It’s opposites day again in the media this morning. It will be for quite some time. Left is right, up is down, black is white, etc. On the front page of Fairfax, new polls show a large majority of Australians want the country to produce the things it consumes and have a manufacturing base. By “large majority”, I mean huge, a more one-sided majority than on any other issue. Close to 90% of those polled are in favour of emphasising local production, an opinion that stretched across left and right, city and country, liberal and conservative on social matters.
Whatever one thinks of the economics of that, the politics of it can’t be ignored. On the front page of the Oz, the first Newspoll of the year shows minor parties scarfing up 20% of the primary vote, largely at the expense of the Coalition, with Xenophon taking just about all of that in SA, and One Nation taking large chunks of it in Queensland, Western Australia and New South Wales. Given that the latest iteration of One Nation has proved to be more shambolic than we could possibly have hoped for, that’s a significant result. Presumably the new conservative movement to be announced by the about-to-resign Cory Bernardi will take a chunk too (unless it is foolish enough to be free market).
Simultaneously, in the US, we have a minor but very significant moment in an interview between FOX News Big Daddy Bill O’Reilly and President Donald Trump, to be screened during the Super Bowl, O’Reilly challenges Trump on cosying up to Putin. Here’s the initial part of the exchange, which circulated:
O’Reilly: But he’s a killer though. Putin’s a killer.
Trump: Lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers. What, do you think our country’s so innocent?
Remember, this is being aired during the Super Bowl, just about the single most celebratory American even there is, a fusion of state and sport. Initial excitement that Trump was acknowledging decades of US-run Latin American deaths squads etc was a little misplaced. Here’s the rest of the exchange:
O’Reilly: I don’t know any government leaders that are killers.
Trump: Well, take a look at what we’ve done too. We’ve made a lot of mistakes. I’ve been against the Iraq war from the beginning.
O’Reilly: Mistakes are different than …
This is hilarious. It’s frikkin’ hilarious. Super Bowl kick off is at 10.30am AEDST, so the interview will have already aired by the time you read this. Sitting here waiting for it, I’m wondering if Trump will actually be booed by sections of the crowd.
Yes, Putin is an autocrat, whose government almost certainly has journalists and whistle-blowers murdered quite often, and the US government most likely does not do that to its own citizens (unless they happen to be alleged jihadis, underneath a drone). Yes, Trump’s remarks are all over the shop. But it is a blow that lands on the notion of American exceptionalism, right at the centre of an exceptionalist spectacle.
Even funnier is the reaction of the traditional social conservative Republicans around Trump. Poor old Mike Pence. I actually feel sorry for that geeky little Jesus-freak. After a back and forth on CBS, this exchange:
John Dickerson (journalist): “But America morally superior to Russia? Yes or no?”
Pence: “I believe that the ideals that America has stood for throughout our history represent the highest ideals.”
This is from a man who would unquestionably believe that the United States is ordained by God as the “last, best hope of man”. When Obama tried to reformulate exceptionalism in 2008, saying that the US was great at being the US in the same way France was great at being France, etc, he was howled down. Exceptionalism has been a test-case for American pollies, most insistently for about 15 years now. Trump has blown a hole in that in one exchange.
Interestingly, though, the impact may be as great on the US left as it is on the US right. For now, there are liberals from the centrist tradition, many of whom lined up unfailingly behind Hillary, who are defending US exceptionalism and attacking Trump for denigrating it. This is nothing new; US imperialism, from the 1890s invasion of Spanish Cuba onwards, has been a liberal adventure, and much of its most brutal Cold War politics was powered by liberals. From Vietnam onwards, there was something of a rapprochement between the left and liberals, the latter becoming critics of US foreign policy.
But the split re-opened after the Cold War, with liberals enthusiastically backing global neoliberalism, slanted to US hegemony. Some sort of dialogue was possible. But with the 2008 crash that largely went. Liberals are determined to push global free trade and fuse it with a social liberal agenda around matters of gender, sexuality, etc. They have more or less abandoned the last remnants of social democratic conscience they once possessed. Now their chosen representatives have ascended to the heights of power, many are happy to take over the Reaganite mantle, and give it a liberal form. The left, as a distinct formation, becomes entirely separate from liberals, and must forge a distinct new politics.
Here, as well as there, the headlines show the Keating era is well and truly over. The Coalition is suffering at the moment because of the failure of Turnbull’s leadership, and the degree to which the Australian public tend to turn very quickly (far quicker than elsewhere) on leaders they regard as duds.
But that disguises the danger for Labor, which has to become a left nationalist party — far more so than in the half-in, half-out version of Shorten’s recent National Press Club speech — lest it be eaten away from all directions, One Nation, The Greens, Xenophon, and forces yet to appear (the Greens have a tricky path, but they can still forge communalist politics even if their support base is rapidly becoming more globalised and anti-border). Labo(u)r and related social democratic parties across the world are in sudden danger of very sharp plunges — witness Scottish Labour, which is now the third, and maybe the fourth party in Scotland, behind a left nationalist SNP, and a Conservative party led by the UK’s first “out” LGBT leader, repositioning itself as a centre-right economic, centre-left social party.
The same could happen in South Australia, bizarre as it may seem, given Labor’s long dominance there. But it’s often in places where the dominance has been assured for so long that the sudden collapse occurred. If Xenophon can turn NXT into Next — a centrist party dedicated to a mix of social democratic, social liberal, left nationalist, and state development policies — then it could hopscotch over Labor in a few moves.
These “surprises” — that Australia is, and has been, economically nationalist, that liberal progressives, even with their impeccable gender, sexuality, etc, politics, are heading objectively towards the right — are going to happen every day for quite some time, until political affiliations are sorted out. If you’re on the liberal left you better do some hard thinking about where you’d like to end up and what you believe. It doesn’t make you more “left” than others to hate everything likely to be done under Trump, and to turn a blind eye to the right-wing neoliberalism of a figure like Hillary Clinton. It doesn’t make you more left to care about, say, LGBT rights, and be indifferent to minimum wage, education inequality, unaffordable housing, and all the other things that were once central to a left-liberal agenda.
Had Hillary won — which I would have preferred, mostly — those of us on the left know what we would have been facing: the Bernie Sanders left being told to piss off, and a full-court press to get a modified form of the TPP through Congress. In Australia, we’d be fighting it tooth and nail, and with the usual gut-wrenching knowledge that we’d been taken for a ride again, knew we were being taken for a ride, and that they — liberals — knew that we knew. My stomach lining is going to be a lot less troubled by acid, not having that to deal with.
Strange days, opposites days, going to get stranger. Now let’s watch the Super Bowl ads, the sole, remaining distilled remnant of Western culture!