Australia has proved fertile ground for US anti-intellectual propaganda

Oct 7, 2021
anti-lockdown protest melbourne
Anti-government protesters in Melbourne. (Image: AAP/James Ross)

Cynical conservative strategies in US politics have well and truly made their way into Australian discourse — just look at the demands of the rioters in Melbourne for Ivermectin.

Seeing Trump flags flying at the riots on Melbourne’s streets last week was a reminder that “culture war” battles are no longer national — they are as global as the COVID-19 pandemic.

These violent scenes are also partly a result of a conscious tool in the right’s efforts to corrode democracy.

When strategists encourage a voter identity based on resentment and fear, not to mention a disdain for experts, they cannot always foresee the paranoias that will emerge in the circles targeted, or the violence that might result.

Thousands will die in the months ahead, convinced it’s safer to ingest sheep drench than be injected with a thoroughly investigated vaccine. Our democracies may not survive the radical conservative bloc’s utter rejection of consensus reality.

Some of the climate projections suggest that civilisation itself may not survive the challenges in its path.

Since the Civil Rights era in America, a small number of Republican strategists in the anglosphere have considered how the white and wealthy might continue to dominate elections despite their numerical and policy goal marginality. With goals of lowest tax, smallest government, and least regulation, the richest would need to hide their plans behind marketing campaigns.

These Republicans devised a conservative identity that would replace the overtly white identity that had previously bonded many American poor whites to their rich neighbours. This would help integrate the segregationist white people abandoned by the Democrat Party without losing their moderate northern demographic.

How the conservatives grew to reject experts and science

Conservative think tanks, which mainly worked in the interests wealthy whites, fostered the spread of these strategies internationally through conservative circles and political networks. The internet has enabled the resultant culture war to permeate the world, augmenting the identity fractures that already pervade diverse cultures.

Lech Blaine’s Quarterly Essay tracks the impact in Australia. This American conservative identity compounded with our “tall poppy” suspicions to create a ready market for conservative anti-intellectual propaganda.

The most dangerous aspects of this conservative identity are its opposition to the scientific method and expertise.

It is this we see in the Melbourne protests’ demand for mass distribution of Ivermectin, an anti-parasitic that so far has been proven ineffective. It is this we see in the escalating pressure to undermine the results of a valid election in the US. It is this we see in conservatives’ reluctance to enable speedy climate action.

The outcome has been more bleak than the strategists probably conceived.

In the US, Republican figures who embraced the cynical Tea Party backlash to Barack Obama’s electoral victory did not imagine a party where a huckster like Donald Trump dictated their every word. Any Republican who annoys him faces the wrath of his base, upon which the party now depends.

It was their cynical strategies that led to the armed attack on the Capitol in January.

In the UK, when Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson activated nostalgic jingoism and racism to campaign for Brexit, they did not care about the surge of race-based attacks around the country. Their disingenuous gamesmanship has also led to empty shelves, beer-less pubs and doctors unable to carry out blood tests. Former prime minister Gordon Brown is not the only one speculating that Britain is at risk of becoming a failed state.

Sectors that consider themselves more important than any one nation’s government shape our fate. Fossil fuels and the tech industry benefit from this strategy to harness a mass conservative identity to protect the freedoms of the powerful. The money then promotes politicians and policy that reciprocate. Most recently, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s mentor Peter Thiel claimed that during a dinner in October 2019, Zuckerberg agreed not to fact check political posts in exchange for a promise of favourable regulatory treatment by Trump.

Recent reporting on “conservative” Thiel describes “Thielism” as an ideology prevalent amongst tech entrepreneurs: it is not merely a libertarian ideology, but also a manner of doing business that perceives rules, systems and ethics to be irrelevant.

A recent Wall Street Journal investigation found that Facebook executives — including Zuckerberg —know the company’s platforms augment violence. Those platforms have been accused of being complicit in the genocide in Myanmar, a growing risk of one in Ethiopia, and lynchings in India. Despite that, Facebook hasn’t made the radical changes required.

It seems less extreme to accuse Facebook (and YouTube) of being powerful forces in creating communities of conspiracy theorists in the Covid era. Their radicalising algorithms drive people towards embracing destructive identities based on this proudly anti-expert conservative model. It is in these spaces that anti Covid vaccine sentiment has spread most wildly.

The social media companies showed how rapidly they could act when they chose to shut down ISIS’s ability to recruit on their platforms. On current matters, however, they have chosen barely to intervene.

Facebook’s tendency to merely tinker at the edges of its problems with medical disinformation and QAnon radicalisation should not surprise. It is a platform dominated by radical “conservative” voices: Kevin Roose of The New York Times has tracked Facebook’s daily top 10 posts for more than a year now, and they are consistently dominated by these provocateurs. Facebook hired Joel Kaplan, after he had worked under Antonin Scalia and George W Bush, in 2011. He has reportedly worked to protect “conservative” forces on the platform.

This conservative strategy was a Cold War phenomenon: it is hardly surprising that libertarian strategists should have felt threatened by totalitarian regimes. This bled over into frustration with interventionist governments that devised Depression era systems to keep the public from revolting. The New Deal in the US and the Welfare State in the UK struck these libertarians as only steps away from life behind the Iron Curtain.

The atheism of the totalitarian bloc was deeply disturbing to Americans too. Christian-identity Republicans were the first to produce strategists that imagined this loyal voter bloc forged from the poor.

In the late 1970s, a conference call between a collection of Republican figures including Jerry Falwell and Paul Weyrich, the man behind the Heritage Foundation, took place. They debated topics around which a Christian Right identity could be galvanised. Prayer in schools was one of the topics abandoned. Abortion, drawing on Phyllis Schlafly’s powerful anti women’s lib movement, was the issue selected in the end. The Evangelical sects would be galvanised into the heart of the new Moral Majority.

The success of this long game is astounding. Now even the Democrats are afraid to campaign on access to abortions, despite majority support. Republican politicians tweet Bible verses. Texas has offered bounties for informing on women seeking abortions and those who help them; other states are following.

The degree to which these ploys are now international is illustrated by Australian Deputy Minister for Women Amanda Stoker and Nationals backbencher George Christensen adopting the anti-choice fight in Australia. Stoker headlined a pro-life rally in May and Christiansen introduced a “born alive” bill to Parliament last month.

Evangelical Christianity has become entangled with the conspiracy theories of QAnon. The Evangelical churches of America tend towards rejecting the secular world. Rejecting consensus reality primes people for the QAnon’s ad hoc compilations of conspiracies.

We saw the bizarre mix of QAnon’s MAGA version of conservative identity on the streets of Melbourne: militant bigots and misogynistic incels, anti-science anti-vaxxers and Evangelicals. It is an extraordinary international movement.

It might seem a spontaneous phenomenon. It is the result, however, of strategies devised by a network of conservative forces aiming to achieve minority rule.

TOMORROW: How the anti-science, anti-expert conservative identity was born

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