That people in the US are sending pipe bombs to critics or opponents of Donald Trump and media outlets is another of those moments we’ve seen so many of in the US since 2015: astonishing and yet unsurprising, a new low and yet simply another waypoint on a downward slope that shows no signs of bottoming out. Trump denounced the terrorism, but we know that next week, tomorrow, tonight, he’ll be back to attacking the media as traitors, lauding people who assault journalists, beaming as rally crowds chant “lock her up”, smearing and vilifying opponents and critics.
Each new outrage achieves the goal of those who perpetrate it, of expanding the window not of what is legitimate or appropriate in the conduct of politics, but of what is conceivable. Each time, the boundaries are reset, further and further toward government-endorsed violence, harassment and abuse. Fascism doesn’t happen quickly. You don’t wake to find yourself in a fascist state; you move there, bit by bit, as what surprises and outrages us as a society shifts to the point where it’s no longer surprising that critics of a leader might be targeted by terrorism, that media companies and journalists should be threatened and attacked, that the modern equivalent of brownshirt gangs attack anti-Trump protesters.
From the relative safety of Australia we can look on with horror at America’s slide into fascism. It’s not a case of there but for the grace of god go us. Over the last 30 years, Australia has made deliberate choices — like Medicare, and award-based minimum wages and a progressive tax system — about its economy that have prevented the worst capitalist excesses fueling the angry populism of many Western countries. But there are forces within our media that see an opportunity in exploiting the less developed forms of malignant politics we have in our own polity, malignancies created by a specific kind of resentment, that of white men.
Thus, the Seven network now has an extended history of deliberately giving a platform to extremist voices, frequently amplifying Pauline Hanson’s racism, trying to legitimise violent fascist Blair Cottrell, proposing that that bete noir of old white men, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, be made to “face her critics”. And Sky News, which has also hosted Cottrell, is, in effect, a stream of far-right lies and vitriol all evening. Sky only reaches a tiny number of like-minded old male viewers, but its impact is magnified by the extent to which conservative MPs take it not as the white male privilege porn that it is, but an actual reflection of the real world.
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Seven, Sky and Fairfax-owned 2GB — another circle of old white males rage-wanking over their perceived loss of privilege — all play the same trick on their audiences that Trump, the Brexit crowd, News Corp and other right-wing media in the US and the UK all play: they purport to side with those who have failed to benefit from neoliberalism and the political corruption it has engendered, while pushing neoliberal economic policies and the interests of corporations and the powerful. It’s an old trick much beloved of politicians of both parties in the American south, distracting your victims with racism and bigotry while you get on with exploiting them economically.
Kerry Stokes, the Murdochs, Jones and Hadley, Trump, Boris Johnson, Pauline Hanson, Marine Le Pen in France — these are all members of the elite exploiting resentment toward the elite, often while promoting or themselves doing the very things that alienate the electorate. Witness that tribune of the people Alan Jones, who smites the powerful hip and thigh on behalf of the ordinary Australian, using his influence to look after his racing industry mates.
We’re lucky to have only in miniature form the kind of frightening cancer that is rapidly consuming American politics. But in the absence of politicians willing to deliver a political and economic system that voters believe works for them, not for the powerful, we have the conditions, and the media, that will take us down the US path. If Labor ends up winning next year, it may be the political class’ last opportunity to head off that kind of fate and convince voters that they can deliver for them.