What do Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Clive Palmer, the Koch brothers and the Le Pen family all have in common? All are very wealthy and all have dabbled, with varying degrees of success, in political populism.
Johnson is the least wealthy — his wealth is only in the millions of pounds — while the Le Pens’ wealth is hard to estimate because much of it is hidden in tax havens and Swiss bank accounts, but Jean-Marie inherited millions from a right-wing supporter in the 1970s. Palmer and Trump are of much greater wealth, and the Koch brothers are billionaires many times over.
Trump you know. Johnson opportunistically turned himself into a Brexiteer tribune of working class ressentiment in campaigning against migration and threats to British sovereignty, becoming the embodiment of the “Fog in Channel, Continent Cut Off” mentality to futilely bolster his hopes of becoming prime minister. The Koch brothers, extreme right-wing plutocrats, have never stood for public office but in effect bought the Tea Party movement and through it much of the Republican Party. Jean-Marie Le Pen was ousted from his own party by his daughter Marine, but she is currently a serious candidate in next year’s presidential election in France, and, via Jean-Marie’s grand-daughter, there’s a third generation of Le Pens pushing anti-immigration, anti-Muslim, Gallic nationalist policies.
Clive Palmer is the odd one out — he was undoubtedly a populist who relied heavily on the impression of a straight-talking political outsider, but he was no racist; if anything, his views on refugees were far more progressive than those of most Australians.
What they also have in common is that they are fakes. Johnson — Eton and Balliol College, Oxford — posing as a vehicle for working-class anger toward global capitalism was only the most egregious; Trump, born into wealth, eagerly tapping into white working-class anger while advocating a massive corporate tax cut, the hyper-rich Koch brothers exploiting the fears of a shrinking US middle class, Palmer, the former Bjelke-Petersen press secretary, longtime LNP player and donor purporting to be a political outsider. Le Pen was the only one born in relatively straitened circumstances, from which he entered the army before politics; his daughter and granddaughter, however, enjoy wealth and privilege far beyond the circumstances of the working-class French voters they court.
But the fakery is appropriate, because there is a confected aspect to the populism they try to exploit. That Palmer failed points to this aspect: Palmer, for all his bullshit, avoided the downward envy that is the mark of all the others (while Jacqui Lambie, railing at Muslims, continues to prosper). The Islamophobia of the Le Pens is well-known, and Jean-Marie has also, following a proud French Catholic tradition, been an ardent anti-Semite; the Brexit campaign was heavily marked by loathing of immigrants and the urge to “take back control”; Trump’s racism is a matter of public record and his campaign is characterised by scapegoating of Hispanics, African-Americans and women, while he too talks of taking back control; the Kochs push voter ID laws targeted at disenfranchsing minority voters and fund anti-abortion and anti-LGBTI groups.
In doing so, they exploit the economic dislocation caused by globalisation for lower-skilled white voters — those who have benefited least from neoliberal economics and supranational projects like the EU — not by offering genuine solutions (for example, quality public health, education or retirement systems) but by offering the distraction of downward envy — blaming Muslims, African-Americans, Asians, women, gay people.
There’s nothing novel about this process, of course. Racism is a time-honoured tool of ruling elites that want to keep working-class voters distracted from genuine economic grievances — the politics of the American South was based on giving working-class whites someone to feel superior to; the White Australia Policy was only a more complex economic form of it; the rise of politicised evangelical Christianity simply gave the likes of the Koch brothers and their political forebears more distractions to exploit, opening up gender and sexuality as fertile fields for exploiting ressentiment.
Which brings us to One Nation, which despite Australian being a highly successful example of neoliberal economics is virtually an exemplar of the tradition. Hanson’s modus operandi has always been aimed at low-income earners, particularly in regional areas, and retirees — people who believe they have lost out economically in recent decades — and giving them someone to scapegoat and despise. It was originally Asians. Now it’s Muslims, women who fail to show sufficient deference to patriarchal values and LGBTI Australians. Like Brexit, Trump, the Kochs and the Le Pens, it embraces a conspiracy theory of politics, in which some form of Other has seized power and it’s up to an outsider to seize it back and restore the natural order — in which white, low-income heterosexual non-Muslim voters feel they have some special status.
But, of course, Pauline Hanson, the Ipswich fish-and-chip shop owner, isn’t wealthy or privileged, is she? She’s no Trump, no Palmer, certainly no Johnson, who used to make a living stringing words together coherently (the whole issue of articulacy and authenticity is one for another day).
In fact, considerable public funding has followed Hanson’s serial tilts at politics. After the most recent election, her party garnered more than $1.6 million in taxpayer funding. As Stephen Mayne has pointed out, her earnings are dwarfed by those of the major parties — but it was also far from her biggest payday from election authorities, in 1998. One estimate puts Hanson’s public funding payments since 1996 at $6 million. However well or poorly Hanson has done personally from that funding, she was able to afford a million-dollar rural property with “eight foot wide verandahs and raked cypress pine ceilings”, from which she mused in 2010 that she would relocate to the UK, until she found it overrun with foreigners and decided to remain in Australia. She also enjoyed a television career featuring turns on such programs as Dancing With The Stars and Celebrity Apprentice.
It’s a far cry from the pessimistic, alienated lives of many of the people who vote for her, but that credibility gap isn’t unusual when your business model is exploiting economic dislocation by using bigotry.