Why Trump and DeSantis Are Talking About Australia

For those who haven’t been following the conversation on the right about Australia, Donald Trump’s recent entry into the chat might have been a little baffling.

On Friday, the former president put out a statement that included only this tweet, from the conservative columnist Scott Morefield: “I don’t think it’s far-fetched to say that if Donald Trump hadn’t won in 2016 and appointed three SCOTUS justices, the U.S. would literally be Australia right now.”

Coming just after the Supreme Court’s conservative majority blocked President Biden’s vaccine mandate for large businesses, the first half of Morefield’s tweet speaks for itself. But the second half, the context-free swipe at Australia, requires some explaining.

Over the past few months, Australia — Western-allied, democratic Australia — has become a byword among conservatives for an over-the-top approach to combating the coronavirus pandemic. The government there has used aggressive vaccine mandates, quarantines, border restrictions and lockdowns to keep Covid-19 deaths below 3,000 people in a country of 25 million, with some trade-offs in personal freedoms.

But the commentary on the American right has made Australia out to be some kind of authoritarian state:

  • In National Review, the flagship magazine of mainstream conservative thought, various headlines have read “When Will Someone Hold Human-Rights Hearings on Australia?,” “Australians Are Suffering from Excessive COVID Lockdowns,” and “When a Western Society Goes Insane.”

  • A Sept. 9 article in The Federalist declared: “The once free and open Australian continent has effectively become a giant prison for its 26 million residents.”

  • That same month, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida mused aloud: “Is Australia freer than China, communist China, right now? I don’t know. The fact that that’s even a question tells you something has gone dramatically off the rails with some of this stuff.”

  • On Sept. 30, Tucker Carlson, the Fox News host, devoted 12 minutes of his show to Australia, documenting its supposed slide into authoritarianism. “One moment the English-speaking world is mocking China for being dystopian and autocratic,” he warned. “The next moment they’re aping China and hunting people down who are two blocks from their homes and smoking a cigarette.”

  • Two months later, Carlson referred to a quarantine facility in Darwin, Australia, as a “Covid concentration camp.”

  • In October, Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, got into an exchange with the leader of Australia’s Northern Territory after tweeting, “I’ve always said Australia is the Texas of the Pacific. The Covid tyranny of their current government is disgraceful & sad. Individual liberty matters. I stand with the people of #Australia.”

  • In November, Joe Rogan, mistaking satire for a real ad, posted on his Instagram account: “Not only has Australia had the worst reaction to the pandemic with dystopian, police-state measures that are truly inconceivable to the rest of the civilized world, but they also have the absolute dumbest propaganda.”

These concerns prompted Van Badham, an Australian journalist, to fire back in a guest opinion essay for The New York Times entitled: “No, Australia Is Not Actually an Evil Dictatorship.”

The comparisons died down for a while, but the recent standoff between Novak Djokovic and Australian tennis authorities over the Serbian star’s refusal to vaccinate has brought the topic raging back. Trump and DeSantis are also shadowboxing over their respective records on Covid, ahead of a possible clash in the 2024 Republican presidential primary, so the fact that both have mentioned Australia is especially interesting.

Our man in Sydney

But what’s really happening in Australia? To get some ground truth, we chatted with Damien Cave, the Australia bureau chief for The New York Times. In recent months, Cave has explored how Australians have reacted to the country’s zero-tolerance Covid policies. He also wrote about his experience at a quarantine camp.

Recent Developments at Fox News

  • Fauci Comments: The Fox News host Jesse Watters used notably violent language in urging a gathering of conservatives to publicly confront Dr. Anthony Fauci.
  • Jan. 6 Texts: Three prominent Fox News hosts — Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity and Brian Kilmeade — texted Mark Meadows during the Jan. 6 riot urging him to tell Donald Trump to try to stop it.
  • Chris Wallace Departs: The anchor’s announcement that he was leaving Fox News for CNN came as right-wing hosts have increasingly set the channel’s agenda.
  • Contributors Quit: Jonah Goldberg and Stephen Hayes quit the network in protest over Tucker Carlson’s “Patriot Purge” special.

How are things there in Australia? Can you tell us how the country is dealing with the pandemic right now?

Case numbers have reached new highs with an Omicron outbreak, hospitals in major cities are struggling to cope and most people are just trying to be careful and avoid being infected. Masks are mandatory indoors (nearly everyone complies without complaining) and the era of closed borders, between states and internationally, is also coming to an end. Essentially, there is both a mix of more movement and a fair amount of caution and continued anxiety.

We know there have been protests, particularly in Melbourne, the capital of the state of Victoria. How widespread is the feeling that the government’s Covid policies have gone too far?

There are certainly some Australians who have been frustrated by moments of heavy-handedness. At one point in Melbourne, Victorian state authorities closed outdoor playgrounds even though there was little risk there. That really angered a lot of parents. The border closures also really made a lot of people furious, especially Australians living overseas who were trying to get home.

But Australians are also extremely proud of how they’ve handled the pandemic. The country has had fewer deaths per capita than just about anywhere. And while the lockdowns were hard, there was a lot of government aid to help workers and businesses. Most Australians, in polls and in interviews I’ve done all over the country, will tell you that, despite the problems, it’s been worth it.

Are Australians aware of what conservative commentators in the United States are saying about them? What do they make of hearing that they’re living in a dystopian police state?

The Australians who are aware — including many conservatives — find that both odd and insulting. They tend to think it’s absurd for those conservatives to be attacking Australia’s policies from a country where 800,000 people have died from Covid, thanks in part, Australians argue, to America’s obsession with individualism and “freedom” rather than a respect for collective sacrifice.

So there are federal elections coming up this year, right? Are we going to see critics of the government running against incumbents on Covid?

There will be criticism of the government for going too slowly and not doing enough to get people what they need, with vaccines early on and with rapid antigen tests now. But generally, there’s a pretty broad consensus in Australia: What they’ve done since 2020 has mostly worked, and now it’s time to transition out of restrictions, carefully, while continuing to encourage vaccination.

A lot of the criticism from the American right feels outdated and out of touch. Australians are living their lives, kids are about to go back to school and the continued effort to be careful to keep people safe, with some space restrictions at major events and masks, is something they tend to shrug off as a bit irritating but necessary for the good of the country.

Want to hear more from The Times’s Australia bureau? You can sign up here for Australia Letter, a weekly dispatch with stories about Australia and New Zealand.

What to read

  • The House committee investigating the Capitol riot called for documents and testimony on Tuesday from Rudolph W. Giuliani, Jenna Ellis, Sidney Powell and Boris Epshteyn, Luke Broadwater reports.

  • Did Richard Nixon defeat John F. Kennedy in 1960? Jeff Shesol reviews “Campaign of the Century,”a new book on the subject by Irwin F. Gellman, a historian. “The white whale here is proof of a stolen election,” writes Shesol, a former speechwriter in the Bill Clinton White House. “This book does not provide it.”

  • Bill de Blasio, the former New York mayor, said he will not run for governor. His announcement came as Gov. Kathy Hochul’s re-election campaign revealed it has already raised nearly $21.6 million.

  • In Idaho, a feud between the governor and lieutenant governor is revealing deep political fissures in one of the most Republican states in the country, Eric Scigliano writes for Politico Magazine.

Gary Chambers smoking marijuana in a campaign ad for his Senate candidacy in Louisiana.Credit…Chambers for Louisiana

One more thing …

We’ve come a long way since the days of “I didn’t inhale.”

On Tuesday, a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in Louisiana released a 37-second video that shows him smoking pot on camera. Seated in a high-backed leather chair and casually puffing on a cigar-sized blunt, the candidate, Gary Chambers, begins, “Every 37 seconds, someone is arrested for possession of marijuana.” Then he goes on to detail a number of ways in which the unequal enforcement of laws against the drug has harmed Black people in particular.

Chambers, who describes himself as “a simple God-fearing man, family-focused, business owner, community activist” from Baton Rouge, is running to unseat Senator John N. Kennedy, a Republican who has represented Louisiana since 2017.

In an interview, Chambers said he smoked a real joint because it was important to be “very direct about the issues that we’re facing.” If it’s fair for people to make millions of dollars for selling cannabis, he asked, “Why are people going to jail for this?”

The video had legalization advocacy groups cheering, and got the previously unknown Chambers wide attention online. “I didn’t know it would get this much traction,” he said, “but I’m not mad that it did.”

Is there anything you think we’re missing? Anything you want to see more of? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at [email protected].

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