Bouncing back and forth between the US west coast and the Australian east coast a few times over the last six months has been an interesting experience. In the US, the Democrats have transformed themselves into a powerful “new progressive” coalition, combining diversity and identity politics with a patriotic-national unity; the Republicans are caving in as a product of contradictions lasting over decades, handing over the party to a pharaonic strongman with thought disorders. Whatever the hell is happening, is happening pretty bigly. It’s yuge.
Fly back across the Pacific, land in Sydney and look at the papers — papers! — and it’s Pauline Hanson and 18C. You could be forgiven for thinking that crossing the International Date Line takes you a day ahead and years, decades behind. It’s a weird effect, especially when the news crosses over. In the US, the leader of the Republican Party has, allegedly, repeatedly asked his briefers why “given we have nuclear weapons, why can’t we use them?”, and significant phalanxes of his supporters are white supremacists of any organised and noxious fashion. Back in Australia, One Nation has an (ex-)sovereign citizen, and defence of a nasty cartoon occupies the whole op-ed page of the newspaper it was published in the next day.
They are all part of the same wider phenomenon, of course, but of very different expressions. The right in the US is collapsing magnificently because it is a magnificently large apparatus, with many different manifestations. Their sense of their own movement is that of one tied to the very founding of the nation itself; the fact that it’s not working is a level of trauma it would be hard to overestimate. In Australia, the right both inside and outside the Coalition has always been a composite of minor forces, drawing on extreme political expressions out of the mainstream.
Yet what was interesting about the last week in politics was the similarity of reaction. In Australia, the arrival of four One Nation senators in the upper house and the ugly and futile defence of Bill Leak’s obsessive cartoons were taken as a political tragedy beyond measure, some loss of innocence — again.
This seems curious. In a double dissolution election, a nativist right party gained four out of 76 Senate seats, as the mainstream right Coalition, riven by internal conflict, came within one seat of a first-term loss. The major news organ of the right became consumed, once again, with the self-pitying politics of “political correctness” and false charges of censorship. In Europe, the various equivalents of One Nation are fielding 20, 30, 40 seats in systems similar to the Senate voting system; they are efficiently led, by relatively rational people, and they have a solid social base.
One Nation, by contrast, has a base of any size in Queensland, and nowhere else. Pauline Hanson has led no movement, but simply reappeared from election to election. Her positions are as reactive as they’ve always been — against Aborigines and east Asians at the end of the Keating era, against Muslims and shadowy international forces now. Her juniors — in particular the extraordinary “Malcolm-Ieuan: Roberts.“, sovereign citizen and banking conspiratorialist — make Hanson look like Metternich. The One Nation senators give off the same air as such right wingers always do: inhabitants of elaborate fantasy worlds, which overlap just enough for them to make common cause. It also suggests they will come apart within a three-year term. Hanson, though her political skills have improved since the 1990s, may well lack sufficient of them to hold the party together.
The success of One Nation may have been shocking to those accustomed to the lottery the Senate has become, but the party’s current state and form is a measure of the weakness and provisionality of the right in Australia. For what is striking about One Nation and Hanson’s current obsessions is how separated they are from the mainstream obsessions of Australian culture. In 1996, Hanson drew on a resentment against the disjunctive policies of the Keating government, which was undermining sections of working class and rural Australia, while allegedly favouring minorities. Essentially, she was channelling much of the rural grievance that the League of Rights had stoked for decades.
Now, however, Hanson’s marquee obsessions come from the American internet sphere — the notion that “Islam isn’t a religion” a particular giveaway, being a particular favourite of the US alt-right. They suggest someone who has been pursuing an isolated, celebrity-sphere-bound career, since she became a serial candidate, and has filled the void with the unanchored obsessions of the rightosphere. That connects with a small section of the white population, consumed with resentment and feeling (often not unfairly) sidelined. But it does not lay the basis for a well-organised challenge to mainstream politics.
The state that “One Nation” is in indicates how beleaguered is their movement. It’s an observation doubled by events within the party — such as Cory Bernardi’s cheap imitation of GetUp, which has no understanding of how the organisational form of GetUp matches its liberal politics — and in the right media. For it is clear that, in a somewhat slower and more partial fashion, the progressive recomposition occurring in Australia, is also happening here. The widespread reaction to the Four Corners episode on Don Dale detention centre indicates that. A widespread reaction of some depth and breadth — and the only response the right could muster was a Bill Leak cartoon, diverting the issue (of how the state treats children, not how they got into state care) in a manner that appeared designed for maximum insult and hurt on a race-wide basis.
The subsequent aggrandising, self-pitying “defence” of the cartoon was everything one has come to expect: a denunciation of “identity politics” and of the cult of victimhood that was itself nothing other than white identity politics, grounded on claiming victim status in the mediasphere. The full court press in The Australian was interesting in that regard: Leak followed up “that” cartoon with one claiming victim status for himself, three op-eds were wrapped around it, on Saturday Eeyore Kelly followed up with a piece on identity politics that could have been written in 1993, on Monday morning Chris Mitchell denounced Twitter in his bizarre media column, and by Monday evening everyone was talking about 18C again. It was all capped off by a fawning interview Bill Leak had with PJ O’Rourke, here on a flying visit. This is the remains of a movement — Howardism — deprived of its core strengths and trying to hold itself together; there’s a symmetry with One Nation’s lower-brow resentments and obsessions.
Indeed, the O’Rourke interview was more telling than its enthusiasts knew. O’Rourke is a funny and compelling writer — even though the right says he is. But over the last two decades, his writing has served as a comfort to the US right, reassuring them that they had a hold on rationality, to which the errant US public would soon return. They didn’t — in the bubble, the right didn’t notice the new class formations, and the changing prominence and roles of black, Latino, LGBTI and other groups. By the time they did, the Democrats had positioned themselves within the mainstream, and the Republicans had got Trump. Yuge stuff compared to what’s happening on this side of the ocean — but both expressions of a political decomposition whose speed and seriousness is remarkable.