Appalled that their party could choose for its leader a man without a conservative bone in his body, this group of hardcore right-wingers now threatens that party’s very existence. Shrugging off the centre-right coalition’s traditional identity as a ‘broad church’, these purists have issued an ultimatum: without a true conservative at the helm, we’ll be sending our votes elsewhere. Their unflinching resolve has drawn ridicule from every corner of the political establishment: the party bosses, conservative ‘pragmatists’, and that overpowered minority aligned with the ruling faction. The Del-Cons? No (well, yes, but no): the #NeverTrump movement.
The parallels between the Liberals’ anti-Turnbull Maquis and the Republicans’ anti-Trump guerillas are striking. Both swear fealty to a disenfranchised ultra-conservative politician, Tony Abbott for the Liberals and Ted Cruz for the Republicans. Both found their mouthpiece in leading journals of opinion: The Spectator Australia and the National Review, respectively. Both absolutely refuse to support their party so long as it’s led by a man they consider vain, blustering, and out of step with the grassroots. And both have pitted themselves against a coup – in the Liberals’ case the spill of 2015; in the Republicans’, a primary season flooded with independents.
Of course, there are equally major differences. Turnbull, for instance, is a moderate, whereas Trump is a nationalist. Turnbull is seen as too amicable to multiculturalism, whereas Trump is too hostile. Perhaps the most serious, though, is the massive difference in Australian and American elections. As I write, the Republican Party is in the midst of its National Convention, where the Donald has officially secured its nomination for president. There was no semblance of a democratic mandate among the Liberals when Turnbull came to power. There was no mechanism by which dissident conservatives could voice their animosity when Turnbull seized their leadership. The convention process exists so that sore losers like the Cruz camp can bitch and moan and attempt to subvert the popular vote. And that’s precisely what happened on the convention floor on Day 1, when pro-Cruz delegates led by Senator Mike Lee attempted to unbind the delegates, i.e. allow them to vote according to their conscience, not according to who received the most votes in their state’s primary. It was a futile motion – Trump secured the requisite number of delegates months in advance – but even the small furor was a symbolic blow to the Trump Party. Historically, the RNC has been a moment for supporters of defeated candidates to lend their votes willingly to the presumptive nominee. The long week of speeches, hob-knobbing, and endless piss-ups restores a sense of unity to a fractured confederacy of neoconservatives, paleoconservatives, libertarians, populists, moderates, and Christian rightists. Instead, they stuck out their foot as Trump took his long, rambling victory lap. While he quickly regained his footing, his momentum going into the general election will be hampered.
But not as severely as Turnbull’s going into the recent federal election. Instead of placing the focus on their widely unpopular nominee, the RNC organizers wisely honed in on their general election opponent: Hillary Clinton. As liberal comedian Bill Maher tweeted: ‘Playing the drinking game here where you take a shot every time a speaker mentions Trump. Stone. Cold. Sober.’ It’s generally understood that everyone who might support the Donald is already behind him. He’s received far too much media attention for anyone to be undecided on his candidacy. Keynote speakers have, therefore, opted not to peddle the Trump brand, but rather to take aim at the Clinton machine. The best example was undoubtedly New Jersey governor Chris Christie, a former US attorney and likely Trump Attorney-General. Instead of giving a traditional address, Christie held a mock trial, prosecuting Clinton on ‘charges’ ranging from her bungling the Libya intervention to her use of a private email server as Secretary of State. The convention-goers acted as a jury of her peers, howling ‘guilty’ after every accusation was leveled and spontaneously bursting into choruses of ‘Lock her up!’ It was a brilliant example of mob justice, eerily reminiscent of the People’s Court scene in The Dark Knight Rises. (‘Exile or Death?’) He made the best possible case to undecided voters: Trump might be a vulgar blowhard, but at least he isn’t an unhinged, amoral criminal.
The Republican establishment is doing a good job with a bad hand. Curious, then, that the Liberals chose a personality-based campaign that commentators widely referred to as ‘American-style’. They shifted away from the parliamentary tradition of voting for a party, and chose instead to run on an individual – and a divisive individual at that. Hence the truly bizarre ‘Team Turnbull’ shtick. It’s hard to imagine an election cycle where this would’ve been less appropriate. Certainly they should’ve known better, considering the Aussie election was held smack in the middle of America’s, and took less than one-fifth of the time.
But Turnbull can’t rest on his laurels now. Whatever his republican fantasies, he’s still the PM of a Westminster democracy. That means the Liberal Party won the election, not him. And it means, as he should know only too well, that they can dump him at the drop of a hat. If he’s wise, he’ll take a lesson from the GOP and disband his cult of personality. He’ll heed Menzies’s example and realise that the Liberal Party is, at bottom, the Not-Labor Party. If he can sell the Not-Labor agenda as deftly as the Republicans are selling the Not-Clinton agenda, he may yet lead his party to the next federal election.