There’s something of Mike Tyson in Pauline Hanson’s return: battered and past her prime, she’s drawn inevitably back to what she knows best. If there was an offer from Celebrity Big Brother , things might be different but clearly there’s not, so here we go once more time: another naked ride on the electoral crazy train, beginning, in characteristic fashion, with a refusal to divulge any salient features of her candidature (such as the seat she might contest or the policies she might forward).
Still, no one can deny Hanson her place in Australian political history. Back in 1995, the Liberal Party disendorsed Hanson for — it seems incredible now — publicly advocating the abolition of assistance for Aborigines. The nation in which that happened — a place in which racial prejudice automatically excluded you from mainstream politics — has now entirely vanished, and if you go back to Pauline Hanson’s maiden speech in Parliament, there’s not much that would cause a ripple today in either Labor or Liberal.
Hanson’s meteoric rise wasn’t just about nativist racism, nor was it merely an expression of a slow-burning resentment about Keating’s economic rationalism. The genius of the Hanson phenomenon lay in channeling the one into the other, thus providing a satisfying outlet for years of pent-up fury. Lionel Trilling once described conservatism as consisting less of ideas than irritable mental gestures. That also might be said of Hansonism, except to the nth degree – her gestures, when compared to mainstream politicians, were both defiantly more irritable and defiantly more mental. Aborigines and immigrants might not have been the most obvious representatives of the entrepreneurial economics that desolated the country towns and utter suburbs in the late eighties and early nineties but they were nearby and they were easy to kick.
One Nation was the quintessential herd of antis in search of a climax, which is why the whole thing fell apart so quickly. Right-wing populism depends on momentum: the constant identification of a new outrage, a new victim. Like a shark, if it stops moving, it dies.
But that shark was made of people, and those people are still around: a decade older, a decade angrier, and now coming to terms with the loss of their superannuation and an economic crisis that will make Keating’s recession seem like a tea party.
If you look to the United States, you can already see the rough beast doing its slouching thing. Conservative bloggers decry Obama’s stimulus package as fascism; right-wing talk hosts urge their listeners to prepare for revolution: all the militia-style lunacy of the Clinton years but with the extra vehemence provided by a deeper slump and a black presidency.
Many Crikey readers will be tempted to dismiss the loudmouths of the populist Right — in the US, the Glenn Becks and the Anne Coulters and the Bill O’Reillys — as buffoons, demagogues with brains of feathers and hearts of lead. But that’s to miss the point. In his early years, Mussolini responded thus to a critic pressing for specific policies: “The democrats of Il Mondo want to know our program? It is to break the bones of the democrats of Il Mondo .” Hanson is not quite Mussolini but her rise was also directed, at least in part, at the respectable urban middle-classes. ABC journalists laughed at her? So much the better! Her supporters despised journalists as haughty representatives of the economic reform they hated, and after each patronising interview, Hanson’s popularity soared.
It’s not hard to see how the same thing could happen again. The Australian political class is probably today more loathed than ever before in history. A mixture of economic populism and old-style racism peddled by a charismatic outsider, would be even more potent today than it was in 1996.
But Hanson, one suspects, is no longer quite up to it. These days, she gives the impression that she’d much prefer to be inside the tent than outside it. After dancing with Bec Cartwright, who’d really want to go back to David Oldfield and the Laroucheites and the black helicopters of the New World Order? Sean Parnell, probably correctly , describes Pauline Hanson’s new campaign as “cynical attempt to maintain a public profile and make some money at the same time”.
Still, that’s no reason for complacency. The recession’s already spreading a googly-eyed insanity throughout the Right in the United States. There’s no reason to think that we’re immune here.