In the age of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, it is tempting to assume that partisan tribalism has taken over – that a new wave of irrational loyalty to the leader, right or wrong, is the only proper way to go.
But in fact it was ever thus, and in Australia you only need to go back to the dark years of Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s Queensland to see how it played out.
At one stage an exasperated prime minister, Gough Whitlam, called the supremo of the banana republic ”a bible bashing bastard.” It was hardly the worst thing that had been said about Joh, but north of the Tweed the citizens were outraged – less about the substance of the insult, but because it had been delivered by an outsider, a foreign subversive from Canberra.
As far as they were concerned, he might have been a bible bashing bastard, but so what? He was THEIR bible-bashing bastard, so he was all right. And even when the Fitzgerald inquiry began to unveil the terrible truth of his corrupt regime, many of them held firm: he might have been a criminal lunatic, but he was THEIR criminal lunatic and the rest of the country could piss off.
And so it has transpired last week. Whether or not Trump will or should face impeachment is irrelevant. He is evidently a serial liar, one who will bend or even break the system to secure advantage, erratic, unstable and dangerous – but his supporters know that he is one of theirs, and must be defended at all costs.
Thus the cheer squad is utterly uninterested in what he has done, is doing or might yet do, what matters is how the popular politics play out, will it help him or hinder him on the way to the next election.
And in Britain it is even more blatant. Johnson has been found to have deliberately subverted the unwritten constitution by the unanimous verdict of the highest court in the land – no ifs, no buts, no extenuating circumstances. His prorogation of parliament was illegal, null and void. But so what? Johnson thinks the judges got it wrong, and so he must be right.
Of course, we have seen that more recently at home – the conviction of George Pell and the rejection of his appeal has had not the slightest effect on those on his side of the ring – the verdict was clearly unsafe, the majority judges were clearly incompetent.
And with Israel Folau, his sacking was outrageous – whatever he may have done, however egregious his breaches or his broken promises to reform, the fact that he is a man of faith (whatever the faith may be) means he should be immune from censure, let alone secular law.
The irony is that the conservative crusaders are the ones who insist that judgments that suit them (particularly in forums like the Fair Work Commission, for instance) must be regarded as sacrosanct – the critics are simply indulging in identity politics.
But that’s what tribalism is all about: you back your team, win or lose, right or wrong. Rah, rah, rah!