It’s not exactly news that Pauline Hanson peddles a conspiracy theory about the Port Arthur massacre. Just ask former Nationals senator Ron Boswell. He attacked Hanson for peddling lies about it 18 years ago. Hanson denied it, but even Australia’s most prominent firearms lobbying body distanced itself from Hanson over it. Two years ago, a Hanson candidate was doing it again, as well as pushing the conspiracy theory about the 2015 drowning of Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi.
But Hanson and One Nation have never met a conspiracy theory they didn’t like, often importing them from the United States or cutting and pasting them from other far-right groups. She’s an anti-vaxxer. She peddles myths about the United Nation’s “Agenda 21”, about plots to impose sharia law and about halal certification, and took up Donald Trump’s conspiracy slogan “fake news” with gusto after his election.
Her once and future offsider Malcolm Roberts pushed conspiracy theories about Jewish banking families and “sovereign citizens”. For former West Australian One Nation senator Rod Culleton it was the illegality of the entire judicial system. One Nation’s latest parliamentary success Mark Latham peddles two conspiracy theories: one about the “far left movement” of “cultural Marxism” that dominates “80% of public life”, and another about middle-class feminists who are using domestic violence and the regular murder of women by their partners as an excuse to oppress all men.
Unsurprisingly, Hanson’s response to the antics of James Ashby and Steve Dickson being revealed has been a conspiracy theory. Reluctant to face the media due to, she says, ill-health (“If you are seeing me now, it means I have been murdered by a tick”?) Hanson nonetheless claimed that Qatar, home of Al Jazeera, was meddling in Australian politics. Ashby insisted “Al Jazeera are a state-owned propaganda arm of the Qatari government that supports Islamic extremist groups.”
Hanson and her cronies exemplify what US historian Richard Hofstadter described in the 1960s as “the Paranoid Style in American Politics“. That is, separate from the clinical diagnosis of paranoia, they believe in a “paranoid style” — a “sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” that “has more to do with the way in which ideas are believed than with the truth or falsity of their content”, characterised by seeing conspiracies everywhere. “As a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public, the paranoid is a militant leader.”
The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms — he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point.
That perfectly sums up Hanson. “Time is running out. We may have only 10 to 15 years left to turn things around,” she warned in her 1996 maiden speech. “Wake up, Australia, before it is too late.” A whole 20 years later in her maiden speech in the Senate, she offered a similar diagnosis. “If we do not make changes now, there will be no hope in the future.”
The other feature Hofstadter noted about the paranoid was that they aped those they believed were engaged in conspiracies; their “enemy is on many counts the projection of the self”.
That’s also an apt fit for Hanson: a serial complainant about misuse of welfare by various minorities, she has leached millions off taxpayers via the electoral funding system; accusing Muslims of perpetrating a “halal scam” on Australians while the party exploited its own candidates for profit; attacking Muslims as violent and unable to fit in while Ashby and a former One Nation senator brawl in Parliament House and smear blood on the walls; now, accusing others of conspiracies and foreign influence in response to her own party’s secret conspiracy to secure foreign support.
Hofstadter made one more useful point to apply to One Nation. He suggested the paranoid style emerges particularly…
… when the representatives of a particular social interest — perhaps because of the very unrealistic and unrealizable nature of its demands — are shut out of the political process. Having no access to political bargaining or the making of decisions, they find their original conception that the world of power is sinister and malicious fully confirmed. They see only the consequences of power — and this through distorting lenses — and have no chance to observe its actual machinery.
In this, Hanson is effectively channelling the minority of voters — less than 10% nation-wide, but up to 20-30% in some Queensland electorates — who believe they have been abandoned by the current economic and political structure, even if that sense of abandonment is part angst that their once-dominant position as white males has been undermined by decades of neoliberal economics and the removal of the widespread discrimination that favoured them.
Hanson’s supporters see themselves as powerless victims of broader forces — the ideal springboard for conspiracy theories, which Hanson is happy to embrace. No matter what, there’ll always be a conspirator out there who’s really responsible — the Muslims, the Jews, the Asians, the feminists, the cultural Marxists, the media. And if they ever run out of those enemies, they’ll invent others. It’s the paranoid style.