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.