“Most mainstream liberals and conservatives would be shocked by the scenes in Washington,” Bragg, also a NSW Liberal senator, says.
“This violence was shocking and very unpopular amongst our supporters. As a movement of ‘institutionalists’ the riots have diminished the President in the eyes of many of our supporters.”
These verdicts show a reassessment of Trump and his populist movement at a time when Prime Minister Scott Morrison reserves public judgement.
Asked if Trump bore responsibility for the riot, Morrison condemned the violence, side-stepped the question and avoided any personal criticism of the President.
Rather than criticise Trump for inciting violence, acting Prime Minister Michael McCormack this week condemned Twitter for suspending Trump’s account.
Labor leader Anthony Albanese has rebuked them both for failing to call out behaviour that threatened American democracy. Labor believes Morrison and McCormack are afraid of offending their own conservative base.
Yet the base is shifting. Liberals say support for Trump among conservative Australians has always been a minority view and has shrunk since the November election.
There is no conservative consensus on Trump, of course. There never has been. John Roskam, a Liberal Party member and executive director of the Institute of Public Affairs in Melbourne, believes Trump still has Australian followers in the wake of the Capitol riots.
“No-one would condone what Trump said and did last week, but what occurred is unlikely to have changed either existing favourable or unfavourable opinions of the President,” he says.
Roskam believes Liberals draw a distinction between Trump’s policies and personal behaviour. Another Liberal, who declined to be named, believes the crisis has cemented opinion on either side of the argument, leaving a core group of Trump supporters in party branches in Australia.
Even so, the size of that group should not be exaggerated. The theory that most Liberals and Nationals love Trump has never held up to scrutiny. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg dismissed him as a “dropkick” five years ago and repeated that verdict a few weeks before Trump won the 2016 election.
Like others, Frydenberg held his tongue once Trump took power. Morrison famously stood alongside Trump at a factory opening in Wapakoneta, Ohio, that had the look and feel of a campaign rally. Yet there was always a scepticism or wariness about Trump and his policies in the Morrison office, just as there was in the office of the previous prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull.
Victorian Liberal senator Sarah Ferguson tweeted her condemnation of the riots last week and called for a peaceful transition of power to President-elect Joe Biden, who takes office on Tuesday.
Her fellow Victorian Liberal senator, David Van, admired some of Trump’s policies, such as his support for Israel, but rejects the way he refused to accept the election result and obstructed the transfer of power.
“I don’t think any of his claims were held up by any court,” Van says. “You have to respect the system and you have to respect the democracy.”
These comments on Trump come at a time when some Liberals and Nationals are speaking up on other fronts. Some are fed up with one of their colleagues, Liberal MP Craig Kelly, for publicising COVID-19 treatments that have not been shown to work.
“We have a duty to our nation to follow the evidence and facts,” says Fiona Martin, the Liberal MP for Reid in Sydney’s west and a child psychologist before she entered Parliament.
So why won’t Morrison criticise Trump?
Liberal MP Dave Sharma, the member for Wentworth in eastern Sydney and a former ambassador to Israel, says a national leader should avoid public criticism of another country’s head unless their nations are in conflict.
Criticise a country’s policies, says Sharma, but not its leader.
Julian Leeser, the Liberal MP for Berowra in northern Sydney, says Morrison made the right assessment of the Washington violence.
“I don’t think he needed to go any further – these are the internal matters of another country,” says Leeser.
“The key thing for us is maintaining the alliance and I think we have done that extremely well.”
David Crowe is chief political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.