It’s morning in Australia. A continent away, the wonks and pre-election polls have Joe Biden coasting to victory. But in a garish corner of Pyrmont, Sydney, a block away from the Star Casino, there were never any doubts about Donald Trump’s chances of victory.
“I wouldn’t say a landslide, but I think he’ll definitely win the popular vote,” a man named Brett tells me.
We’re at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), a local spinoff of the American outfit, the biggest gathering of Australia’s fledgling hard-right griftocracy — a motley assortment of Sky After Dark cast members, right-wing internet personalities and rogue Liberal backbenchers.
And then there are people like Brett and his partner Kerry, who’ve travelled from interstate to be here, decked in Trump gear.
CPAC is a parallel universe. It’s a place where Trump is a strong leader who gets things done. Where doctors are lying about coronavirus treatments. Where Democrats, I’m told, want to abort babies after they’re born and make America socialist.
“Rudy Giuliani calls them the Biden crime family,” Kelly tells me.
Paul, an affable economist who’s taken the day off work for the conference, tells me Trump is certain to win.
And if he doesn’t?
“Well, I think we’d all better start learning Mandarin,” he says.
Nobody believes the polls. And they sure as hell don’t trust the mainstream media. At the door, I get given a “fake news pass,” to mark me out as one the enemies. Reg, one of the MAGA-hatted volunteers ferrying drinks around tells me it’s the media’s lies that drew him to Trump four years ago. He prefers to get his news from Sky News and alt-right website The Unshackled. Brett and Kerry tell me they get their news from YouTube videos.
A year ago, CPAC was greeted with protesters. This time, thanks to COVID-19 restrictions there are just 300 or so diehards here. Virus restrictions are a topic of mirth here — founder Andrew Cooper winds up the crowd by telling us we need “socialism distancing, not social distancing,”
And as the day progresses, the wines come out, Trump looks like he’s picking up Florida, and we get to the point where stomachs should be flipping like The New York Times’ election needle, there’s a growing sense of confidence in the room. True to form, 2020 will give us an election where the final result most probably won’t be known on the day.
It shouldn’t have been like this, should it? More than 200,000 Americans have died during the pandemic. It’s really not clear what Trump’s plan is for the next four years beyond more angry tweeting and unhinged rambling.
How the hell did it get so close? Maybe CPAC gives us some answers, of sorts.
A few weeks out from the election, the National Review’s Rich Lowry (an erstwhile never-Trumper), wrote in a piece widely mocked by progressives on Twitter that Trump was the “only middle-finger” many Americans have left against what he views as the cultural dominance of the left.
It was, in many ways, a silly piece. But perhaps he’s got a point. Because the driving force at CPAC seems to be about flipping the bird at a series of strawmen. And in spite of the historical election humming along in the background, there’s little real discussion about the big issues that are dividing the country.
Instead, Bettina Arndt raves about the “fake campus rape crisis”. Alan Jones hyperventilates about lockdowns (which are now lifting), and Craig Kelly continues to flog disproven hydroxychloroquine. There are eulogies to Bill Leak. Jeering at moderate liberals and the ABC. Former One Nation candidate Emma Eros rants about the Frankfurt School and Cultural Marxism.
These are supposed to be the intellectual leading lights of modern conservatism. Instead, it’s all rage and animus. It’s a conservatism that ducks and weaves from the biggest challenges of our time, and chooses to froth at the mouth and stick up the middle finger.
Four years ago, Trump was propelled to the White House by a wave of rage in America’s forgotten middle.
We still don’t know if his re-election is secured. But the rage is still there. In fact, it seems like rage is all the right has left.