Originally published in Herald Sun on January 13, 2024

“Who in God’s name does he think he is?”

On the third anniversary of the attempted insurrection of January 6, 2021, President Joe Biden asked a question many Americans must often ask themselves.

Donald Trump hopes to win the presidency of the United States a second time. We know what that will look like, he has told us. Trump is out for vengeance. He has promised himself and his supporters’ retribution. He relishes that prospect.

Trump appeals to Americans’ worst instincts. A great many of those Americans are suffering from entrenched poverty, violence and alienation. That such suffering continues to occur in what Biden calls “the greatest country on the face of the Earth” is no doubt partly why Trump’s conspiracies and lies find such committed believers.

But, while he has managed to convince many otherwise, Trump doesn’t care about the suffering of even those who support him. In the four years of his presidency, he took no real steps to improve the lives of voters who put their faith in him.

Trump only cares about himself.

He has no notion of service or sacrifice. He has called American service people who Australians have fought and died alongside “suckers” and “losers”.

Australian governments are always eager to emphasise our friendship with the US. But is that the kind of friend we want? Is Trump’s America really the kind of country we should trust with our security?

These are questions we may soon have to answer.

Next week, Republicans in Iowa choose their nominee for the presidency. Trump currently leads the polls by double figures and may well win the Iowa caucuses by the biggest margin in history.

Though American politics is always full of surprises, for now, it looks like Trump will be the Republican nominee. As in 2020, Americans will choose between Biden and Trump. At this stage, the polls are incredibly close. Because presidents are chosen not by popular vote but through the statebased Electoral College, the election may well come down to very close margins in a small number of states.

We must, of course, respect the processes of American democracy, flawed though they might be. But Trump himself feels no such compulsion. He does not see democracy, as Biden has put it, as “America’s sacred cause”.

He has mused about “terminating” the Constitution and has already made it clear that he will not accept an election loss.

What can, or should, Australia do if Trump returns to power, democratically or otherwise?

The US is Australia’s most important security ally. That alliance is, we are often told, based on “shared values”, and particularly the shared value of democracy. What if Trump turns all that on its head?

Many Australians may feel that we have no alternative. The US has been the guarantor of our security for 70 years and has seen many presidents and prime ministers come and go. But none of those leaders has ever been such an active threat to our shared value of democracy.

Today, it is widely assumed that Australia has only two choices: our security alliance with the US, or total submission to China. That is not true. In a complex and fluid international arena, Australia has many choices about how to ensure our ongoing security and prosperity. None require us to sacrifice our core values or tie our security to anti-democratic forces, from the US or China.

We are a modern and successful nation, albeit with important work still to do. We are more than capable of navigating a complex world. Australia should not abandon the US in its time of crisis. But we should carefully consider what our relationship might look like under a second Trump administration.

We might, for example, reconsider spending billions of dollars on some submarines we may or may not get sometime in the distant future, and further ceding our sovereignty to a wannabe dictator. It might mean some careful diplomacy in our region, working with allies in the Pacific, and with neighbours such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam, to ensure our collective security.

It should mean, always, staying true to our own democratic values. And it should mean being clear-eyed about the state of democracy in America.

Trump cannot be relied upon to protect our “shared value” of democracy. He cannot even be relied upon for strategic protection in a hypothetical (but unlikely) worst case scenario. Just look at how he and his cronies in Congress are treating Ukraine.

This year, American democracy is teetering on the brink. Americans, as Biden has said, will be asking themselves a fundamental question: “Who are we?” If Biden fails, Australians might well ask ourselves the very same thing.

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