There is a lesson for Australia in the sad demise of the Trump Presidency, and that is the speed with which falsehoods can quickly escalate to undermine faith in the political process. The capture by Trump of much of the Republican Party is a warning for all liberal democratic societies about the fragility of our political systems.
When he was asked about Liberal MP Craig Kelly’s repetition of QAnon conspiracy theories Scott Morrison defended Kelly’s right to freedom of speech. In this, he was echoing much of the current right, who like to assert that our traditional rights are being eroded by woke cancel culture from the left.
But no freedom can exist without responsibility, and that is the responsibility to base opinion upon accessible facts. Imagine the outcry were a leftwing MP to argue that the Morrison government was illegally elected through the massive interference of Clive Palmer and the Murdoch press.
To his credit Victorian state Liberal David Davis has called into question similar comments from a fellow state politician. As far as I know, none of his federal counterparts has spoken out on the subject.
The events of the last week in Washington are a reminder of how wild and unsubstantiated claims can corrode faith in the political system to the point where there is no common ground for dialogue. If a Liberal Party stands for anything it need stand for preserving the foundations of liberal democratic government.
Some on the right refuse to acknowledge the seriousness of what occurred. “Why?” writes Spectator editor Brendan O’Neill in last weekend’s Australian: “If it weren’t for the terrible tragedy that subsequently unfolded—five people have now died in the melee—one could be forgiven for thinking this was a badly timed visit to the Capitol…”
O’Neill is right in claiming the invasion of the buildings was not itself an attempted coup, but this ignores the fact that the event was in support of a number of Republican representatives who were attempting just that in their bid to overturn the results of the November elections.
If O’Neill doubts this, maybe he should reflect on the comments of Vice President Mike Pence and Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, who were very clear that the attempt was a direct attempt to subvert the basic governmental structures of the United States. Moreover, this was an attempt fostered and encouraged by the sitting President, reminiscent of those dictators who seek life tenure for themselves.
Oddly, many of the Republicans who sought to challenge the elections were themselves elected by the same system they now claimed was rigged. That they ignored the unanimous views of state officials and federal judges, many Trump appointees, suggests a degree of cynicism or opportunism that makes any claims to equivalence with Democratic unease at Trump’s victory in 2016 absurd.
O’Neill actually compares the current situation to “conspiracy theories about Russia stealing the 2016 election”, ignoring the fact that Hillary Clinton conceded and attended Trump’s Inauguration. There is no suggestion that she, or any other Democrat, exerted Mafia-style pressure on state officials to alter the results, as we know Trump did in the case of Georgia.
Meanwhile, in the same issue of The Australian, Greg Sheridan, who never saw a leader he didn’t grovel to, condemns Trump’s attempts to overturn the results, while arguing that: “It was perfectly reasonable on balance to vote for Trump”. Given that Trump was on record as unwilling to accept any result where he lost this shows a remarkable ability to ignore what was unfortunately clear to many others during the election campaign.
[That Sheridan can also pass over the extraordinary American death toll from COVID, at least some of which is due to Trump’s constant refusal to support health advice, is yet another indication of the priorities of the right.]
Trump’s entire term in office has rested upon appeals to racial antagonisms at home and cosiness with dictators abroad. Those politicians who spout rhetoric about “the free world” might reflect on the hollowness of this claim when viewed against the dismal image of Trump’s America, its abject failures to control COVID and its intentional cruelty to asylum seekers [although in the latter case Australia can hardly claim to have behaved any better].
Perhaps most significant is Trump’s clear disregard for the basic assumptions of democratic governance and the rule of law, which led directly—and predictably—to his behaviour since November. Like autocrats such as Erdogan, Maduro and Orban, the President, supported by most of his party, consistently sought to undermine the very system that had allowed him to win power in the first place.
If MPs wish to argue that election results should be overturned at the whim of autocrats this is their right, but it is difficult to see how they can retain membership of a political party which claims to uphold liberal democratic values. This is not an issue of free speech.
Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said that freedom of speech does not give one the right to call fire in a crowded room. Equally freedom of speech does not mean the right to deliberately urge mob violence aimed at undermining the basic institutions of government through deliberate falsehoods. Prime Minister Morrison needs to make clear that his government has no room for people who cannot accept this basic premise.