Fascism in larval form:
Australia and the US in the age of Trump
Since the fateful months of the Second World War, when Prime Minister Curtin stood up to Churchill and withdrew Australian forces from Europe so that they could fight in the Pacific theatre, the compass needle of Australian foreign policy has shifted sharply from the diminished glory of imperial Britain to the expanding global reach of the United States. Without thinking too hard about what it would look like if we ever called it in, we sheltered ourselves under the US nuclear weapons umbrella, endorsing a doctrine which has held since the 1950s that the only way to guarantee security is to threaten global incineration.
During the cold war, we followed the United States into the slaughter in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in the name of domino theory and the containment of the communist menace. In the 1990s and early 2000s Australia provided diplomatic and military support to the US in Kuwait and Afghanistan. Most consequentially, Prime Minister Howard wrote a blank cheque to George W Bush in the illegal 2003 invasion of Iraq, which tore the region open and set the stage for the emergence of Islamic State. To this day Australia hosts intelligence and targeting facilities at Pine Gap, North West Cape and elsewhere. We host US Air Force and Marine Corps bases in the Northern Territory. We host port visits by nuclear powered and potentially nuclear armed warships. These are not just training facilities; they are places from which the US can project lethal force into our region.
We are one of the unblinking electronic eyes of the Five Eyes mass surveillance driftnet, helping the United States government hack commercial phone and internet providers in Indonesia and Malaysia and throughout South-East Asia. We routinely play diplomatic lapdoge for the US government at the United Nations. In practice, that means that we undermine arms control treaties, nuclear weapons resolutions and attempts to de-escalate the horrific and one-sided conflict between Israel and the people of Palestine. We buy their F35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft — the ones that cannot go anywhere near a conflict because they are a $1½ trillion piece of flying garbage. We let Australian citizen Julian Assange and his courageous colleagues hang out to dry for disclosing war crimes in Iraq and more conventional crimes revealed in the state department cables.
When the United States government says jump, then, if we are lucky, our Intelligence and Security Committee will do a rapid bipartisan inquiry into how high. But inevitably, we jump.
You would have thought that, as an opinionless, impressionable and largely obedient client state, Australian governments had more or less proved their credentials. Australia’s foreign policy and its defence policy is set in Washington DC, not in Canberra. That was true under the Howard government, it was true under the Rudd-Gillard governments, it was nauseatingly evident under the Abbott government and it is painfully on show now.
Donald J Trump inherited President Obama’s drone assassination program, his global mass surveillance apparatus, his Asia-Pacific Pivot that cemented the encirclement of China with a network of military bases in Australia, the Philippines, South Korea and Japan. Mr Trump inherited Obama’s unprecedented attacks on whistleblowers and journalists. Maybe that all seemed benign when the argument was being run by a gifted orator like Mr Obama, but it was not benign.
This is how NSA whistleblower Ed Snowden put it in a June 2013 interview in a hotel room in Hong Kong:
… the months ahead, the years ahead it’s only going to get worse until eventually there will be a time where policies will change because the only thing that restricts the activities of the surveillance state are policy. Even our agreements with other sovereign governments, we consider that to be a stipulation of policy rather than a stipulation of law. And because of that a new leader will be elected, they’ll find the switch, say that ‘Because of the crisis, because of the dangers we face in the world, some new and unpredicted threat, we need more authority, we need more power.’ And there will be nothing the people can do at that point to oppose it. And it will be turnkey tyranny.
Turnkey tyranny: the tools are all there; all it requires is an administration paranoid enough, arrogant enough, deranged enough to turn the key. A register of Muslims. Promotion of the intelligence value of torture. Overwhelming contempt for the journalists and news organisations who are tasked to hold him to account. Casual hostility to the rule of law: ‘The opinion of this so-called judge, which essentially takes law enforcement away from our country, is ridiculous and will be overturned!’ tweets the President of the United States of America.
Like most people, I was intrigued to hear the reports of the total contempt with which Australia was treated by President Donald Trump last week. The incoming President probably could not point to Australia on a map. On two consecutive days, the Trump administration’s press secretary could not even be bothered to get our Prime Minister’s name right. These are the kinds of things that could be easily given away as superficial breaches of protocol by an inexperienced administration. But they are not. Something much more malignant is underway here.
It has been said, over and over again, that the foundation of our bond with the United States is our shared values. The deal that the US President wants to renege on is not some obscure negotiation over tariffs. It is about the life and death of 1,250 vulnerable and innocent human beings whose only crime was to flee violence and oppression in places like Iran, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Iraq. They are on the run from horrors that I hope no-one in this chamber ever has to experience firsthand. Some of them are on the run from wars that Australia and the United States helped start. Some of them are fleeing authoritarian regimes supported or armed by Australia and the US and its allies. They had the savage misfortune to flee into the barbed wire embrace of Minister Peter Dutton’s Australian Border Force.
Since then, more people have died on the prison islands run and paid for by the Australian government on Nauru and Manus Island than have been given safe harbour and resettled. People have been beaten to death, died of easily treatable infections and burned themselves to death. People are starving themselves and drinking drain cleaner just to make the suffering stop. Right now, a Kuwaiti woman 35 weeks pregnant and suffering serious complications is at risk because the government had to be pressured by a public campaign to airlift her to Australia.
An award-winning Iranian cartoonist who publishes as Eaten Fish is about to die of a hunger strike on Manus Island. He says: ‘I cannot suffer anymore. I know now that I will have to die because I cannot suffer anymore.’ These are not the shared values of the people of the United States and Australia. They are an expression of mutually assured inhumanity, a systematic hollowing out of empathy perpetrated by governments practising a form of political sociopathy.
All of us in here want to know what Mr Donald Trump will demand of Mr Turnbull in exchange for his ‘extreme vetting’ of these desperate people. It seems obvious that the Australian government’s degrading silence in the face of Mr Trump’s Muslim ban is part of the price. Other world leaders were quick to condemn this act of indiscriminate racism. Nothing from Prime Minister Turnbull. Everyone has their price, I guess. As it turns out, Mr Turnbull’s was very low.
Mr Trump appears to take an amoral and purely transactional view of international relations, just as he does in his business dealings. We know he has no respect for the weak, as evidenced by his weird crush on Vlad Putin. Pandering to or attempting to appease such an individual is pointless. He is likely completely unaware of the storied history of our two countries, or of the Australians who bled and died chasing his predecessors’ imperial follies in South East Asia and the Middle East. He could not care less. If this were game theory and we were playing the prisoner’s dilemma game with Donald J Trump in the adjacent cell, at least we would know he will always sell us out — every time.
But this is not game theory. This is deadly serious.
This fragile narcissist has the launch codes for just under 1,800 deployed nuclear weapons, any one of which could turn a city into radioactive ash within half an hour of the command being given. Obviously, 1,800 of these genocidal weapons were not enough, because he then announced a new nuclear weapons arms race on Twitter. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists then moved the hands of the doomsday clock to two minutes and 30 seconds to midnight. The last time we were here was 1953. Midnight, in this context, signifies a nuclear exchange in which millions or perhaps hundreds of millions of people lose their lives and we slide into a radioactive dark age. The violence wielded by this administration need not reach this apocalyptic scale.
During the election campaign, Donald Trump promised to bring back waterboarding and other torture techniques. Since becoming President, he has said that torture ‘absolutely works’ and that the US needs to ‘fight fire with fire’. There are claims that maybe the US should go back into Iraq and take the oil; executive orders setting in motion the re-establishment of CIA black prisons around the world; and the calculated and deliberate provocation of race hate and religious extremism.
This is fascism in larval form.
Fascism is not a word we should ever throw around lightly, particularly as its definition is so contested. But try this: Robert Paxton, Professor Emeritus at Columbia University, describes fascism as a dynamic process rather than a fixed ideology like socialism or communism. See if this paraphrasing of his work by Dominic Green in The Atlantic of December last year sounds familiar:
1. Ideological formation and the creation of a party with quasi-military cadres. Talk of national humiliation, lost vigour, and the failures of liberalism and democracy.
2. Entry of the party into national politics. Intimidation of rivals, and planned acts of ‘redemptive violence’ against suspect minorities and radical rivals.
3. Arrival in government, often in alliance with conservatives.
4. Exercise of power, in concert with institutions and business. The regime expands its control at home: restricting the press and democratic processes, corporatizing business, and collectivizing the people. Abroad, it asserts itself militarily.
5. Radicalization or entropy: Some fascists go down in a …collapse marked by catastrophic violence and disorder — but most die of boredom.
Does any of that sound familiar? I am sure some of the people who voted for this administration would have happily signed on to this prescription. But I deeply believe that millions more simply wanted to put a brick through the window of the corrupt Washington establishment — that parasitic network of bankers, arms dealers, oil companies and media oligarchs who have been consuming the American republic from within for decades. It is these people — those voters — who are now in the process of being fundamentally betrayed by the extremists who wield executive power. The swamp is not being drained, friends — the swamp is being weaponised.
I have been to the US a couple of times, and I absolutely adore the place. Maybe, apart from India, I have never been anywhere more diverse and surprising. There is a bond of affection between the Australian people and those of the United States that is way deeper than the shared suffering and sacrifice that cemented the alliance during the global war on fascism in the1930s and 1940s. We feel like family, for better and for worse. We have similar colonial origins, our great grandparents arriving from Old Europa to wreak violence and disease on first nations peoples.
From white supremacist underpinnings, we both attempted to build multicultural societies in the aftermath of that dispossession, to carve prosperity out of an unfamiliar continent, and through many decades of struggle to make important contributions to the practice of democracy and the rule of a certain kind of law. All cynicism aside, I agree with those from right across the political spectrum who have argued that the bond between the people of Australia and the people of the United States is strong and will endure beyond whoever happens to occupy the White House and the ministerial wing of this parliament.
The institutions of democracy and the rule of law may be stressed and under sustained attack, but they were built on shared sacrifice and it is essential that they be buttressed and protected. That looks like the Speaker of the UK House of Commons declaring that Donald Trump is unfit to address Westminster. It looks like millions of people joining the Women’s March on Washington, that ended up mobilising more than five million people around the world and culminated in the largest single-day demonstration in the history of the United States. It looks like people who shut down airports across the United States when the full scope of Trump’s Muslim ban became apparent. It looks like the taxi drivers in New York City who powerfully amplified this blockade with distributed industrial action.
Here at home, it looks like the immediate renegotiation of the Australia-US alliance, with everything on the table — Pine Gap, ‘Five Eyes’, the US bases in the Top End. It is time to make our own way.
Donald Trump is a product of the United States, but he is everyone’s problem.
History, what there is left of it to write, will not look kindly on those who tried to appease this thing, or normalise it in the financial press, or did as our Attorney-General did today, trying to pretend that this is just a minor acceleration of business as usual. This is not a time to cave in. This is a time to stand up, not in order to return to the deadening neo-liberal status quo but to remind ourselves that another world is possible.
This is a time to resist.
Video of this speech is available here: