What Bernardi means (reprise)

News this morning is that South Australian senator Cory Bernardi, leader (and sole representative) of the Australian Conservatives, has announced that he will retire at the end of the year.

When Bernardi left the Liberal Party to form his own party, a bit less than three years ago, I tried to explain what it all meant. This was my conclusion:

If you look at most conservative groups in Australia – the Institute of Public Affairs, for example, or the right wing of the Liberal Party – you will find free marketeers and social conservatives, in varying proportions, but not much overlap between the two. Bernardi, however, has swallowed whole the idea that the two go together.

That gives him a unique opportunity: a clever, charismatic leader with Bernardi’s views could potentially unite the disparate elements into a major force. But it seems to me more likely that Bernardi, lacking both intelligence and charisma, will be distrusted by both and before long will vanish without trace. Time will tell.

Time has indeed told, and I was right about Bernardi’s personal prospects. But the significance of his kind of political project is still an important question, and one with implications well beyond Australia.

As I pointed out, Bernardi’s combination of apparently disparate elements is more common in the United States, where it characterised what became known as “movement” conservatism. Even as recently as a decade ago there was little trace of the phenomenon in Australia.

That’s not the case now. Although they still represent a small minority (as Bernardi’s fortunes helped demonstrate), the Australian right now includes a contingent of mostly young people who have adopted this ideological package. Its main ingredients can be summarised as follows:

  • a strong social conservatism (opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage, transgender rights, and the like), often driven by religious fundamentalism
  • a very tribal, even paranoid, style of politics, prone to conspiracy theories and extreme rhetoric
  • an affinity with racism or white supremacism – not that its acolytes are always racists themselves, but they are strongly resistant to acknowledging racism as a problem or admitting their reliance on racist allies
  • a devotion to the interests of the very rich, particularly with regard to tax policy
  • to the extent that it’s compatible with the above, a commitment to the free market and a heavy reliance on the rhetoric of “freedom”
  • usually, but not always, a belief in the importance of military force, including promotion of increased military spending and a generally confrontational attitude to foreign affairs

Someone like Ted Cruz, runner-up for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, could be taken as a convenient exemplar.

Support from such people in Australia, together with his novelty value, gave Bernardi some initial momentum. His party absorbed Family First, an older fundamentalist party based in the Assemblies of God church. But the voters were unimpressed. Even in South Australia, its home state, the party could only manage 3.0% at last year’s state election, less than Family First had previously won on its own. Its last remaining state MP promptly defected to the Liberals.

By this year, it was clear that the game was up. Bernardi (who was not up for re-election) put in only a token effort at May’s federal poll, winning 0.7% of the vote nationwide in the Senate and 1.5% in South Australia, his best state. The party was deregistered the following month, and only Bernardi’s personal fate remained uncertain.

There was some speculation that he would seek to rejoin the Liberals, but he has chosen to bow out altogether. Because he was elected as a Liberal, the Liberal Party will get to choose his replacement. Yet to see Bernardi’s story as one of unmitigated failure would be quite wrong.

Bernardi’s brand of conservatism has been shown to have little power in Australia as a stand-alone force. But the big story, here and worldwide, is its encounter with a much stronger related movement, which we can now conveniently call “Trumpism” – a movement whose rise coincided with Bernardi’s decision to strike out on his own.

Trumpists had some major differences with “movement” conservatives. Their racism was open and explicit, not hidden; they had no belief in the free market, and little interest even in paying lip service to it. And their social conservatism was selective at best, and what there was to it was tribal rather than religious.

Before Donald Trump won the presidency, most such conservatives were decidedly cool on him. But electoral success works wonders, and although there remain some sceptics most of them – including both Cruz and Bernardi – have become strong supporters.

With its emphasis on tribal hatreds, nationalism, anti-feminism and xenophobia, plus the occasional nod to militarism and plutocracy, Trumpism has mounted a largely successful takeover of conservative parties and organisations in most of the Anglosphere. In doing so it sits comfortably with similar currents in other parts of the world, associated with such names as Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orbán, Marine Le Pen and Jair Bolsonaro.

For the likes of Bernardi, giving in to Trumpism means dropping, or at least downplaying, some of their distinctive beliefs. Their willingness to make that sacrifice may be thought to cast some doubt on their genuineness in the first place. Or it could simply signify a mature pragmatism.

The rewards, in any case, have been substantial. Bernardi, explaining away his poor federal result, argued that the rise of Scott Morrison had stolen his party’s base, but that this should be regarded as a success rather than a failure. Changing the Liberal Party had always been his aim – one that he said was on its way to being “gloriously fulfilled”.

And he’s probably right about that. It’s hard to imagine a better representative of the union between Bernardism and Trumpism than Morrison: a leader with the religious fundamentalism and free-market rhetoric of the former, combined with the unapologetic xenophobia and aggressive know-nothingism of the latter.

No doubt all of this would have happened without Bernardi. And Morrison’s electoral success, like Trump’s, is brittle; it’s not yet clear that the electorate is fully on board with the project of repudiating the liberal international order. The defenders of modernity are not without hope.

Nonetheless, as he contemplates a new career, Bernardi has – despite appearances – reason to be satisfied with the outcome of his old one.

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