Opinion: Why is Australia's media playing into Trump's delusions?

Photo by Bank Phrom on Unsplash
Sunday 24 March 2024

By Mark Kenny

A version of this article was originally published by The Canberra Times.

In physics, the centre of a black hole is where the rules governing the universe cease to operate. This is the singularity from which even light does not escape.

In politics, the risk of another norm-trashing term by Donald Trump might be its equivalent.

This charmless Manhattan property tycoon's vacant possession of the Republican Party has seen him rise from political obscurity less than a decade ago to become perhaps the dominant figure of world history in the first half of 21st century.

It is a trajectory that defies logic and thumbs its nose at established standards of decency, propriety and competence.

It has also shattered a widely held presumption that shaping global affairs requires a substantive figure. Trump's empty narcissism has shown the opposite - that with the tail-wind of a feckless media, so much power can be amassed the very fabric of political space-time becomes warped and distorted.

Institutions have struggled and teetered, not least the halls of Congress and state. But also notably, news media under an onslaught of lies and conspiracy theories.

While in the 1930s it was cowardly nation states hoping to sweet-talk aggressive German expansionism, now, almost a century later, it is a nihilistic fourth estate cheerleading democracy's surrender. Partly this is explicit, as in Fox News and its variants, and partly it is implicit, as in the tendency of news organisations to hold the former president to uniquely lower standards.

But don't be fooled that this betrayal is just an American failure.

The storm unleashed last week after a cloying interview of the Republican by Britain's Nigel Farage demonstrated how easily a credulous Australian media is drawn to the dank black hole of American division.

In the shabbiest of set-ups, Farage told Trump Kevin Rudd was "horrible" and had once described him as a "destructive" president and as "a traitor to the West".

Goaded by the champion of Brexit, Trump duly hit back, branding Australia's PM-turned-Ambassador to Washington, "a little bit nasty" and "not the brightest bulb", while admitting to knowing little about Rudd (code for nothing at all). If he is "hostile", Trump declared, he will not last as Australia's envoy.

Remember, Trump is not president, merely his party's presumptive nominee. This, therefore, was a significant flagrant breach of protocol, and for any other nominee, would have been reported both in the US and Australia as unprofessional, unbecoming, and distinctly unpresidential.

But Trump creates his own rules and, it turns out, even Australian media follows them.

There was a substantive story here. Australia, after all, is the closest of US allies, AUKUS partner, and landlord of critical US bases central to American global defence and force-projection. It is also an ongoing host of US troop rotations as well as bombers, warships, and more.

Rather than reporting this, major Australian news outlets focused on views Rudd delivered before his diplomatic posting and which were, by any community standards applying in Australia, observably true.

Trump had trashed just about every standard of probity and accountable government, appointing his family to powerful posts, enriching himself at every turn, siding with oppressive dictators who threaten the West, and finally seeking to overturn an election first through intimidation of officials and then by encouraging the sacking of the Capitol during which lives were lost.

Dr Rudd, on the other hand, is probably the most well-credentialled ambassador this country has ever appointed. Which makes it all the more curious journalists and their mastheads leaned into coverage weighing up his suitability for the post.

It may have been a News Corp stitch-up, but journalists covering it from other stables couldn't wait to pile on: "Tick, tick, tick," began one analysis, diagnosing the former PM's appointment as "a bomb waiting to explode" which would blow up Rudd's diplomatic career and harm Australia's "most important security alliance". Surely it is Trump who poses that threat?

There were exceptions.

"Might be worth reminding people that Josh Frydenberg called Donald Trump a 'drop kick' on national television, Christopher Pyne said a Trump presidency would be 'terrifying' and Malcolm Turnbull mimicked Trump in front of the press gallery," wrote The Guardian's Amy Remeikis.

She could have added John Howard's extraordinary and direct interference in American politics in 2007 when he was no less than Australia's prime minister: "If I was running al-Qaeda in Iraq, I would put a circle around March 2008, and pray, as many times as possible, for a victory not only for Obama, but also for the Democrats."

Removing Rudd at Trump's behest would be a disastrous concession - a point Turnbull emphasised, saying: "That would simply send a message to Trump and to Washington that Australia can be pushed around."

Yet the opposition and many in the commentariat seem to think this will be necessary. How bizarre is it that Australian politics is already buckling to the event horizon of a Trumpularity that has not yet eventuated?

Why are we so readily beguiled by surface level manoeuvring that we miss the important national values and interests at stake?

Perhaps a nation unwilling to take another's flag off its own simply lacks the spine to stand up straight.

Mark Kenny is a professor at the ANU Australian Studies Institute and host of the Democracy Sausage podcast.

Updated:  26 March 2024/Responsible Officer:  Institute Director/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications