[O]ur long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works; our great Republic is a government of laws and not of men.
Thus Gerald Ford, on taking office in 1974 as president of the United States on the resignation of Richard Nixon.
I quoted those lines 25 years later, on the defeat of Jeff Kennett in 1999. Kennett was an Australian proto-Trump, but he governed only one state, and the parliamentary system limited the harm he could do. So people soon forgot. But it was a sign of things to come.
After the failure of Nixon’s effort to poison the well of constitutional government, America had two decades of relative calm. Great questions were debated and sometimes settled – Carter and Reagan began deregulation, the Cold War ended, Bill Clinton preached the “third way” – but it happened in an atmosphere of civility that now might seem almost utopian.
Much the same can be said of Australia, which had weathered its own constitutional crisis in 1975. Fraser, Hawke, Keating and their colleagues were not saints, but their political practice, at least as seen in retrospect, was both serious and ordinary. It was not a Trumpfest.
Things began to change in the mid-1990s. Bill Clinton and Paul Keating both stirred demons that lurk deep in their countries’ souls; they aroused an opposition whose intensity was out of all proportion to any of their real or imagined sins. Politics began to look less like a game with agreed rules and more like a war to the death.
Their conservative successors, George Bush junior and John Howard, tried to compromise between the old civilised ways and the new forces that they had unleashed. In doing so, they took the US and Australia to some dark places. Bush’s administration reintroduced torture as policy; Howard’s built concentration camps on Pacific islands. Their occasional old-school restraint could not disguise the fact that there was a new and dangerous spirit in the land.
Both paid an electoral price. When Howard was defeated, one of my friends got a tattoo quoting not Ford but Dante, from the end of the Inferno: e quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle (“and then we emerged to see the stars again”).
But then the cycle started again. Barack Obama and Julia Gillard represented an even more explicit threat to white supremacy and patriarchy, and roused a corresponding fury. The reaction finally brought to power the avowed enemies of constitutional democracy and human decency, Donald Trump in America and the Abbott-Morrison government in Australia.
And now, with the inauguration of Joe Biden this morning, the United States again tries to turn the page on this madness. (Australia is yet to even reach that stage.) The problem is that no-one knows how to do it. Biden summarised the task admirably:
We can see each other not as adversaries but as neighbours. We can treat each other with dignity and respect. We can join forces, stop the shouting and lower the temperature. For without unity there is no peace, only bitterness and fury, no progress, only exhausting outrage.
But when the bitterness is entrenched, when shouting and outrage have become ends in themselves, and when some are determined not to see some of their fellow-citizens as worthy of respect, it is hard to see the way forward. As we saw so dramatically a fortnight ago, the enemies of democracy have worked themselves into a frenzy; simply telling them to calm down is not a promising strategy. Yet what else can we do?
Australia has no real precedents to rely on, but America found itself in this sort of situation once before, more than a century and a half ago, when the autocracy of the southern slaveholders could neither be compromised with nor contained by normal democratic means. It was defeated only by four years of civil war, at an incalculable cost of blood and treasure.
“Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray,” as Lincoln said, that nothing so drastic will be required this time. But at the very least there needs to be a serious investigation of how things got to this point, and why the US in particular – and Australia, its faithful imitator – has gone down this road.
Certainly there are elements of the same politics in other countries; far-right ethno-nationalism is (somewhat ironically) a global movement. But among the developed democracies, only the US and Australia have fully embraced the Trumpist turn. We urgently need to ask ourselves why. And I suspect we might not like the answers.