It’s difficult to understand the reverence sections of the Australian media give to visiting, or fly-in-fly-out, commentators and intellectuals.
Take Alastair Campbell, for example, who was introduced by ABC TV Q&A presenter Tony Jones last Monday as “Tony Blair’s legendary spin doctor”. Well, so he was. It’s just that Blair ceased being prime minister of Britain over a decade ago.
For his part, Campbell has been a journalist, political adviser and author. He has never held ministerial rank or been elected to parliament. Yet it was to Campbell that Jones went for the first comment – on United States President Donald J Trump.
Now Jones knew what to expect. He was aware of Campbell’s piece in the May 11, 2017 issue of GQ magazine arguing that comparisons with Trump and “Hitler and Stalin are not overdone”. Campbell added: “It took Hitler a long time to go for journalists and judges; he [Trump] did it in the first week”.
Campbell wrote about this issue again on July 18 this year in GQ. He claimed that Trump has “dangerously fascist tendencies” and advised that, at Blair’s suggestion, he was reading William L. Shirer’s book The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich which was first published in 1960.
In view of the background, it came as no surprise when Campbell responded to Jones’ invitation to comment by describing Trump as a “racist” and a “liar” who is sowing “the seeds of fascism”. He acknowledged that Blair had said that his GQ comment about the US president was over the top but implied that he might be changing his view – since it was Blair who recently drew his attention to Shirer’s book.
Campbell’s introductory comments were not interrupted by any of the other four panellists. But when the Menzies Research Centre’s Nick Cater pointed out Campbell’s ahistorical rhetoric, he was immediately interrupted by the one-time spin doctor. The official transcript reports Campbell “scoffing”, read sneering, at Cater.
Later on Campbell argued that it was appropriate to compare the Trump administration to fascist Italy. He added: “I’m not saying he [Trump] is Hitler and I am not saying he’s Stalin; I’m saying that what he’s doing – there are[sic] a lot of resonance.”
In November 1917 Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks came to power in Russia (which became the Soviet Union) after overthrowing a democratically elected government. In 1932 the Nazi Party won 37 per cent of the vote in the Reichstag election and Hitler became chancellor of Germany in January 1933.
As Richard J Evans points out in The Coming of the Third Reich, “between 30 January and 14 July 1933…the Nazis had translated Hitler’s chancellorship in a coalition dominated by non-Nazi conservatives into a one-party state in which even the conservatives no longer had any separate representation”.
Lenin and his successor Stalin established a totalitarian regime in the Soviet from 1917. Hitler and the Nazis established a totalitarian regime in Germany from 1933. Soviet communism collapsed around 1990. Nazi Germany was conquered in 1945.
Meanwhile, back in the contemporary United States, Trump and the Republicans are preparing for the presidential election in 2020. If Trump loses, he will be out of office by January 2021. If he wins, there will be a Trump White House for four more years.
If Campbell is correct and Trump is busy sowing the seeds of fascism, then it should not be assumed that there will be free elections in the US in 2020 or 2024. Real Fascists and Nazis do not risk their acquired power at the whim of a ballot box.
The essential ingredient of fascism in its various forms was a one-party state re-enforced by a police state, and proclaiming an official ideology and without an independent judiciary. European fascism also embodied anti-semitism to a greater (Germany) or lesser (Italy) extent.
None of this prevails in Trump’s America. The Republicans lost seats to the Democrats in the 2018 House of Representatives election. The US Supreme Court recently brought down a decision incompatible with the wishes of the White House with respect to a question on citizenship in the forthcoming census. And no president in living memory has endured greater media criticism than Trump.
Moreover, one criticism of the US president is that he is too close to Israel – the antithesis of anti-semitism. Indeed, hostility to the Jewish state in general and some Jews in particular is strong within sections of the American left, including a few of Trump’s most vocal critics.
Campbell told Q&A that “that thing” that Trump “did the other day with the four Congresswomen of colour – Hitler was doing that stuff”. This is mere hyperbole. It’s true that the US president told what is termed The Squad – Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib –that they should go back to where they came from.
This comment would have been better left unsaid. For starters, three are US born and the other is a US citizen. Everyone knows that they are not going anywhere and that Trump has no authority to send them anywhere. In any event, on occasions he has said that members of the foursome are welcome to return to the US and implement what they have learnt from the nations of their ancestors.
It’s an unpleasant and unnecessary argument. But it doesn’t make Trump a racist. He has retaliated in his usual style with a stridency designed to cover an insensitivity to criticism and an inability to display humour in debate.
However, the Squad have attacked fellow Democrats including Nancy Pelosi. And Pelosi has responded with some harsh words – this does not make her a racist.
Trump is using The Squad for his own political purposes. There is a way for Trump’s opponents to silence Trump – beat him at the 2020 election, something that could not occur in a fascist or communist dictatorship.
On Q&A Campbell seemed unaware of the impact of the Great Depression on the emergence of European fascism. In Trump’s America, the economy is doing well to the benefit of all ethnic groups.
Gerard Henderson is Executive Director of the Sydney Institute. His Media Watch Dog blog can be found at www.theaustralian.com.au