross domestic product even before the corona-crisis. That's a 21 per cent increase in just three years - good going for a supposed fiscal conservative.
Opinion polls in the swing states put "Sleepy" Joe Biden well ahead - often by double figures. Whether Trump recovers in November depends on imponderables which inevitably buffet election campaigns, and, possibly, on the presidential debates - the incumbent's last best hope.
It's a scary thought for Australia and other rule-of-law trading nations: unburdened by the need for re-election, a second-term Trump could seriously worsen global stability, making the first four years seem relatively orthodox.
Which is not to underplay his destructive force already.
No president has done more to savage American prestige externally and demoralise it internally, explicitly casting conscientious citizens as unpatriotic.
And this, in the end, is his greatest weakness. While his pseudo-moralistic base has remained in tow through the most egregious shredding of law, convention, respect, and honesty, there is scant evidence it has broadened much since 2016.
Unlike his opponents.
Yet even in defeat, the full extent of Trump's vainglorious takeover of conservative politics may not be apparent, with perhaps the most permanent damage being inflicted on the moral core of the right itself - and not just in America.
Witness the GOP, a once-proud party now reduced to a divisive cult.
Beguiled by an egotistical reality TV personality, Republicans have willingly conspired in their own moral flensing.
Only Mitt Romney, the GOP's sole remaining vertebrae, broke ranks to vote for Trump's removal in the Senate last year, despite abundant evidence.
So pervasive is Trump's grip on the party of Lincoln that feckless D.C. Republicans know if they speak up against him, or even fail to speak up in his defence, they risk the withdrawal of presidential endorsement, and a well-funded contender on their right flank.
This goes a long way to explaining why the President finds ready communion with heartless autocrats like Jair Bolsonaro, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Viktor Orban, rather than the leaders of liberal democracies who constitute longstanding US friends and allies.
With his malleable ideology, Scott Morrison has played the Mad King more effectively than most, mainly by recognising that for this transactional president, lavish praise and personal fealty is key.
This was crucial in avoiding punitive tariffs on Australian steel and aluminium when other producers were hit.
But reasonable people searching for conservatism's bedrock values are entitled to ask: where is the red line here? What destruction of liberal democratic protections, or retreat from multilateralism, or deliberate weakening of global rules on which American global dominance was morally founded (and on which Australian security and prosperity relies) would occasion criticism? Let alone a parting of ways?
Asked by Sky's Kieran Gilbert if he was quietly hoping for a Biden win in November, John Howard said he was not convinced that Biden was a strong alternative. Pourquoi?
How is a Biden win bad for Australia?
As a former PM and the nation's leading conservative, Howard might have kept faith with core values like personal decency, the rule of law, the eschewing of nepotism, the protection of democratic confidence. He might have sided with a growing number of ex-Bush-era aides who understand what is at stake and are actively backing the Democrat. Rumour has it George W. is set to follow.
But not Howard. Forever the partisan warrior, it turns out that for him, no amount of misogyny, race-baiting, presidential attacks on officials, undermining of the free press and the courts, use of taxpayer funds to pursue political opponents (even overseas) or threats to use the army against the population can break him free of the Republicans.
Howard's gormlessness came within days of Morrison's most precautionary warnings of a deteriorating geostrategic picture in which American isolationism is a dangerous recent dynamic.
"... we have not seen the conflation of global, economic and strategic uncertainty now being experienced here in Australia in our region since the existential threat we faced when the global and regional order collapsed in the 1930s and 1940s," the Prime Minister said on July 1.
As the world slides towards entropy accelerated by Trump's erratic withdrawal, Howard's blinkered insouciance goes beyond the usual political crime of placing party before country, by putting another country's party before the interests of his own country.
If this is the moral core of modern Australian conservatism, it's a dead heart.
It is obvious to all but the most blinkered partisan that a Biden presidency presages a return to order, the hope of American civic repair, and the best chance of advancing the bipartisan Australian preference for responsible American leadership in global affairs.
As fears rise of a new and precarious cold war between the US and China, Howard and his party would do well to remember the oft-quoted words of their hero, and one of the genuine lodestars of the conservative cause, Edmund Burke.
"The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."
Mark Kenny is a professor at the ANU's Australian Studies Institute, and hosts the twice-weekly podcast, Democracy Sausage.