Government and governance | Australia, Asia, The World

4 February 2021

The end of the Trump administration can teach as much about democratic resilience as it does democratic weakness, and Australia must take note, James Mortensen writes.

With the spectacular death throes of former President Donald Trump’s administration having compromised the seat of American democracy, many have called for a powerful rejection of everything that allowed such a travesty to occur.

Here in Australia, the tone has largely been one of disappointment in American democracy. The Australian’s Greg Sheridan proclaimed that ‘American democracy has been humiliated’, and in an analysis piece for the ABC, Stan Grant wrote that the United States is ‘broken’, and the promise of democracy ‘faded’.

However it would be remiss of Australia to focus solely on Trumpian travesties. Supporters of democracy across the world should also carefully consider how the most powerful political appointment in the democratic world was given to such a man – and how, for now, democracy survived him. If Australia wants a strong democracy of its own, it should consider American strengths, just as it considers recent failings.

The first piece of armour that protected democracy over the course of the Trump administration was a free press.

Thomas Jefferson wrote that for a democracy, ‘…the only security of all is in a free press’, but for four years, the president openly attacked media outlets and attempted to undermine the credibility of mainstream media. The White House went nine months without a press briefing, and the president used social media to create a de facto state news enterprise as part of his war against the mainstream media.

Importantly though, Trump did this because he knows a strong and free press has power. Indeed, the sheer force with which Trump challenged the press demonstrates how crucial it is to a democracy – and this is exactly why Australians should be fundamentally concerned with issues of press freedom at home, as well as abroad.

More on this: American democracy is under threat

The storming of the Capitol was certainly a monument to Trump’s war with the press, but it was ultimately a final, though spectacular, battle in a war that Trump resoundingly lost. Even at the height of Trump’s presidency, Americans trusted the media more than him.

Jefferson’s concerns show that the United States has long benefited from a tradition of press freedom, and Australians watching on should not get complacent either.

As such, they should be deeply concerned with attempts by politicians to involve themselves in the business of the press, and about the press involving itself in politics.

The second crucial part of America’s system is an independent judiciary, one which often protected its democracy from the president’s attacks over the last four years.

Trump’s willingness to pardon his friends, disregard the law, and disrespect the justice system was evident before he took office. But despite his continued efforts, the American justice system managed to find myriad ways to assert its independence, and eventually would become the final bulwark against his undermining of the 2020 election results.

The independence of the courts is fundamental to democracy – that laws should never be enforced by those that make them is fundamental to a fair and robust system of justice. Faced with a president that sought to define and dispense justice himself, the judiciary was able to protect itself enough that it might yet see the highest acts of criminality of the administration brought to justice.

More on this: Mending our threadbare democracies

While it may well be far from parliament house falling to a Twitter flash mob, it’s important to remain vigilant to any instances of political abuse of the independent judiciary in Australia too.

Actively rejecting the ideas and ideals that fuelled Trump’s presidency is necessary, but the community should also fight for the independence of the justice system, even if political leaders might not always like it.

This includes seeing the removal of judicial checks against the use of executive power – such as warrantless surveillance or the arresting of children – as threats to democracy, and is crucial to protecting Australia from the fate its closest ally is fighting so hard to avoid.

Lastly, we can learn from the mass exodus of public servants from the White House that resulted from Trump’s occupation. Many career bureaucrats opted to never work for him; others tried and failed. Others still toiled on in order to maintain necessary institutions and policies and protect the public interest from the storm.

And in Australia, we pored over the results of this exodus, from the tell-all accounts and principled stands to the fruits of a politically active and engaged bureaucracy. The irony is of course that Australian bureaucrats are expected to be publicly apolitical, or risk ending their careers – the public expression of political opinion is specifically and categorically denied to Australian public servants.

Indeed, it would be hard to imagine Trump’s demise without the voices of those bureaucrats that spoke out, so if we in Australia wish to keep our democracy strong we should keep the importance of those voices in mind.

While of course the dying days of the Trump administration were evidence of a great democratic sickness, they have also evidence of democracy’s ability to hold strong under siege. Just as those in Australia must learn from what Trump preyed upon – the relationship between law enforcement and alt-right extremism being a particularly pressing example – it should also learn from what limited his reach.

Ultimately, it is people that make a nation, not a president, prime minister, or government. Keeping democracy healthy is the best security Americans and Australians alike have against the malicious desires of a powerful few. As soldiers surround the White House and insurgents are arrested in droves, all watching the madness unfold would do well to remember that in public policy, freedoms are what provide security, just as security is what provides freedom.

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