Media Link: AVFA on post-colonial blowback.

Selwyn Manning and I discuss varieties of post colonial blowback and the implications its has for the rise of the Global South. Counties discussed include Palestine/Israel, France/New Caledonia, England/India, apartheid/post-apartheid South Africa and post-colonial New Zealand. It is a bit of a ramble but it raises some infrequently discussed points. You can find the episode here.

Media Link: AVFA on the implications of US elections.

In this week’s “A View from Afar” podcast Selwyn Manning and spoke about the upcoming US elections and what the possibility of another Trump presidency means for the US role in world affairs. We also spoke about the problems Joe Biden has in dominating the presidential race against a demonstrably unbalanced opponent, shifting voter demographics, how US allies and adversaries engage in strategic hedging depending on whether they view Trump as an asset or as a threat, and how the US increasingly looks like an unstable polity, to the point that US foreign interlocutors must factor in its growing unreliability as an international partner. And much more. The link is here.

It is not about age, it is about team.

Much attention has been directed at Joe Biden’s mental lapses and physical frailty. Less attention has been spent on Donald Trump’s cognitive difficulties and physical limitations, with most focus being devoted to his insults and exaggerated claims (as if they were not indicative of his mental state). Biden is 82 and Trump is 77, so one would expect that the passage of time has taken some toll on them, both physically and cognitively. It would seem that the difference, as Mickey Savage of The Standard phrased it, is that Biden is well-intentioned but hapless, whereas Trump is evil and dangerous.

I agree with the characterisation of Trump but not that of Biden, who I believe has far more mental acuity than the orange toned weasel. People forget that Biden has a life-long stutter, which from time to time shows up in his speech. And yes, he occasionally forgets or confuses a name or date, but then again so does the malignant narcissist serial liar. Biden rides bicycles and exercises regularly at the White House and home gyms. Trump rides a golf cart from tee to wherever his ball lands, off the designated paths and onto fairways and greens. He is not exactly a fine physical specimen, despite his corrupt doctor’s claims to the contrary.

Be that as it may, the mental and physical fitness of either of these men is not what matters when to comes to their suitability for office. Instead, as a starter, it is their temperament that matters. Biden is measured, calculated and calibrated in his actions, even if prone to the occasional profanity (as befits a guy from a blue collar background). Trump is impulsive, vindictive and petulant. Biden has 50 years of public service as his background, including terms as a US Congressman and Senator, Vice President and now POTUS. Trump first ran for office in 2016, and that was for the presidency that he won. We know what happened next, which should serve as a warning of things to come–and worse–should he get back into office. In any case it should be clear to impartial observers that Biden is the better qualified candidate in this year’s presidential election, above and beyond the elderly foibles of he and his rival.

Temperment and public service experience are not just what differentiates the two likely presidential candidates. The biggest difference is in the teams that surround them. The importance of the governmental team was driven home to me by a colleague at a Brazilian research institute in the late 1980s after George H. W. Bush succeeded Ronald Reagan as president. I was lamenting the fact that a Vice President who claimed to have seen or heard nothing about Iran-Contra and other Reagan administration scandals had won the presidential election of 1988, and my colleague said to me “but that is why, unlike here in Brazil where we struggle to find someone who can lead us out of darkness and into the modern world, in the US you can have a monkey as president and the machine will still keep on running without missing a beat.”

By “the machine” he was presumably referring to the US economy and institutional architecture, including the government of the day. It was more than one person and although the presidency is a vital cog in the machine, it is not the only one. Trump stretched the limits of institutional resiliency, to be sure, but it bent without breaking and Trump was thwarted in many of his most inane or perilous initiatives by a mixture of constitutional features (separation of powers, state’s rights, government regulations and civil service protections) and the interventions of cooler heads in his administration (the so-called “adults in the room” who acted as guardrails against his more thoughtless, spiteful or ignorant impulses). All along, in spite of the incompetent, incoherent partisan and polarised response to the Covid pandemic, the machinery of the US rolled on with that combed-over monkey at the wheel.

That is the important thing to consider. Biden has assembled a first class team that has steered the US out of the economic doldrums and into a period of sustained growth. He has expanded Obamacare, bringing in millions of people into affordable health insurance schemes, has capped the price of essential prescription drugs, and has funded a slew of infrastructure projects that have brought employment and modernisation to many localities, including in red (MAGA) states. In fact, US employment is at 50 year lows, and wages have started to catch up to inflation. He has passed student debt relief bills and increased social security benefits for the first time in 35 years. To be sure, there are challenges ahead, including getting some measure of control over the Southern border (which has just seen an all-time record of undocumented migrants, creating friction with the reactionary state government in Texas and fuelling Trump’s xenophobic and racist attacks on recent arrivals), and stabilising energy prices (which if low by international standards are an economic benchmark in the US). But by most objective standards, including its international image in spite of its ill-considered support for Israel in its war on Palestinians, the US is generally better off under Biden than his predecessor. Just ask NATO and the EU as well as US Asian allies (on this and. the broader context of US decline, see https://www.nytimes.com/2024/02/14/opinion/republicans-isolationsim-ukraine-russia-congress.html).

Biden’s team has a coherent programmatic agenda that addresses the damage done by Trump’s reckless and self-serving policies but also more longer term and not exclusively partisan goals when it comes to the US domestic and international position. The US has a malaise, and they want to remedy it. Trump’s team, on the other hand, are all about paybacks for grievances caused by an assortment of non-supplicants, and even then they are divided about who to punish first. The Trump team is incompetent and incoherent at its core because everything depends on the day to day whims of the would be czar.

Biden does not sweat the details of his administration’s initiatives. He leaves that to his cabinet and senior managers who have expertise in the areas covered by their portfolios. These are technocrats and political operators who know the ins and outs of the federal bureaucracy and Congress and therefore know how things work. Even with a divided and dysfunctional GOP majority in the House, they have gotten things done. In other words, if passing legislation and implementing policy is like making sausage (and old aphorism of US politics), then Biden’s team knows how to do so, the institutional way.

In contrast, Trump has vowed to come back into office with a revenge agenda against his opponents. He has announced that we will use the Justice Department as his instrument of retribution. He and his aides have drawn up a list of 400-500 loyalists who will take control of the apex agencies in the federal bureaucracy and who will re-write civil service legislation in order to engage in whole-scale purges of the “Deep State” apparatus. He aims to kill off entire departments (ministries, In NZ terms), especially those that cater to “woke” sentiments such as the Department of Education, Health and Human Services, the Civil Rights Commission, etc. One only has to look at the writing of Stephen Miller, one of Trump’s leading political advisors who was responsible for his border policy that included family separations and incarceration without charge upon arrival and detention (in spite of many migrants claiming refugee status from violence prone societies like El Salvador, Colombia or Honduras, to say nothing of left authoritarian regimes like those in Venezuela and Nicaragua) to understand the extent of Trump’s dark plans for his next term. His loyalists will swear allegiance to him before the constitution, and his judicial appointments will confirm his authority to undertake the overhaul of the federal government. His Vice President will be a brown-nosing lap dog, and his cabinet will be a collection of misfits and misers keeping what is left of the public trough to themselves and their private sector cronies. There will be no “adults in the room” and institutional counters to put up guardrails around him, and he will introduce fickle criteria to his micromanaging of pet policy projects. The US reputation will resume its nosedive.

And then of course there are the sycophantic opportunists and grifters who always travel in his political circles and who see his return to power as a means to advancing their personal ideological and material agendas.

I will leave aside for the moment the impact these two very different teams will have on things like US-PRC relations, the Ruso-Ukranian War, the Middle East meltdown, rise of techno-sovereignty challenge to the Nation-State, climate change mitigation, and more policy areas ad infinitum. The differentiation line is stark not because of which monkey is driving the machine, but because of who else is along for the ride as navigators and mechanics.

That is why the focus on Biden and Trump’s age and mental acuity is more of a side-show than a critical issue. Temperment is more important, especially when one guy has senior moments of forgetfulness or confusion and the other is an incoherent raving lunatic. Most important of all are the teams that will surround them, and on that score I think that the difference is clear.

Razor sharp clear.

The New Zealand Junta.

Some readers will remember that I spent 25 years in academia researching, writing and teaching about authoritarianism, among other things, and that I was a foreign policy practitioner in/for the US government for a decade, a fair bit of which was dealing with authoritarian regimes and working to promote liberalisation within and eventual democratization from them. Readers also will recall that I have written here about “constitutional coups,” which unlike military coups do not involve the threat of or acts of violence to remove a sitting government. Instead, legal mechanisms and institutional procedures are used to achieve the same end–the removal of a duly elected government, from office most often but not always before its constitutionally-defined term is completed.

It may seem like a stretch, but New Zealand has had a constitutional coup of sorts. In October an election was held in which the major rightwing party (National) did not reveal its true policy intentions, preferring to instead focus on the usual canards of lower taxes, high crimes rates and too many regulations and bureaucratic red tape on property owners. They were assisted by a compliant corporate media interested in generating clickbait material rather than dealing deeper into party policy platforms, and who supported the “change for change sake” attitude of the NZ public by focusing on personal scandals within the (then) Labour-led government ranks. It mattered little that, in public at least, the major rightwing party had virtually nothing to offer. What mattered was that it win, be it in coalition or outright. As it turns out, it needed coalition partners in order to do so.

The more extreme rightwing parties, ACT and NZ First, were a bit more honest in their campaigns about their reactionary intent, but the corporate media chose to ignore the extent of their connections to extremist groups and foreign donors/patrons such as anti-vaccination conspiracy theorists and Atlas Institute seed-funded astroturf groups such as the overlapping Free Speech Coalition/Taxpayer’s Union that contributed to their campaigns. Nor did the political press seriously look into the worrisome backgrounds of candidates in these parties, instead preferring to focus on the leaders and their immediate subordinates.

What that made for was the instrumental use of the October election by the NZ rightwing in order to gain enough votes to cobble together an authoritarian-minded government coalition that would impose regressive policy prescriptions without full public scrutiny or consultation. It did not matter that the two extremist parties received less than 15 percent of the popular vote, or that National received just 38 percent. What mattered was the win, which was the instrument by which the coalition could impose its political will on the +45 percent that did not vote for them.

Sure enough, the new government has gone about imposing policy reforms that basically amount to dismantling much of the social legislation enacted over the last decade, including that of previous right-leaning governments. Smokefree legislation, diesel and petrol taxes, EV purchase rebates, commitment to rail and cycleway building projects (some already underway), rationalisation of water provision services via three-tier regional management–these and many more forward-thinking policies were repealed, and more backtracks (such as eliminating excise taxes on cigarettes) are on the way. It also proposes to implement wholesale redundancies in the public sector, especially in agencies that are focused on Pacifika and other minority group service provision. More existentially in terms of New Zealand/Aotearoa’s self-identity as a nation, the elected authoritarians are proposing to review and repeal sections of NZ’s foundational charter, the Treaty of Waitangi/Te Tiriti, because they supposedly give “too many” rights to Maori, thereby effectively disenfranchising the non-Maori (mostly Pakeha) majority (or so they say).

However, as political scientist Kate Nicholls pointed out to me, the assault on Te Tiriti has the potential to be an own goal of epic scale. The Waitangi Tribunal was instituted to peacefully settle disputes emerging from different interpretations of the Treaty’s clauses. it was created in 1975 in the wake of numerous protests in the late 1960s and early 1970s stemming from disputes about interpretation of rights and responsibilities conferred by the Treaty, especially about land ownership and access rights, some of which, to quote the Waiting Tribunal History page, took place “outside the law.”

That is the crux of the matter. The Tribunal calls itself a “standing commission of inquiry” but in fact is a means to peacefully settle disputes about the Treaty that could otherwise turn violent or be subject to direct action by aggrieved and often competing interests. Seen less charitably, the Tribunal is way to buy off or divide-and-conquer Maori, or at least Maori elites, so as to give them a slice of the NZ economic resource pie, stop extra-judicial protests (since the Tribunal is in effect a court with legally-binding authority) and thereby achieve social peace. In other words, the Tribunal is a co-optive device, not an instrument of revolution, reform or comprehensive redress. It is designed to preserve a (Pakeha dominated ) social status quo, not undermine it.

The direct attack on Te Tiriti, be it by putting a review of the Treaty to a referendum or by some other means (say, by legal challenges to Tribunal authority and decisions), has already occasioned Maori-led backlash, something that promises to intensify the more the elected authoritarians push their racially-motivated project. That could well mean that rather than the peaceful and legally binding settlement process overseen by the Tribunal, we could see things settled in the streets via direct action. Given how fundamental the Treaty is to NZ self-identity, at that point it is an open question whether the repressive apparatuses of the State–the police, the courts, the intelligence services, even the military–will side with the elected authoritarians. Stay tuned.

Another thing about the new government is its utter disdain for the public. Polls only mattered in the election campaign but now are ignored. Fighting crime was a priority before the election, then it was not. It did not reveal its full coalition agenda during the campaign and did not consult with other parties or the public in the implementation of its first 100 day plan of action. Instead, the coalition has rewarded its donors and supporters in (among others) the fossil fuel and tobacco industries even though their repeal policies are unpopular and in some instances detrimental to public health, environmental and other social outcomes. This is truly a government for and by the few, even if it was able to claim an electoral victory as its legitimating mantle.

For this reason I prefer not to call them something silly like the “coalition of chaos.” They are that, to be sure, because to put it kindly the talent pool in the coalition parties runs very thin while the egos of their leaders and lieutenants run very deep. This could eventually lead to their collapse and downfall, but for the moment what strikes me is their despotic dispositions. In other words, it is their way or the highway, minus the resort to repression that we see in military dictatorships.

For this reason I choose to refer to the National-ACT-NZ First triumvirate as New Zealand’s junta. In the broadest and original sense, junta refers to a military or political group ruling the country after it has been taken over. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as “a council or committee for political or governmental purposes.” What is important is that it does not always have to have a military component and it does not always involve a violent accession to power and usurpation of previous authority. A junta, as it turns out, can be installed constitutionally, peacefully and via normal political institutions and procedures.

It is the way how these mechanisms of political succession are manipulated that determines whether a constitutional coup has occurred. If that indeed has been the case, and I believe that in NZ it has, then the recently installed coalition government is in fact a junta. This NZ junta is comprised of the three authoritarian party leaders followed by their fawning acolytes and lesser supplicants, cheered on by rightwing media and corporate and ideological interest groups as well as revanchist voters reacting to what they see as challenges to their privileges by an assortment of “woke” and uppity usurpers. But at its core, the junta represents a coordinating committee of elite capitalist and ethnographic chauvanist (f not supremacist) interests, not the public at large.

To reprise: given the circumstances surrounding it, the October election in NZ was a type of “soft” or constitutional coup in which an authoritarian coalition gained a majority of votes without revealing its full policy agenda. It is now implementing that policy agenda by rewarding its allies and ignoring the public good. That approach–working solely for the benefit of allied groups while claiming that it is doing so in the public interest–is precisely how juntas govern.

Perhaps we should start addressing Mr. Luxon. Mr. Peters and Mr. Seymour each as “mi Comandante” or “mi Jefe” because 1) those Spanish phrases for “my Commander” or “my Boss” seem more suited to their personalities and politics than the term “Honourable;” and 2) they nicely fit with their junta-style approach to governing. In any event, the proper approach when greeting the junta members is to bend at the waist and make sure that one’s nose is pointed squarely at their footwear. Also, following established authoritarian protocol, Luxon can be called the Comandante Supremo or Jefe Supremo because he is supposedly the first amongst equals in the NZ junta, but that will likely increase the intrigue, scheming, plotting and knife sharpening within the coup coalition. If so, things could get pretty chaotic, indeed.

From somewhere in Hades, Pinochet and countless other authoritarians must be having a good chuckle at NZ’s expense.

Turn to nasty.

From its first actions as government, it seems that the National-ACT-NZ First (NACT1st) coalition is basing its approach to policy-making on utu (they would prefer to say revenge), racism and repaying their donors and supporters with aggressive repeals of legislation passed under the previous Labour government. The approach is brutish, brazen and nasty, but unsurprisingly was not something that they campaigned on during the general election. It seems that they knew how unpopular their retribution would be so they just winked and nodded to their silent partners (like the tobacco and fossil fuel lobbies) while yammering about crime, housing costs, foreign home buyers and tax cuts. They successfully used a compliant clickbait-obsessed corporate media to platform them and highlight personal peccadillos in the Labour caucus in order to undermine faith in the Labou-led government while avoiding answering hard questions about their real agenda.

Now in office, they demonstrate a complete disregard for democratic procedures and processes. For all the talk from the Right about the “Stalinist” bent of the Ardern government during the pandemic, the fact is that Labour spent much (often fruitless) time in public consultations and parliamentary committee hearings hashing out the pros and cons of a number of important policy issues. The actually listened to the public and to the Opposition on important matters even if not ultimately agreeing with them. The NACT1st approach, in contrast, has been to pass under urgency, without any public consultation, repeals of major pieces of legislation like the Smokefree Act, Fair Pay Agreements, Ute Fuel Tax and Clean Energy Rebates. They seek to abolish the use of Te Reo in official communications and review the Treaty of Waitangi (how they propose to do is a matter of conjecture at this point).They cancelled major infrastructure projects already underway. They want to reduce the number of ministries, specifically those having to do with Pacifika and Maori affairs. They propose to deregulate a host of commercial activities, open Conservation lands to mining and renew oil and natural gas leases.They want to privatise parts of the public health service, permit Charter schools and military-style boot camps for adolescents, and in general adhere to long since discredited neoliberal prescriptions for economic management.

In other words, they have adopted a retrograde scorched earth approach to Labour policy measures that appears to be taken out of a book written by Argentine president and “anarcho-capitalist” Javier Milei, the self-denominated tantric sex guru who consults his cloned Mastiffs for policy advice (I am not making this up). Milei has reduced the size of his cabinet from 18 to 9 ministers and has threatened to remove 100,000 public servants from the federal payroll (Argentina is a federal republic with a presidential-dominant democratic system, unlike NZ’s parliamentary democracy). The ministries of education, labor, employment, social development and social security have been absorbed into a new uber Ministry of Human Capital, and the ministries of transportation, women and gender, environment, and culture were eliminated outright.

Milei wants to close the Central Bank and “dollarize” the economy, although his more centrist advisors convinced him to hold off on that while other measures are implemented. Instead they have devalued the Argentine peso by 54 percent overnight last week, basically halving the income of anyone who did not have significant dollar reserves in personal accounts or who is paid in US dollars (one can imagine who the lucky ones might be). The fact is that most Argentines do not get paid in dollars and do not have bank accounts holding them in any significant quantity.

To top things off, Milei, who has a penchant for hurling misogynistic insults at female critics, has publicly stated that “blue eyed” people are intellectually superior (he himself is blue-eyed in a country of brown-eyed people), and proposes to repeal abortion rights and legal protections for non-binary individuals. Truth be told, Milei is a freak both personally and ideologically, a merkin elected out of desperation by just over half of the voting population tired of the corrupt politics as usual but who ignored the fact that he is not the lesser of the many evils that they are saddled with. He is no panacea for what ails the country.

Given the tone of NACT1st statements in recent days, could this be a path that it will chose to follow? Members of its coalition have voiced support for Milei and his project, so it is not a reach to think that they might want to emulate at least some of his policy ‘reforms.” Certainly the attacks on Maori seem to come from a “blue eyed” perspective.

There is something profoundly ugly about this, yet it is an approach to governing that is celebrated by rightwing groups like the Tax Payers and Free Speech “Unions,” assorted rightwing bloggers and, now that Elon Mush has opened the lid on the septic tank, a bunch of reactionary, racist, misogynistic and gay- and trans-phobic social media trolls, to say nothing of the reactionaries on platforms like Counterspin, The Platform and Reality Check Radio. It as if NACT1st has ripped a scab off the NZ body politic and out has oozed the pustulence of rightwing authoritarian-minded intolerance, greed and bigotry.

The good news is that the combination of narcissistic egos and incompetence that is the hallmark of the new government may well be their undoing.They are simply too stupid, too myopic, too crass, craven and venal to understand the subtitles and nuances involved in crafting lasting policy for the betterment of the commonweal. Or perhaps that has never been their intention.

To put it in a vulgar way more in line with the thrust of NACT1st’s approach, if Milei is a merkin, then Luxon is the bell-end on an onanist policy-making caucus.

It will be interesting to see what the public reaction to the razor gang approach will be. In Argentina Milei has already used Executive Powers to repress public demonstrations against his edicts. But Argentine civil society is often raucous and its union movement is staunch and not averse to street violence to make its case. Most of the Argentine public service is unionised, so the move to mass redundancies is going to encounter fierce resistance. Since the security forces are working class people whose families will be negatively impacted by Milei’s cutbacks on welfare, health and education services, it remains to be seen if they will stay loyal to him and follow his orders if people hit the streets in protest. Whatever happens, the next few months will be tumultuous at best.

In NZ the political culture is not as violent as that of Argentina but it does have limits of toleration. The Prime Minister in a parliamentary democracy like NZ does not have the Executive discretion available to Milei. But the NZ union movement is nowhere as staunch or as important to the productive apparatus as is its Argentine counterparts, being more of the compromise- rather than confrontation-oriented persuasion (some might call it the lapdog approach to employment relations where getting along with employers and surviving as a collective agent is more important than defending the interests of the rank and file, but I will leave it for others to decide if the characterisation fits). Whatever the case, the moment of truth has arrived for Kiwi society when it comes to responding to these assaults on hard-won social gains. Will Kiwis bend a knee in submission or stand up and fight? If they fight (even if just symbolically with acts of political theatre and perhaps episodic property damage), will the police stand against or with them? Will the NACT1st government try to resort to Emergency Powers in the face of civil unrest?

The larger issue is how NACT1st sees democracy. As readers might remember from previous posts on the subject, one can perceive democracy in two different ways. On the one hand, it can be seen as having intrinsic worth or being an intrinsic good in that it is the best possible (albeit flawed) method of giving voice to the people and substantively protecting the interests of all via a system of contingent compromises on major social, political and economic issues. It has its problems but is universally better than its alternatives when considering the heterogenous diversity of the social fabric and the need for achieving some sort of balance or equilibrium in the face of multiple competing demands in the political, social and economic marketplaces.

On the other hand democracy can be seen instrumentally, that is, as a means to an end or a tool to achieve power or partisan, sectoral or personal gain. Javier Milei has this perspective and it appears that NACT1st does as well. There is nothing intrinsically good about democracy in this view. For those who see democracy instrumentally, authoritarianism would be a better choice but it is too obvious in its bias. Instead, democracy’s worth is that it gives a veneer of representation and voice to the self-serving actions of winners of electoral contests, who then proceed to award themselves, their supporters and patrons with the spoils of governance. As Lenin put it, democracy is capitalism’s “best possible political shell.” There still may be checks and balances on the government, but those come from formal institutions like the judiciary rather than civil society itself. The latter must seek recourse in the street as well as if not more than formal channels and processes because the deck of officialdom is stacked against them when democratic instrumentalists hold the reins.

All of which is to say that the next six months should be interesting for both Argentina and NZ. Under their version of the social contract the new rightwing governments are hellbent on rolling back the clock when it comes to rights and obligations. They want to downsize the State when it comes to the provision of public goods and services, and they want to return to a social hierarchy more akin to the 1950s than the present era. Unfortunately for them, those days are long gone and both Argentine and Kiwi society cannot be remade in that nostalgic image.

In the end the fate of their regressive projects rests on whether civil society will go along with or organise against them. Because the bottom line of democratic governance is mass contingent consent to the political authorities and projects of the day, and on that score it remains to be seen if the Milei or NACT1st governments will enjoy that bottom line for any significant amount of time.

My reckon is that they will not, but that Argentines will be far less complacent than Kiwis when defending their interests.

Bully Pulpits and the Politics of Nastiness.

Teddy Roosevelt coined the phrase “bully pulpit” to describe the US presidency given the position that the country occupied in world affairs. He saw it as a tremendous platform for promoting political, diplomatic, social and economic interests and agendas. Over time the phrase has been broadened to include a wider range of positions of authority and institutional platforms from which to amplify and project views and projects on a range of public and private policy issues. This can include people and agencies involved in popular culture as well as politics and business affairs, sometimes in overlapped fashion (think Elon Musk).

In years past I discounted the weight of the US presidential bully pulpit. I saw it as being more relevant to US domestic politics than foreign policy and international affairs. As a child of Latin America I did not see its influence on my daily life nor on the behaviour of local politicians even if the US was the elephant in the room when it came to Latin American politics in general and economic and security affairs in particular. Even after moving to NZ as an adult, the bully pulpit of the US presidency was to my mind more of a historical anachronism or abstract than a reality of contemporary diplomatic relations or social exchange. For all the US talk about being a “leader of the free world,” “shining house on the hill,” “world’s greatest democracy” and all that other blather, I never got the impression that a US president could use the office to project his particular vision or brand onto the international, multicultural stage. That includes charismatic presidents like Barak Obama and Ronald Reagan (as much as I hated that guy).

To be sure, the US has interests that it projects onto the world stage, but the notion that a US president could use his office to promote a global vision beyond the usual rhetoric of freedom and democracy seemed far-fetched because if nothing else, most of those type of platitudes fell on cynical if not deaf ears. For me, the bully pulpit was just a domestic soapbox.

This notwithstanding, the US has always been a bastion of cultural as well political imperialism, exporting its culture and social mores world-wide along with its economic interests, be it from Coca Cola and KFC to rap, death metal and jazz music. The synergies of economic, political and cultural imperialism are well known so nothing else need be said here other than that I used to teach about this phenomenon, noting how local societies incorporate, adopt and adapt cultural artefacts in their own style according to their native mores and narratives, often with a dominant group versus subordinate group (often ethnic minority) twist added to the mix (e.g., people of colour in the developing world have adopted rap while European descendents have adopted pop-rock, among other things). One only need think of NZ’s hip hop scene to see the process at work.

Now, I see bully pulpit and cultural imperialism being combined in a most pernicious way as manifested in the person of Donald Trump. Trump embodies what I call the politics of nastiness, and he has used the US presidency as a bully pulpit to project his vulgar full spectrum neo-fascist bigotry world-wide. At first I thought of Trump as someone who tore the scab off of racism, xenophobia and crude low brow money-grubbing in the US. But after four years of his presidency and the sequels to it, I realise that his long moment in public life has served as an invitation to and license for others around the world to follow his approach to political and social discourse. The core of this approach is to appeal to the lowest common denominator in the basest of terms, seeking to appeal to the darkest of instincts and deepest ignorance extant in a given political community. This is the politics of nastiness, and the nasty has reached NZ.

It is well known that National has been for some time looking to US rightwing spin doctors for campaign guidance and narratives (crime! waste! taxes!), but now Winston First and ACT’s David Seymour have decided to go full US conspiracy theory (Winston: globalists! mandates!) and pseudo-libertarian racist (David: free speech! bureaucrats! Treaty separatists!). The tone of politics in NZ has gotten cruder (see: Chris Bishop, Judith Collins) and more personal (e.g. treatment of Kiri Allen). The corporate media has clearly decided to go full Murdoch in approach (with a few exceptions duly noted) by stirring partisan and racial division and polemics, focusing on personal foibles and conflicts rather than platforms/proposals and going for “gotcha” moments rather than offering dispassion analyses of the policy platforms of the respective parties.

This is Trump politics 101, and it is nasty.

NZ is not alone in this. From Bolsonaro in Brazil, to Dutarte in the Philippines, to Orban In Hungary, to Milei in Argentina to Modi in India, rightwing populists have adopted nasty politics as the core weapon in their political quiver, demonising competitors and personalising attacks on their opponents in order to get them to capitulate rather than concede and to be destroyed rather than defeated. Besides their embrace of nasty politics, what binds them together and to Trump is that they all profess to be defending “traditional” values and social structures against the supposed (and imaginary) threats posed by “progressivism,” “woke” politics and the growing presence of long suppressed (and oppressed) groups in their respective societies.

In NZ it is not only mainstream politicians who have seen the opportunity of emulating Trump. The Wellington protest riots saw a number of Trump, MAGA and Confederacy references amongst the agitators. The likes of Sue Grey, Liz Gunn, Brian Tamaki and Leighton Baker openly spout conspiracist lunacy and self-serving opportunist populist tropes. The overall effect is that the scab has truly been ripped off and the extremist infection has now spread throughout NZ’s political culture. There is a violent element in it that NZ security authorities continue to be reluctant to fully address, and it is the tail that wags the rightwing minor party dogs, if not National itself.

In summary: Trump is a cultural imperialist phenomenon that has used the US presidential bully pulpit to export his style of nasty politics world-wide. For all their talk about centrism, it is evident that the right side of NZ’s political spectrum has been heavily influenced by the Trump effect. Voters need to be cognisant of that not only when deciding who to elect, but when considering the prospects of how the potential “coalition of chaos” (ACT, National, NZ First) will approach governing once installed. Mutatis mutandis, the model for that approach could well be Trump.

Things could get nasty.

Something on the Politics of Social Engineering

Over the years here at KP I have episodically written about the impact of ideology on social order and the debates that revolve on what constitutes the “proper” way in which to organise society. In that light I have mentioned the subject of social engineering, that is, social reform projects initiated by both Right and Left-leaning governments that use public policy to influence social behaviour in pursuit of specific collective outcomes. Here I shall return to the subject, with particular reference to how it has an impact on the upcoming NZ general election.

Some readers may recall my writing about the social engineering aspects of the neoliberal projects of the 1980s-2000s in NZ and elsewhere. To recap, the practical success of neoliberalism as an ideological construct went something like this: neoliberalism started out as a Chicago School approach to macroeconomics that was premised on the belief that finance capital was the leading edge of capitalism and could therefore guide societies towards the most efficient material outcomes. Known as “monetarism” as advocated by Milton Friedman and his acolytes, it was given practical application in the authoritarian laboratory known as Pinochet’s Chile and, in less draconian fashion, NZ under the likes of Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson. (as some will recall, Douglas and Richardson even copied some of Pinochet’s labour laws as part of their NZ reforms).

The operating premise behind the turn to monetarism was that the Keynesian welfare state had exhausted its natural limits and outlived its usefulness, leading to parasitic rent-seeking behaviours on the part of interest groups tied to bloated public bureaucracies represented by corrupt unions that also were more interested in feeding at the public trough rather than pursing the common good. In order to break the grip of this perverse alliance of leeches, a dramatic structural reform project needed to be undertaken in which the State sector was reduced in size, public good provision was privatised, union power was constrained and people were forced to look to the private sector for their immediate and long term needs (and perhaps the wants of a fortunate few).

Note that this was purely a structural project, that is, a macroeconomic effort to reshape national economies in ways that would promote efficiency and reduce waste. Rather than State managers in places like Central Banks, Ministries of Finance or Economy, investment led by international finance capital would determine those areas in the national economy into which resources were directed using neo-Ricardian principles of comparative and competitive advantage. Codified in the so-called “Washington Consensus” adopted by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, it had severe dislocating effects on the populations in which it was applied, something that required authoritarian imposition in places like the Southern Cone of Latin America but also serious reductions in collective rights in democracies like NZ, the UK and the US.

It turns out that in order to create the “laboratory” in which neoliberal prescriptions could work as theorised by the Chicago Boys, the human subjects needed to be denied their rights via repression (state terror in the case of the Southern Cone experiments) or drastic reductions in their collective rights in the marketplace (in places like NZ). Legally speaking, both in terms of what workers/employees could address as well as with regard to their modes of representation, the overall impact of neoliberalism was a diminution of wage earner’s ability to defend their interests in the labour market (albeit without the repression in NZ that was deemed necessary in less complacent societies like Chile).

The broader idea was to use structural reform projects to break the welfare statist mould and replace it with a stripped down and leaner State focused on core areas such as defense and security while the private sector assumed de facto control of macroeconomic policy via the appointment of its representatives to State economic oversight, management and regulatory agencies. Having done so, behavioural changes in society would inevitably follow because the state-centric mindsets of the welfare state era would give way to more market-influenced approaches by both individuals and groups. What those changes in concrete terms might be mattered less so long as they conformed to market-driven logics.

In this view monetarist structural reforms would lead to market-dominated social logics. Everyone would become a self-interested maximiser of opportunities within the rational limits of their individual choices given the market conditions in which they operate, with the overall aggregate of choices leading to market clearance at a societal level. Reproduced over time and across generations, market-oriented public perceptions of the “proper” society would become self-fulfilling. Those who accepted the premise would succeed in life and those who refused to accept or could not cope with the individualistic focus and atomising impact of a more market-driven social order would be left behind in its wake. Eventually the societal market would clear based on the sum total of the interactions between people acting as homo economicus in the first instance, to which then could be added the ascriptive (non-material) aspects of human endeavour.

This market-oriented project has certainly succeeded in NZ, even if not by original design. The architects of the early structural reforms were focused on institutions and public policy involved in economic matters, not specifically on social behaviour. But as the influence of those reforms seeped deeper into society, accompanying cultural reforms began to be proposed. To the structural reforms of the first phase of the neoliberal project were attached superstructural addenda that helped cement its ideological grip on public perceptions and behaviour. Remember that ideology is a social construction, that is, an idea about how things should and should not be. Ideologies exist in concrete material conditions with their own historical circumstances and legacies as well as their immediate contexts. In that light, ideology specifies the relationship between the imaginary and the real and the preferred path between them (which among other things raises the notion of the perfectibility of humankind). Neoliberals have an ideological bias in favour of the individual rights and freedoms; Leftists have a bias in favour of collective responsibilities and the public good.

Neoliberals are morally agnostic when it comes to social behaviour in market societies, limiting their preferences to broader freedoms of choice for individuals in such circumstances. Leftists have a normative preference for collectively beneficial social dynamics in which individual rights and responsibilities are equitably balanced with the common good.

In that light, at the superstructural level neoliberalism is an ideology that purports to demonstrate the proper way in which human societies should be organised and how people should interact within them using unfettered property and individual rights as cornerstones of the social contract. There can be no doubt that when compared to the early 1980s pre-neoliberal period, NZ society today is largely governed by market-driven principles and market-oriented institutions. And as a result, NZ social behaviour has changed.

Rather than discussing neoliberalism and market-oriented social engineering any further, let me simply point out that it started out as a conscious structural reform project that morphed into a a way of looking at the world. That in turn led to changes in society as the impact of the structural reforms took hold and deepened over the years. Market-oriented social engineering was a product and consequence of the structural reforms rather than something that was specifically envisioned from the onset. In a sense, the social engineering aspect of neoliberalism, insofar as producing behavioural changes in society, came as a bottom-up, spontaneous response to structural reform rather than as a top-down, deliberately thought-out project that extended beyond issues of political economy.

Think of it this way. Once the nature of the game is altered (say, from cricket to basketball), so too the rules of the game change, followed by changes in who plays and the way they play the new game. It may even determine who is more likely to win. But even then, the way in which the new game is played by those favored and disfavored by the new rules may be unanticipated by those who changed it in the first place. That is the essence of the social engineering consequences of the shift from welfare statism to neoliberalism in places like NZ. They were not preordained or foretold. They just happened as a “natural” consequence or response to the market-oriented structural changes undertaken. Neoliberals are comfortable with that alone, figuring that things like the balance between comfort and security will be sorted out by the interplay of social market forces.

That is where Left social engineering projects differ, and often fail. Unlike the neoliberal approach, which focused on structural (macroeconomic) reform that eventually bubbled up through the layers of the social division of labour in civil society to become new social norms and modes of behaviour, Left social engineering projects are consciously top-down in nature. Unlike market-driven social engineering projects, which focus on the downsizing reform of State institutions and regulations in order to free up policy decision-making space and freedom of manoeuver for private interests, here the primary focus is on changing collective and individual behaviour using the regulatory State as the agent of reform.

Left-leaning social engineering is what economists call “nudging” projects, but on steroids. In this context “nudging” are efforts to make discrete policy adjustments that encourage changes in social behavior, for example, by painting hopscotch, tic-tac-toe or even rainbow arcs on staircases in transportation hubs in order to encourage healthy stair climbing rather than indolent escalator riding. However, the thrust of Left social engineering projects is large rather than small, macro rather than micro, overt rather than discrete. It is “nudging” on a grand scale, or if one were to view such projects negatively, “shoving” the body politic in a particular behavioural direction.

Leftist social engineering involves “think big” projects like the recent “Zero Road Toll” land transportation campaigns or the move to replace automobile lanes with cycle and bus lanes in urban centres (where Left-governed councils use funding from the Labour-led government to make changes to local roading systems that discourage the use of cars and encourage substitute modes like bicycles, buses and trains). They focus on inducing big behavioural changes such as the lowering of smoking rates via high taxation of cigarettes or the switch to electric cars via increased taxation on diesel and petrol cars levied in tandem with rebates on new electric car purchases. The focus is on changing behaviours, not underlying structures, in a reverse of the neoliberal approach.

What these top-down Left social engineering projects do not do is alter the macroeconomic system as given, nor fully account for the microeconomic and unanticipated non-economic behavioural responses to their initiatives. The premise is that if policy-makers use State powers to constrain or frame certain types of human activity or behaviour via taxation, regulation, re-organisation and persuasion, then they will elicit specific types of responses. Rather than morally agnostic when it comes to outcomes, they are normatively-driven (aka biased) towards producing preferred collective outcomes. For example, if you narrow city streets by installing bike and busways and prohibit surface parking without increasing off-street parking spaces, the assumption is that people will abandon their cars and seek alternative modes of transportation whether they live in urban centres or commute to them. Vehicle congestion will be lowered, airborne particulate and street wastewater pollution will fall and people will get healthier by walking more and cycling.

The problem is that this does not account for the universe of car usage, to include the need to transport children and household supplies, the limited availability of disabled transportation access or presence of health issues that make cycling or access public transport difficult, the need for private vehicles for work, lack of transportation alternatives in satellite communities connected to urban employment centres, etc.

In other words, no major structural reforms are adopted, and no hedge is made against unanticipated responses to the implementation of grandiose projects. Market-led capitalism remains untouched as the core of the national economy, with modifications in tax policy nibbling around the margin of the macroeconomic model and broader behavioural changes in society encouraged–some would say imposed–by State fiat. This is the reverse of the neoliberal project, which focused on immediate structural changes and consequences and did not indulge in offering preferences when it came to longer-term social behaviours.

The results for the Left (such as it is in NZ) are often disappointing: With insufficient police resources to enforce road safety policies that are designed to reduce the road death and injury toll, the toll remains static in spite of millions spent on advertising campaigns. In places like West Auckland, ambitious traffic reduction schemes are implemented in places originally designed to attract rather than discourage car usage (e.g. around the Henderson mall and adjacent shopping areas), thereby resulting in gridlock, anger, protests, large-scale violations of the new traffic guidelines and eventual abandonment of the project altogether in the face of community resistance to the change and at a cost of millions of wasted taxpayer dollars.

The same can be said about recent approaches to water provision. The Three Waters project is designed to rationalise water rights, quality and supply by centralising managerial authority in a reduced number of districts while providing better voice for indigenous partners. However, rather than be welcome as an improvement in public good provision, what it received by way of response was both a racist backlash against improved Maori representation as stakeholders and pushback from those who see the removal of decentralised decision-making (however incompetent or inefficient it may be) as an erosion of democratic rights to self-governance when it comes to local water management.

The top-down approach to social engineering is based on one of two logics: that people will respond as required given what they have been legislatively told is in their best collective interest; or people will willingly comply with what they perceive as beneficial for the common good. The catch is that with atomising, individualistic neoliberal perspectives and logics deeply embedded throughout society in NZ, the former will be resisted or ignored and the latter will be met with non-compliance. Given the ideological influence of “legacy” market-oriented social perspectives in contemporary NZ, their impact on general acceptance of 6th Labour government social engineering projects has been deleterious to say the least.

This was seen in the reaction by NZ anti-vaccination, anti-masking and anti-mandate campaigns to the government’s pandemic mitigation efforts, where world-leading prevention, containment and mitigation strategies developed by public health professionals and epidemiologists faced concerted resistance from the business community, conspiracy theorists, rightwing political opportunists, media figures and assorted tinfoil hat “cookers” that culminated in the Parliamentary protests and riot of 2022, and which continue to percolate and be mainstreamed today. In that case a declared national emergency demanded a rapid social engineering response in the face of an immediate existential threat, and yet even then it was repeatedly challenged as an authoritarian over-reach and infringement on basic freedoms. If ever there was concrete proof that the neoliberal ideological championing of the primacy of individual choice was firmly embedded in NZ society, it was in this type of response to what was otherwise a clear case of the State acting on behalf of and defending the collective interest (specifically, public health and welfare) against a common threat.

The point of this rumination is to help understand why the current government may lose the October election. Although it objectively has had more successes than failures during very trying times, it is the combination of market-dominated macroeconomic logics, deeply rooted neoliberal social perspectives and resentment against “top-down” approaches to social engineering that has swayed public opinion against it. That, more than unearthed scandals, media “gotcha” moments or the policies of the parties themselves, seems to be the root cause behind the apparent electorate desire to replace the current government with a Right coalition in which the racist, extremist tail will wag the vacuous “moderate” dog.

That is of concern not only because it threatens to undo some of the good work of the 6th Labour government, but mostly because not all Right social engineering projects are of the bottom-up variety to begin with and all of them require a turn to some form of authoritarianism in their initial stages (as the turn to neoliberalism in NZ in the 80s demonstrates). With ACT being the ideological/dog-whistling tail on the National dog, the turn rightwards will be top-down and harsh.

Media Link: “A View from Afar” on “democratic backsliding.”

In this week’s “A View from Afar” podcast Selwyn Manning and I discuss the concept of “democratic backsliding” and why it is a troublesome development world wide. To do so we disaggregate the political, institutional and societal manifestations of backsliding in a democracy as well as the reasons for it. You can find the show here.

Trump’s toxic tail.

I was going to write about something else to start off the KP year but current events have intruded in the form of the craziness surrounding the selection of US House Speaker and the storming of the Brazilian seats of power (Congress, the Supreme Court and Presidential Palace) by (so-called “Trump of the Tropics”) Jair Bolsonaro supporters who refuse to concede that he lost the October 2022 presidential election to Luis Ignacio da Silva (Lula). I thought I would briefly address the connection between them

When Trump was elected in 2016 I wrote here and in other outlets that one of the problems of his success was that it would encourage imitators at home and abroad. The imitators at home would seek to emulate and deepen his retrograde messages on immigration, race, gender, and other cultural-idelogical issues (such as how to treat the Confederate legacy), whereas external imitators would adopt his nationalist-populist style to tailor their similarly retrograde messages to domestic audiences. The Trump “ripple effect,” I argued, would spread like a grease stain across the global political landscape, including here in NZ. Sure enough, it has.

To continue the analogy, it is now clear that Trump ripped off the scab that covered the festering pustulence of authoritarian bigotry and intolerance that lie under the surface of most democratic societies. He made it “cool” to be a proto- or neofascist. He made it safe to be an ignorant, anti-scientific xenophobic, conspiracy theory believer. He coddles anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers and praises murderous dictators. He normalised pathological lying as a political tactic and he attempted to wield presidential powers as personal weapons with which to settle political scores and pursue personal vendettas. He turned public sector nepotism into a family and friend cash cow. He is, in a word, a pox on humanity.

I say this because the sequels to his presidency are now being seen in the US and elsewhere. In the US the election of a new Republican House Speaker turned into a clown show after MAGA diehards (first known as the “Taliban Twenty,” then recast as the “Fascist Five”–or Six, if you are a pedantic MAGA purist) voted in opposition to Kevin McCarthy, who himself is a 2020 election-denying Trump bootlicker who did everything in his power to cover up and diminish the January 6, 2021 storming and occupation of the US Capitol. The MAGA fanatics, who are also pro-Russian, wanted to outflank McCarthy on the Right, tying personal benefits and unworkable policy demands to their support for his candidacy. (We must remember that the Democrats control both the Senate and the Presidency for the next two years, so some of the MAGA proposals are dead in the water even if they pass in the House).

After 15 rounds of balloting spanning 4 days, they eventual allowed him to win by voting “present,” which lowered McCarthy’s threshold for victory from 218 votes to 216 (Democrats voted unanimously 15 times for Opposition Leader Hakeen Jeffries to be Speaker giving him 212 votes each time). In winning McCarthy became the biggest loser. He is now beholden to this fanatical fringe of MAGA sociopaths, which includes several Jan.6 collaborators, assorted anti-vax loonies, a guy being investigated for child sex trafficking and a former high school dropout-turned-escort and bar owner who got her entry into politics courtesy of being introduced to GOP Senator Tom Cruz at a conservative convention in Las Vegas in the early Trump years (she clearly made an impression on him). This collection of Einsteins now hold the entire House hostage to their demands on the Speaker.

The biggest winner in the House Speaker election was Donald Trump. He backed McCarthy from the onset and once the MAGA morons dug in their heels in later-round balloting it was he who called them and convinced them to switch their votes from other (equally unqualified) candidates to “present.” McCarthy acknowledged his influence once the dust had settled, and it is now McCarthy who will be in the grip of a political vise made up by the Fascist Five inside his party conference and by Trump outside of it. To put it in more organic terms, Trump and his Fascist Five minions have McCarthy by the gonads, assuming that they are still in his possession.

This is a very bad thing. Trump, who was becoming increasingly irrelevant and a spent force in GOP politics as he contends with the imminent possibility of criminal indictments at the state and federal level on a host of charges, including inciting the Jan 6 insurrection and unlawful possession of classified material, has now been gifted a lifeline back into the core of the party. He had already announced his candidacy for the presidential elections in 2024 but was in danger of being eclipsed by younger reactionaries like Florida governor Ron DeSantis. Now he is back front and centre in the primary mix, with Congressional GOP support behind him. He will have to be dealt with, and unless he is indicted, on his terms. (The irony of the GOP mainstream and people like DeSantis needing a Democrat-appointed Attorney General and his subordinates in the Department of Justice to kneecap Trump’s 2024 political ambitions is a bit delicious).

It is possible that the Democrat Party will ultimately benefit from the GOP in-fighting and Trump’s political resurrection, especially if he is indicted and charged and the House GOP spend their time wasting taxpayer dollars on investigations into Hunter Biden’s laptop, Benghazi, the “weaponising” of government agencies against conservatives and fighting “wokeness” and other culture wars in federally-funded projects and agencies. None of this political theatre actually improves the lives of their constituents at a time when the Biden administration and then-Democrat House and Senate majorities passed dozens of items of legislation that actually do have a real positive impact on middle and working class voters (like social security payment increases, physical infrastructure projects, technology industry support measures, capping insulin prices and student debt relief). The more the House Republicans fight over incidentals and fail to deliver tangible benefits to society as a whole, the greater the chances of Democrat victories in 2024.

The Republican House majority need to be seen as doing something concrete that serves the interests of their voting base and it is not clear, with a Democrat majority in the Senate and a Democrat president, that they have the intellectual capacity and political ability to do that. At the moment it is all about scratching the “own the Libs” itch and nothing about actually governing. The MAGA caucus and Trump will ensure that continues through the 2024 elections. Expect Republican House chaos for the next two years, to potential Democrat benefit.

This spills over into the external world. Trump may limit his ambitions to the US or see the presidency as his vehicle towards global reification, but there are those in his circle who have global ambitions that transcend Trump. If anything they see him as a vehicle for their ideological aspirations.

Leading that crowd is Trump ally Steve Bannon. Bannon, a primary instigator/ architect of the Jan 6 insurrection now out on bail after being convicted of contempt of Congress and sentenced to five months imprisonment for not answering a subpoena to testify about his involvement, has been identified as one of the instigators of the Jan 8 insurrection in Brasilia. In fact, one of his henchmen, Jason Miller (a married former Trump advisor who has the distinction of having put an abortifacient in a girlfriend’s drink after she told him that she was pregnant) was detained in a plane waiting on the Brasilia airport tarmac to take off during the insurrection, having spent the previous week working with Bolsonaro’s brother and chief advisor to establish pro-Bolsonaro resistance camps in Brasilia and other major Brazilian cities.

There are many other proven instances of connections between pro-Bolsonaro seditionists and MAGA leaders like Mike Liddell (the pillow magnate), Trump advisors, CPAC (the conservative political action committee led by Matt Schapp, the married traditional family values champion who has just been accused of groping the genitals of a male staffer during a fund-raising trip), and a motley crew of Christian conservatives, anti-communists and white nationalists. The tactics used by the Brazilian mob copied and expanded on the Jan 6 insurrection, broadening the occupation to include all three seats of power while emulating the symbology of the US event (including sitting at the Speaker’s office desk and vandalising artwork and statuary). They may have been abetted by the pro-Bolsonaro governor of the federal district of Brasilia, who, much like Trump’s Acting Secretary of Defense, reportedly ordered the security detachment around the government complex to stand down and use minimum force when faced with crowds trying to force their way into it. (Unlike the Trump glove puppet, he has now been suspended pending an investigation into his actions by the Supreme Court).

Unlike the Jan 6 crowd, the Brazilian insurrectionists made their move on a Sunday when the buildings were unoccupied. That made it easier for security forces to respond when they were eventually summoned because no hostages of any significance could be taken and no crowds of innocent bystanders and tourists were around into which the seditionists could blend into and escape. 1500 were arrested and now wait on charges.

This gets to the heart of the matter. Trump has helped create a global network of rightwing anti-democratic agitators whose main goal is to subvert democracies from within by challenging their legitimacy as a form of governance. He continues to support them (as he did with Bolsonaro, claiming that the Brazilian elections were “rigged”), with Bannon and his cohort serving as the architects for individualised national strategies to pursue that end. Bannon has publicly said that he wants to create a global “nationalist-populist” movement that returns to “traditional” values and social hierarchies. Read into that want you want but in practice it basically stands for white economic and cultural nationalist xenophobic heterosexist patriarchy. (You can find various biographies of him with a simple internet search, the best of which spell out the full extent of his vision).

In NZ anti-government groups on the far Right use Trump/Bannon rhetoric to denounce not only the current government but also the NZ “Deep State.” This was amply seen during the parliament protests, occupation and riot early last year. Platforms like Counterspin and VFF reportedly have funding support from Bannon’s media conglomerate, with people listed as his correspondents misusing press credentials to get close to the Prime Minister in order to harangue her. (The security implications of this are serious and need to be addressed as a priority by those responsible for her protection).

A key tactic in Bannon’s playbook is to take local grievances and turn them and government responses into seemingly existential issues . In NZ pandemic mitigation efforts are framed as government attempts to control–even mind control–the population via quarantines, lockdowns and masking mandates. Efforts to rationalise water purification and distribution are construed as attempts to impose Maori control over water access rights. Initiatives to promote acceptance of transgender rights are seen as usurpations of traditional values while efforts to promote the everyday use of te reo is considered to be an insidious assault on NZ’s European heritage.

For Bannon, as with Trump, the specific issue is not as important as the overall effect. Agitators can slide from issue to issue (as VFF has done now that public health orders and pandemic mitigation mandates have been discontinued), but the objective is to undermine faith in the government (first) and pubic institutions (ultimately). The end goal is subversion of democracy as a political regime and social construct, to be replaced by some imaginary version of libertarian anarchism in which the strong rule over the weak and people behave and organise their lives accordingly.

The key to cauterising the septic spread of the Trump toxin is to confront its physical agents and ideological vectors as the very real subversive threats that they are. The threats are not to just the government of the day, or the police, or the Courts, or bureaucrats in the public service although they re all in the firing line of the more extremist elements in the alt-Right in NZ and elsewhere. The threat is to the democratic organization of society, from the institutional structure of its politics to its social norms and mores to its economic rights and responsibilities. Whatever the libertarian anarchist/nationalist-populist pipe dream may be, it will not bring social order, much less peace, prosperity and stability, and during the transition from the flawed but incrementally perfectible democratic system that we currently have to the imaginary system that the Trump/Bannon perspective cynically offers, there will be destructive chaos.

In fact, it is this “valley of transition” that ultimately gives practical grounds for rejecting the dark utopianism of the nationalist-populist hallucination. Faced with the clear costs of moving abruptly away from the flawed-but-improvable socio-institutional frameworks that currently condition our behaviour and the long-term uncertainties inherent in that move (i.e., will things in fact get better for all if the Trump/Bannon model prevails as a social construct?), the most prudent choice for most people is to work to improve the system from within (which includes pushing the envelope at its margins when it comes to social, economic and political convention).

For the moment that Brazilians have shown that they take the seditious threat seriously by arresting the seditionists and remanding many of them for prompt judicial adjudication while bailing others deemed less involved in the move to attack the government complex. They are also investigating larger networks of security officials and pro-Bolsonaro politicians in order to determine if they have any complicity in the January 8 events. The US has faltered in this regard, with relatively prompt arrest, trial and conviction of various foot soldier insurrectionists but little in the way of prosecution of their intellectual leaders and material sponsors and relatively light sentences for the majority of those convicted so far. NZ has done even worse, working very slowly (if at all) to bring the organisers of the parliamentary protests to justice and reportedly willing to allow at least some of the eventually violent trespassing mob to walk free rather than face the Courts.

That is a terrible precedent to set that will be seen as a victory by the NZ seditionists and will encourage others of similar disposition to try their luck at subversion as well. In that context, it is only a matter of time before someone in Aotearoa gets killed by Trump’s toxic tail.

Media Link: “AVFA” on US midterms and Trump’s return.

After a small hiatus due to Covid hitting my household, Selwyn Manning and I resumed our weekly ” A View from Afar” podcast series with an analysis of the 2022 US midterm results and a look at what Trump’s decision to run for president again means for the GOP. You can find the podcast here.