A week after Donald J. Trump was elected president, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation presented a wide ranging television interview with the nation’s prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull. Mr. Turnbull has been in office for slightly over a year. He is a socially progressive moderate who leads the nation’s Liberal Party (don’t let the name fool you, the Liberals are conservative leaning). His predecessor, Tony Abbott, had been cast out by the party after an endless series of tin-eared, reactionary decisions that alienated the Australian electorate almost immediately following his election in 2013.
The A.B.C. had already done a brief interview with Mr. Turnbull in the wake of Mr. Trump’s election. He resisted every invitation by journalist Leigh Sales to express shock at the U.S. voters’ decision on Mr. Trump in favor of a circumspect diplomacy. “Congressmen and senators come and go,” Mr. Turnbull told the A.B.C., “but the nation’s enduring interests continue and the alliance between Australia and the U.S. is set in the enduring national interest of both countries.”
A week later, the network wanted to talk not about Mr. Trump but Mr. Turnbull’s own woes. After a brief honeymoon, he has struggled to put any runs of his own on the board. In July his Liberal-National coalition won reelection by a single seat.
And since then he has had to deal with far more conservative members of his party forcing their own agendas upon the government, prominent among them one member who last week asked, “Do people think Western civilization will just keep going? All civilizations come to an end at some point. There is going to be a reckoning.” (This politician was also photographed in a tank top carrying a whip while showing off a tattoo of Mary and the baby Jesus on his upper arm.)
Mr. Turnbull was quizzed about the concerted effort by some of his party fellows to amend a clause of the country’s racial discrimination act. The aim is to expand the kinds of comments Australians are allowed to make without threat of being sued. As Australia’s Attorney General George Brandis put it to the Parliament in 2014, “People have the right to be bigots.”
Asked why this issue, which is so far from the present-day concerns of most Australians, continues to draw such focus from the government, Mr. Turnbull made the surprising move of adopting the language of Mr. Trump. The real problem, he argued, was not the backbenchers arguing for change, but “the elite media” which kept bringing the topic up. “I have focused overwhelmingly on the economy,” he insisted.
An odd comment from a politician who has spent many years—mostly through appearances on the A.B.C.—building a reputation as a thoughtful moderate. He is also an Oxford-educated lawyer so thoroughly patrician in character that, as many commentators noted, he was unable even to say the word “elite” in a way that didn’t demonstrate his own elite education.
And yet, as the interview went on he kept returning to Mr. Trump’s language, suggesting questions about his terrible poll numbers were again “the elite media” trying to distract people from the real issues. “I would have thought,” he told interviewer Ms. Sales, “after this last election in the United States, people might focus less on the polls and less on the opinions of commentators on the A.B.C. or other elite media outlets and focus more on what people are actually saying.”
Other members of Mr. Turnbull’s government have also taken to sounding downright Trumpian in recent days. Recently opposition leader Bill Shorten of the Labor Party challenged Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s bizarre claims that the nation had made a mistake by taking in so many Lebanese Muslims 40 years earlier—given the fact that 22 of their descendants have been arrested on terrorism-related offenses in the intervening decades.
In the ensuing uproar which followed the minister recast himself as the victim. He, insisted that he would not be “bullied” and “demonized” by a union leader who used political correctness and identity politics to silence people. “I’m not interested in the politically correct nonsense the leader of the opposition might carry on with,” he said.
Likewise Tony Abbott. When asked on the national broadcaster to explain revelations that as prime minister he made a deal to weaken Australia’s strict gun laws in order to get a bill through the Parliament—revelations that included emails that proved this was the case—Mr. Abbott just kept restating the opposite. “But for the Abbott government we would have tens of thousands of these weapons in our country,” he insisted.
In these weeks before Mr. Trump’s inauguration, many are wondering what kind of effect he will have on world affairs. But perhaps equally concerning is the incentive his success may give to others—even those who share almost nothing in common with his agenda—to adapt a similarly destabilizing political style. Trump-inspired doomsday scenarios are already a dime a dozen on social media. Still, one wonders whether a Trump presidency might have the dangerous effect of drawing the world political conversation even further down to his level.
Jim McDermott, S.J., is America's Los Angeles correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @popculturpriest.