These days, Australians regularly wake to threats against "little rocket man" in North Korea, to bomb Syria with "nice, new and smart" missiles, or to wage a "good" trade war with China, tweeted live from US President Donald Trump’s phone.
Our closest ally has undergone a personality transplant, and no-one can keep up with the pace of change. Where the definition of a scandal under President Barack Obama was that he once wore a tan suit, these days someone can burn to death without a sprinkler system in a Trump Tower fire that injures four firefighters, and the news cycle simply moves on.
Even as US rival China builds a wharf big enough for naval vessels in our region, America under Trump seems intent on disengagement with much of the world. Some countries have even been asked to pay more money to remain friends with the US, like it's a protection racket.
What then can we expect from a best mate who now spends more time breaking agreements than making them, who wants to be called crazy… and who may or may not have been spanked by a porn star with a copy of Forbes magazine while his wife nursed their newborn?
Sunday’s SBS documentary Trump’s Takeover provides some clues. The Frontline special from PBS is the inside story of how Trump captured the Republican side of US politics, from the ground up. It makes the case that Trump’s America is the new Republican normal, not just our mate going through a phase.
It reveals Trump’s total success in “trying to overwhelm Washington with his personality”, in the words of journalist Robert Costa of The Washington Post. Others interviewed include controversial Trump allies Kellyanne Conway, Corey Lewandowski and Roger Stone, along with retiring Trump nemesis Senator Jeff Flake, one of the defeated Republican “Never Trumpers” who tried to prevent his presidency, then hold back the elected Trump.
News from the US in 2018 often seems messy, random, even inexplicable. Trump’s Takeover glues it back together. It uncovers the successful goal of The Donald’s belligerent behaviour towards even his own colleagues: turning the Republican Party into the Trump Party. The new President's campaign-style rallies showed anti-Trump Republicans in Congress that they had no longer had voters of their own: there were now only Trump Party voters and opposition Democrats.
Cue the recent wave of resignations (tallied at three dozen, before Speaker Paul Ryan joined them last week in abandoning re-election plans). The Never Trumpers have been reduced to barracking from Twitter accounts, eager to say “I told you so” should Republicans be decimated in this year’s upcoming midterm elections for Congress.
Chief Never Trumper Rick Wilson’s slogan is “Everything Trump Touches Dies” (#ETTD), but this documentary suggests the death touch has been applied to the Republicans themselves. Trump has made himself party leader, not just a president.
Whether Donald Trump is brought down by investigations, scandals and disappointed voters, or survives a full term and is re-elected, his rise has transformed US politics. The Washington establishment is reeling, from this and the defeat of Hillary Clinton. American foreign policy is undergoing dramatic changes.
While outwardly America remains the mate Australia can count on to conduct prominent naval exercises between here and Vanuatu, send more tourists, and do whatever it is they do at Pine Gap, Australian officials must be wondering what’s next. How well will Canberra fare now that Donald Trump has pushed so many familiar pieces off the chessboard – and who will lead this Trump Party next?
Watch Trump’s Takeover on SBS this Sunday at 8:30pm. The documentary will be available at SBS On Demand after it airs.