In a public forum at the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre late last month, speaker Kim Hoggard declared that observing President Donald J. Trump in action was “like watching Rome burn”. The reference was to what she perceived as declining standards across the US under the Trump administration.

The taxpayer-funded USSC tends to channel the ABC in that it holds forums where almost everyone agrees with almost everyone else on almost everything. Trump has no apparent supporters at the organisation. The Republicans there tend to be in the “Never Trump” camp.

Nevertheless Hoggard, who worked in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush, has a point. There appears to be a decline of standards in Western democracies that seems to have gone hand-in-hand with the advent of social media and can be found on the left and right of mainstream politics. It’s not likely to have the same effect as the AD64 burning of Rome under Nero. But it’s likely to have a long-term impact on society.

This is increasingly the case with well-educated individuals, usually on the left, who use social media as a weapon to engage in hyperbole and abuse.

In August last year, Deakin University academic Scott Burchill declared that a closed trial that was held in the ACT, presumably for national security reasons, was “something you normally associate with the Stalinist regimes of the 1950s”.

Not so. The Australian legal system has its imperfections. But Australia is not about to channel the communist totalitarian regimes’ show trials over which Joseph Stalin presided in the Soviet Union from the early 20s to the early 50s.

Last month, in the wake of the controversy over the Coalition government’s funding under the community sport infrastructure program, commentator Jane Caro went on social media stating “these are the good old days when the fascists still feel the need to lie to us”. She added, “one day soon they may not even feel the need to do that”. Get it? According to Caro, Scott Morrison’s government is comprised of a bunch of fascists who need to tell lies — but when they obtain more power they will not even bother to deceive. Here again, this leftist commentator wants us to believe that contemporary Australia is a bit like the early years of Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime in Italy in the 20s and will get worse as our own Mussolinis get more dictatorial.

Then on January 14, The Saturday Paper’s Paul Bongiorno piled on to Finance Minister Mathias Cormann. Cormann had said much the same as the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister Mich­ael McCormack and Josh Frydenberg along with some other Coalition ministers about the report of the Australian National Audit Office into the sports grants affair.

However, Bongiorno saw fit to run the Nazi tag, tweeting: “He asserts against evidence of the independent auditor after 10 months investigating that everyone was eligible. It’s a technique invented by Goebbels: the big lie #sportsrorts.” Bongiorno later deleted the tweet “out of goodwill”, but not before calling Cormann “a dumb and ignorant bastard”.

Why did Cormann get Bongiorno’s Nazi tag? Maybe because he speaks English with a German accent, having been born in that part of Belgium that is German speaking. Perhaps The Saturday Paper’s columnist has forgotten that Germany invaded Belgium twice — in 1914 and again in 1940. At one time in a lively exchange, Bongiorno told Cormann that his accent was Flemish. Really.

In the event, Bongiorno said he apologised because he “meant no offence” with the Goebbels reference. It’s difficult to see how anyone could not see offence in comparing a democratically elected politician with a totalitarian thug who played an important role in the mass murder of Jews and Roma and who murdered his own young children. Unless they are completely ignorant of Nazi Germany — which does not cover Bongiorno.

There is a genuine political debate about the findings of the Australian National Audit Office’s report on the community sport infrastructure program. The Coali­tion’s critics say the program was rorted in an attempt to win an election by gaining votes in marginal seats. The government has maintained that there was no rorting since no ineligible programs were funded. Even so, former sports minister Bridget McKenzie resigned over failing to declare a conflict of interest with respect to one grant in Victoria following a report by senior public servant Phil Gaetjens.

The matter was discussed on ABC television’s Insiders last Sunday. Panellists David Crowe, Malcolm Farr and Annika Smethurst essentially agreed with presenter David Speers, who essentially agreed with the Labor Party’s critique of the administration of the scheme.

Discussion focused on Liberal Party senator Eric Abetz’s intended self-serving question in Senate estimates as to whether the ANAO had found “that no ineligible project or application was funded”. To which the executive director responded “that’s not what we found”. This surprised Abetz. No wonder.

On Insiders, no one drew attention to the deficiencies of the report itself. On page 9 the following comment is made: “Ineligible applications were identified and no applications assessed as ineligible were awarded grant funding.”

The word ineligible is next used in the substance of the report at page 33. In fact, there are only about a dozen references to ineligible in the 76-page report — compared with close to 100 references to “eligible”.

In short, the ANAO’s report is a poorly written bureaucratic document. As such, it’s not surprising that it has become subject to differing interpretations. Last Sunday, Speers focused on what he terms the “minor” but “important” difference between what the report says on page 9 and how it has been interpreted by Morrison. Speers ended up in high-level pedantry.

Yet where Speers saw a minor but important difference, Bongiorno detected a Goebbels-style lie. Where some see democracy, others detect creeping fascism — while even others predict the re-emergence of Stalin’s show trials.

Rome may not be burning but meaning is being destroyed by a combination of hyperbole and historical ignorance.