Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Donald Trump, Winston Peters, and Adolf Hitler

A month or so ago (“last week” when I started writing this post – sorry) the Greens and Labour agreed to work together to unseat the National Party at next year’s election; an announcement none the less welcome for being six years late. Unfortunately – and I very much hope this will change, as the new coalition presents credible joint policies to the public – their present combined polling numbers don’t yet surpass National’s. If the election were tomorrow instead of next year, they would probably have to hold out a hand to Winston Peters and his New Zealand First Party. That would be bad.

Those of you who aren’t from New Zealand won’t necessarily appreciate why; Peters is a big fish in a small pond. (As an aside, I have no idea how big a proportion of my readers that is, for two reasons. First, Blogger has a button on the control panel which promises to let you stop counting your own visits in your readership stats, but it doesn’t work, so I get a new hit every time I check in. I’ve given up trying to tell them about it a while ago now. And second, there’s someone using Firefox on a Windows machine somewhere in the United States who, whenever this blog gets a bit more traffic than usual, throws me about 100 pageviews in one hit. Both of these factors artificially inflate my apparent readership and I don’t know which one is winning. It’s very annoying and I wish they would stop.)

Sorry. Winston Peters. I’m sure I’ve said this before, but Winston Peters has basically four tricks which have never failed to get him re-elected. One, appeal to a demographic everyone else ignores (the elderly). Two, stick to the centre on economic issues. Three, talk big, when in Opposition, about the shady dealings of the Government; it’s been long enough now since Peters was anywhere near serious power that people are forgetting how shady his own dealings were. And four, blame foreigners for everything. Winston has been in Parliament for all but three of the last 32 years, and the missing three came after Prime Minister Helen Clark, in a stroke of genius, put him in the one position where he couldn’t play that fourth trick – she made him Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Peters attacks three kinds of foreigners. In recent years he’s been focusing most of his ire on (1) absentee landlords and (2) manufacturers of cheap imported goods. But, as everyone in New Zealand but the Government and their lap-dog journalists can see, we’re currently experiencing a housing crisis, with families living in cars and tents; that’s the primary issue on which the Greens and Labour agree that National has fallen short. And just right about when they announced their agreement, Peters came out with several public statements blaming (3) immigrants for the shortage. (And using women’s rights as a stick to beat Muslims with, which is the only kind of attention he’s ever paid to women’s rights that I’m aware of.) He’s threatening not to support the new partnership unless both parties commit to cutting back on immigration.

There are two major things wrong with Peters’ thesis here. One is that it’s not true. There isn’t a shortage of housing; there’s a shortage of affordable housing. Right now, right when families – some with small children – are heading into a New Zealand winter in cars and tents, tens of thousands of houses are standing empty in Auckland. (This is the sort of thing the free market was supposed to fix.) Those houses aren’t being snatched up by immigrants, they’re being used as poker chips by real-estate speculators. The second thing wrong is that Peters doesn’t believe it himself. He’s spent more time in Government than many MPs, thanks to his centrist poise; he was even Deputy Prime Minister a while back. In all that time he’s never lifted a finger, that I can recall, to actually implement any of the sweeping immigration policy changes he campaigns on.

Looking from our small pond to a much bigger one, Winston Peters is the nearest thing New Zealand has to Donald Trump. (Our current Prime Minister John Key is more of a George W. Bush kind of guy.) Oh, there are differences, of course. Trump is a businessman, Peters is a career politician. Trump is white, Peters is Māori – so the “Your grandparents were immigrants too” rejoinder doesn’t apply to him. But both men are egotists. Both men have a talent for blustering their way out of answering questions; both men do it by parrying criticisms back at the questioner instead of retreating into weasel words, and thus both have acquired an entirely unearned reputation as straight talkers. And incidentally, both, while I was writing this, publicly blamed the recent Orlando massacre on Muslim immigration despite the fact that it occurred in the killer’s country of birth.

Why do people vote for men like Trump and Peters? What is the appeal of groups like Britain First and ISIS? Very often the answer we, their opponents, reach for is “Gosh, there are a lot of idiots in the world.” This is a failure on multiple levels. It’s a tactical failure because calling people idiots closes rather than opens their minds. It’s a strategic failure because it’s guaranteed to make us underestimate them. It’s a political failure because if everyone’s an idiot then that makes democracy a bad idea. It’s a moral failure because it dehumanizes people, the very thing we’re supposed to be standing against. And it’s an intellectual failure because people are not, in fact, idiots.

I take it as an axiom that people are not stupid, or rather (quite a different proposition) that they are no more stupid than I am. Those of us who call ourselves progressives or social democrats are kidding ourselves if we think we’re immune to the ugliest side of human nature – the penchant for lumping together whole groups of people, who happen to be rivals or enemies of our own group, under stereotypes which allow us to dismiss their humanity. It’s just that our stereotypes are of “jocks” or “rednecks” or “suits” rather than Muslims or Mexicans or LGBT people. This is something we need to be careful of when engaging in radical politics. Anger and mockery are useful weapons against power, but if we turn them into deadly hatred – as I’ve seen in my Facebook feed – against (say) people who work in management or law enforcement, we perpetuate the very attitudes we are trying to fight.

This human failing makes the story seductively persuasive: “The orcs are upon us. Our woes are due to them.” For bypassing the border-checks of reason, it’s rivalled only by “We have displeased the god(s) and are being punished.” And of course those two stories are easily combined. “In order to win back the divine favour, we must expel the orcs.” The real ecological and economic causes of social ills just don’t make such a satisfying narrative. Add to that a commercial media whose success depends on market appeal rather than truth; put the mixture into the hands of a political establishment who are naïve or cynical enough to leave social cohesion to the market, and whose power and status is best served by deflecting public scrutiny from their own sins. The results are not hard to predict.

With both the US and the UK seeing a resurgence of the politics of hate, it’s time to remember that not everybody peddling that politics is a cynic like Winston Peters. Donald Trump is probably just another one. But considering what’s at stake, “probably” isn’t good enough. There are some alarming parallels between Trump’s rise to power and Adolf Hitler’s. No, I’m not saying that Trump is exactly like Hitler. But that’s not because Hitler was some kind of demon god and no human being could ever be as evil as him ever, which is sometimes the impression I get when people laugh off Hitler comparisons as hyperbole. Hitler was a human being who happened to combine the calculatedly outrageous showmanship of a Donald Trump with the gibbering bigotry of a Fred Phelps and the methodical murderousness of an Anders Breivik. We may very well see his like again.

I wish I could make confident predictions about outcome of the US election, I really do. Apart from anything else it might get me a few blog hits. Hillary Clinton is playing the strategy that’s won elections in the English-speaking world for the last twenty years: kiss up to the rich so they can fund your campaign, then camp in the centre so as to capture the swing vote. I’m not betting on this continuing to work. In effect it means that the two major parties in each country (the Democrats and the Republicans in the US; Labour and the Conservatives in the UK; Labor and the Liberals in Australia; Labour and National here) offer barely-distinguishable versions of the same policies. I’m pretty sure it’s this lack of real alternatives that’s been steadily growing the non-vote in all of those countries, and given that non-voters tend to be young and poor, it’s a good bet their lost votes will be felt first on the Left.

I don’t know whether Clinton’s business-as-usual politics will beat Trump’s it’s-all-brown-people’s-fault politics. When I began writing this it still looked like there was a third possibility, and I have a feeling there are going to be a lot of ballots with “Bernie Sanders” written on them come November. Another thing I don’t know is whether Sanders would have appealed to enough non-voters to beat the swing voters whom Clinton is betting on. But I do know that the non-vote is growing. And unless some of the Green or Labour leadership get a lot bolder, I also know that New Zealand has no Bernie Sanders.