Those critically engaged in understanding and debating the future of Australian defence and national security strategies should pass two votes of thanks: the first is to former President Donald Trump; the second to the recent political-strategic proclamations of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
The former deserves it because, for many not paying sufficient attention, he catalysed the knowledge and understanding of the United States as fiction: it is not united, and neither can it be truthfully described as a functioning democracy.
ASPI’s outpourings in the area of political-strategic analysis relating to China and the alliance with the United States (and I emphasise in these areas mainly) have the benefit of confirming that what was once a suspicion – that the Institute has long suffered from a constipated imagination and arrested intellectual development – is actually the case.
In two recent publications (by Peter Jennings and Rory Medcalf) based on the declassification and release of a banal and patronising framework document on the Indo-Pacific strategy of the US, it has demonstrated only wilful blindness – what Thomas Aquinas dubbed ‘ignorantia affectata’ – to the deep and chronic crisis that Australia’s dominant alliance partner is undergoing.
It has, moreover, not only applauded every initiative which integrates, but in reality, subordinates Australian security interests to those of the United States, but surrendered to hubris by exhorting the Prime Minister – seen ridiculously as “better placed” than any other “global leader” – to take advantage of Australia’s favoured standing by visiting Washington in order “to help shape Biden’s thinking about America’s role in Indo-Pacific and beyond.”
Ridiculous, because Scott Morrison’s demonstrated affinity for Trump and significant planks of Trumpism is somehow thought not to be a disqualification.
The rationale reflects two of ASPI’s immutable articles of faith: the one, that short of capitulation to Western, effectively US demands, China is a pariah state and enemy of all things that the West hold dear; the other, that with only minor or temporary blemishes, the US is the ultimate guarantor of Australian security.
As with all such ASPI documents, they are liberally sprinkled with the use of an unspecified “we” in the assumption that readers will not take exception to be conscripted into the service of a flawed and dangerous US containment-of-China strategy.
Reading it, there is a sense that these ASPI authors have been subjected to a form of strategic anaesthesia. Momentous political developments and significant events seem to have passed them by. Biden is undoubtedly a new President, but the United States is insistently and obstinately the country, it was his election, not the country of his (and many others’) nostalgic imagination.
One strand of the foregone reality concerns the political configurations of the US that Biden has inherited: contrary to all self-congratulatory claims it is, depending on the immediate focus, an oligarchy, or plutocracy, or an authoritarian state which exhibits the specific character of homegrown American fascism – phenomena which will not depart with Donald Trump’s exit from the White House and which, by all available evidence, should seriously inhibit, even disqualify propositions that the US is a desirable, let alone a necessary ally.
As regards the first two pathologies analysis undertaken in 2015 by the Center for Responsive Politics found that it would take the combined wealth of more than 18 average American households to equal the value of a single federal lawmaker’s household.
In the light of the above indicators, and many other bodies of evidence, it is not surprising that repeated and robust research on the US political system concludes is dominated by economic elites and organised groups representing business interests where government policy is concerned, or expressed differently and depending on the definition used, the US functions now, as it has for quite some time, as either an oligarchy or a plutocracy.
This ends the good news. The bad news is that equally robust research, published in reputable and highly regarded, peer-reviewed journals, indicates that oligarchy and plutocracy exist alongside, or are embedded in the substantial transformational brew which, initially was seen as “creeping fascism” but is now evolving into a highly developed “citizen-driven fascism” among a sizeable section of the US population.
In general orientation, this is fascism which is not over-determined by the 1930s and World War II, predates 9/11, but has been increasingly evident since then, not least during the Trump Administration. It was elaborated conceptually by the renowned Italian semiotician, Umberto Eco, and described as, “Ur-Fascism” – original, or eternal fascism – fascism not beholden to only the more familiar versions which were popularly thought to have receded and are receding further in the West.
In a reduced form it is identified by the following axioms:
- Parliamentary democracy is by definition rotten because it doesn’t represent the voice of the people, which is that of the sublime leader.
- Doctrine outpoints reason, and science is always suspect.
- Critical thought is the province of degenerate intellectuals, who betray the culture and subvert traditional values.
- The national identity is provided by the nation’s enemies.
- Argument is tantamount to treason.
- Perpetually at war, the state must govern with the instruments of fear.
- Citizens do not act; they play the supporting role of “the people” in the grand opera that is the state.
So much for an overlay. But, when coupled with recent, specific research on the United States, there is an imperative case for Australia to distance itself from what is now a dangerous and reckless relationship. (For a summary of this research, and its sources in what follows, see this essay by Anthony DiMaggio).
Again, and all too briefly, research reveals the hard numbers of Americans who embrace authoritarian and fascistic politics based on an American population of 250 million adults: of these, 25 per cent self-identify as Republican, with half of those registering support for attacks on elections and the press. Translation: approximately 30 million Americans endorse the Republican Party and Trump’s brand of authoritarian politics.
Taking another cut across the data, 40 per cent approved of Trump in national surveys, and 20%-25% of Trump supporters embrace fascistic politics in some form, indicating 20 to 25 million American fascists.
This is broadly consistent with a 2017 poll which found 22 million Americans who were supporters of the ‘alt-right’ movement and claimed it is ‘acceptable’ to hold neo-Nazi white supremacist views.
This is the political constellation that Trump refers to repeatedly as our/his “movement,” an amorphous collection of Confederate supporters, QAnon conspiracists, Christian nationalist and fascists, Boogaloo, white supremacists and other cohorts of those who see themselves as dispossessed and disenfranchised. They constitute a stinging reproach to any claim that the US is united.
To say that these findings are disturbing Is an understatement. Trump has left the White House but it’s bracing to hear him talk of these true believers who follow him as a “movement.” The evidence to date is that these groups are easily mobilised, form shifting alliances with the more respectable conservative organisations as circumstances dictate, and are organised and well resourced.
Above all, two factors make them extremely threatening: dialogue with them is impossible except on their own terms; and the root causes of their grievances will only increase over time because they have to do with the racial, ethnic, social, economic and political evolution of the US which is not in their favour.
Specifically, the US is a country in social and political deficit. The political system is rotten – witness the filibuster, gerrymandering, voter suppression, the influence of both legitimate and “dark: money, the electoral college, and the irrelevance of parties to the great majority of the population. American unity is a fantasy.
The Republicans, now a minority party, have learned how to work (“game”) the system so that they maintain power; the Dems have disconnected from their traditional constituencies to the extent that, in the November elections, nine of the ten richest states went for Biden; fourteen of the poorest went for Trump.
American decline is the current spectacle and long-term prospect. The indices of this are manifest across every area – suicide, rates of incarceration, violence and the threat of violence, inequality, declining life expectancy, child mortality, prescription and non-prescription drug abuse, denial of education, and a health system (even before Covid-19 pandemic) that was an embarrassment among western developed nations.
And then there’s the question of the post-democratic military which has become a world and a law unto itself.
Reform is essential if the republic is to recover, but the paradox of reform is that the vey instruments essential to reform are in the hands of those who most benefit from the status quo.
Questions have to be asked. If reformation is out of the question, how is it that a failing and declining dominant alliance partner, an oligarchy and plutocracy at the best of times, can exert such a magnetic attraction for a policy institute which congratulates itself on its “gift” of independence from the traditional alliance consensus of Australian governments and main political parties? More importantly, how is this advocacy responsible? Are they all blind to the costs (because costs there will be)?
Perhaps it might even be the case that those responsible for ASPI’s advocacy as outlined above are not bothered by the evolving drift of the alliance? If so, should they not be honest enough to admit it?