This trial hasn’t finished Trump — it has invigorated him
Image. Portrait of former president Donald Trump. Digital photograph, 2016. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Image. Portrait of former president Donald Trump. Digital photograph, 2016. Library of US Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Written by

Peter Jennings

It remains to be seen if Donald Trump’s conviction on felony counts in a New York courtroom will have any material impact on the US presidential election in November. It’s clear many American voters would prefer different candidates. At least they can vote: the rest of us get no say and can only wonder how it is that the world’s most powerful military and economic force functions through such political chaos. 

It may be that the convictions change little on the pathway to the presidential election. It will surprise few that Trump’s professional lifetime as a showman and grifter finally saw some charges stick.

That may shift some votes, or perhaps persuade a few uncommitted voters to stay at home on polling day. On the other hand, Trump has made superb political capital campaigning against Democrat-inspired lawfare.

Trump is a lithe, politically agile, driven, endlessly moving, entertaining media performer. The trial has invigorated him: every development is turned into a fundraising opportunity or a political rally in areas once thought to be impenetrable Democrat territory.

The contrast with Joe Biden’s intellectual and physical stiffness, his verbal incoherence and increasingly petulant dislike of the media is painful to watch.

Trump’s most passionate supporters will take to the streets, including some in the mould of the January 6 Capitol rioters. I doubt this will lead to widespread or long-term instability. American police departments know how to put rioters down. What is remarkable about the US is the people’s capacity to move on quickly from internal adversity.

The test for Trump is to channel the insurrectionist end of his political support base. He wants to win an election, not tear the nation down. Observers of America should understand that the country’s politics has always been louder, more violent and more sectional than we see here. It is true, though, that the American presidential election of 2024 will be a bitterly divided affair, never more so than the 1968 election held during the height of anti-Vietnam war protests and the violent civil rights era.

My instinct is that Trump ultimately will win the election. He will come out of the New York City courthouse at 100 Centre Street like buckshot from a blunderbuss – all momentum if no clear direction. What has Biden got to counter that?

Remember there are five long months to go before election day, November 5, and close to three months after that for the inauguration on January 20, 2025.

What will America’s friends, allies and enemies do over those eight long months, when the US is even more inwardly focused and self-obsessed than usual?

China is always the winner when America self-harms. The Trump trial will factor into Xi Jinping’s long-established narrative that the West is declining and the East is rising. China’s English-language newspapers on Friday were slow to pick up on the Trump verdict. The People’s Daily was leading with Xi’s speech at the first China-Arab States Summit in Riyadh. Xi proposed “five co-operation frameworks” to deepen engagement with the Middle East.

The tabloid Global Times – both newspapers are controlled by the Chinese Community Party – ran an editorial titled “AUKUS does not increase Australia’s security”. The paper reported on the production of new J-20 stealth fighters and Type 055 large destroyers. The Global Times editorialised that “Chinese mainland already has the capability to permanently eliminate ‘Taiwan independence’ by force, but we insist on peaceful reunification as a priority.”

China will not crow about Trump’s conviction – Xi can do the electoral calculations as well as any. Instead, China will use the US election interregnum to press its diplomatic interests around the world. They key messages will remain that China’s military growth is unstoppable; that the US is unreliable and that the developing world is better off doing business with Beijing.

Beijing will ramp up military pressure around Taiwan. The People’s Liberation Army is constantly pushing the boundaries of air and sea-space incursions around the island, establishing a “new normal” of constant military strangulation. A direct Chinese military attack on Taiwan is unlikely, but not impossible, in the US election timeframe. Xi is increasingly aggressive and opportunistic. The Chinese calculation is it can probably take more strategic ground while Biden is President.

Trump, if elected, will be unpredictable and therefore riskier to China’s interests. Xi will use the next eight months to gain tactical advantage, weaken America’s relations with friends and allies and position for a possible conflict later in the 2020s.

Despite the surface level of American political chaos, the last Trump administration and the Biden administration had good-quality military and diplomatic people working on Asia policy. The effort is bearing fruit: Japan, South Korea, Australia, Taiwan and other key American allies and partners are shaping more effective responses to China’s aggression. While there is a desperate need for more military capability to be delivered more quickly, I would expect a second Trump presidency will be positive for allied interests in the Indo-Pacific.

What this means is that Xi’s window of opportunity is closing to take Taiwan and break America’s alliances in the region. Xi’s dilemma is about when, and if, to use or lose his fleeting military advantage over the Taiwan Strait.

Biden and Trump need somehow to articulate the strategic message that, notwithstanding the hot mess of US domestic politics, Washington will remain a steadfast military presence in Asia and America’s allies should do their bit to strengthen their militaries as quickly as possible, firming up deterrence.

Over this weekend Defence Minister Richard Marles will meet US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin at the Shangri-La Dialogue. Both need to urge the other to do better on faster AUKUS delivery. AUKUS is not just about nuclear-powered submarines. It also plans to advance new military technology co-operation. The message for Marles and Austin is that they should not wait for their defence bureaucracies to magically surface rapid technology development.

Austin and Marles need to put real money on the table for fast collaboration on weapons development. The aim should be to close the deterrence gap that gives Xi an incentive to use his military power more quickly.

On Friday, Mick McNeill of Bower Group Asia, a former political analyst for the US embassy in Canberra, reported that Anthony Albanese would attend the July 9-11 NATO summit in Washington DC.

Any prime ministerial opportunity to advance the AUKUS agenda is valuable. Albanese needs to shake off his political indecision and press Biden for opportunities to deliver more on AUKUS, faster than the officials will allow.

On Trump, Albanese needs to do three things. First, he needs to understand that Trump will probably be the next US president. In politics you play the hand you are dealt. Albanese should resist any temptation to get smart about the New York trial outcome and he should ensure his cabinet, ministry and backbench stay off social media and not gloat about the result.

Second, Albanese needs to look like he has a personal stake in AUKUS. Why not propose to Biden an AUKUS heads of government fund? Each government should put in $5bn – a rounding error in defence spending terms.

A challenge should be put to industry to propose military technology projects that get equipment into the hands of our war fighters as soon as possible. AUKUS can’t be a science project. We need outcomes. This approach will appeal to Trump. The aim should be to get Trump to adopt AUKUS as his own.

Third, Albanese should reach out to Scott Morrison and make him Australia’s unofficial conduit to Trump. Perhaps this has happened already but, if not, Albanese has a golden opportunity to take advantage of a political friendship between Morrison and Trump which the PM cannot develop himself.

Amid American political uncertainty, the Washington NATO summit gives Albanese the chance to do some personal political reinvention. As Trump could tell him, in politics you fake it ’til you make it – or not, as the case may be.

This article originally appeared in the Weekend Australian on 1 June 2024