Australians used to talk about American politics the way they talk about sport — they followed the ups and downs, marveled at the competitor, and tried to game out who would win.
This year? It’s more like the discussion of a car wreck involving a neighbor or an uncle.
For months, friends and even strangers have been asking if my relatives are healthy, worried they may have perished in the American coronavirus catastrophe. And this week, after a debacle of a debate and the news that President Trump and Melania Trump had tested positive for the coronavirus, I saw and heard more than just empathy — also shock, dismay, fear, heartbreak and just head-shaking alarm.
Van Badham, a commentator who often writes for The Guardian (and occasionally the New York Times Opinion section), replied to my tweet about Mr. Trump’s positive test result with what many Australians seem to be feeling:
I emailed Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s office right away seeking comment — and got nothing, at least for the moment. My guess: The power-brokers in Canberra were also trying to lift their jaws off the ground.
Earlier in the week, after the debate — in which Mr. Trump interrupted Joe Biden or the moderator 128 times, by one count — many Australians seemed eager to lend my fellow Yanks a hand. They offered therapeutic assistance, alcohol and an invitation to visit (or escape) to Australia, a country with national Medicare, unsolicited and easy mail-in voting and a successful response to the pandemic.
But all over the country (and the world), there were also signs of intensifying frustration. Michael Fullilove, who heads up the Lowy Institute and who wrote a book on Franklin Delano Roosevelt, offered an early and surly critique — “The words I missed most in that debate: ‘You’re on mute.’”
David Rowe, a political cartoonist for the Australian Financial Review, quickly published an illustration titled “undebatable” showing President Trump in clown shoes, shirtless, with a single phrase written on his body: “Me the people.”
When I asked Hugh White, a professor of strategic studies at the Australia National University, how he felt watching the debate, he said two emotions came to mind: dismay and sadness.
“Specifically, it renewed my bewilderment that over 40 percent of Americans are willing to contemplate a vote for Trump,” he said. “What does that say about their views of the presidency?”
He added that the policy-free back and forth also “reinforced my sense that Biden is indeed a very weak candidate, whose only claim to the presidency, as he himself acknowledged, is that he isn’t Donald Trump.”
And, he said, “it deepened my anxiety that the election result will be contested and chaotic.”
Jen Overbeck, a dual American-Australian citizen who teaches about power and management at Melbourne Business School, said that watching the campaign from afar has brought her closer to Australians, as together they share a mix of fear and helplessness.
“It’s been terrifying in a larger way to watch what’s happening in the U.S., the decline (or should I say assisted suicide) of legitimacy and Trump’s extraordinarily effective way of using raw power to destabilize and to break or re-form institutions in a very short time,” she said.
The U.S., she added, has been moving from a system of adversarial politics to one simply “fought on the grounds of raw power.”
What Mr. Trump’s diagnosis means for that approach — and the race in general — is very much an open question.
Mr. Trump’s positive test result could pose immediate difficulties for the future of his campaign against former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., his Democratic challenger, with just 33 days before the election on Nov. 3. Even if Mr. Trump, 74, remains asymptomatic, he will have to withdraw from the campaign trail and stay isolated in the White House for an unknown period of time. If he becomes sick, it could raise questions about whether he should remain on the ballot at all.
Looks like Australians, like the rest of us, will have a lot more to watch and react to between now and Election Day on Nov. 3.
Now here are our stories of the week.
Australia and New Zealand
Around the Times
… And Over to You
In last week’s newsletter about spring and the easing lockdown in Melbourne, Besha Rodell asked: How are you finding happiness these days? Here are two responses:
For me, just looking out the kitchen window to greener grass and a few pink flowers in my largely neglected backyard can make my repetitive days a little lighter.
— Andi Yu
I have drawn strength from the fact that previous generations have survived wars, famine and many illnesses without cure, and now we have to work together to get through this unexpected difficult period.
My family has decided to consciously appreciate little things in life that bring joy, and to make the most of the slower pace this year. We have voiced gratitude for living in a lovely city, for our home, family, and a determined government looking after our safety.
— Anina Fitzgibbon