Yankee joker jeered at Byron Writers Fest – and why Trump and Hanson are not populists

At this year’s Byron Bay Writers Festival last week, American satirist PJ O’Rourke was a star drawcard, but the more he spoke the less drawn the crowd got. When veteran ABC interviewer Kerry O’Brien got pointy with the author-talker, the crowd quickly grew more testy than Kez, and I delayed walking out on their one-on-one interview to see if we’d collectively toss the tosser in the pond.

O’Rourke calls himself a conservative libertarian, and like most American libertarians he wants personal freedoms like paying no taxes -- with no responsibility for common welfare. But his stock-in-trade is to mock lefties and anyone who advocates social or economic reforms he doesn’t like. He told us he himself abandoned being “a communist” (joke) in the ‘60s when he first had to pay taxes, and when a dozen people opposed to America’s war on Vietnam set off home-made protest bombs in his and their own homeland, the USA. Those WeatherUnderground bombs killed four people, including one of the bomb-makers. The US killed around half a million Vietnamese and 50,000 of their own troops, but PJ has made a living smearing lefties ever since with the Weather-people’s blood .

He told our Byron crowd that the mostly white-men rallying behind Donald Trump were angry at “the elites”, which, he emphasized repeatedly, included us. They are angry, he said, because government regulation gets in the way of their small businesses while us elites take up the TV news time carrying on about gender-neutral bathrooms. Generally, he blames us chardonnay-sippers and latte-slurpers for ignoring the genuine deprivations of the white working-class/unemployed. Actually, lefties remain the most focused critics of the takeover of America’s economy and government (and increasingly Australia’s) by the one percent of the one percent, and the global corporations they own.

O’Rourke did make one good point mostly ignored by the media, including the left’s, which is that Trump has, for 12 years now, starred as the Fixer–in-Chief on his TV show The Apprentice. In this series, which O’Rourke said has been seen by 200 million Americans (though Google suggests maybe half that number), Trump bosses people around, disparages women, and makes Big Decisions.

That might explain some of Trump’s voters, but more crucial is that he’s the ultimate fake “populist” who appeals to the white male offcuts by telling them that people not-like-them are getting all the government handouts and all that TV attention being spent on discussing gender-neutral bathrooms.

Texas political commentator Jim Hightower, with whom I published The Hightower Lowdown newsletter for 14 years, is incensed that the mainstream media keep calling Trump and anyone else who appeals to base instincts like xenophobia and racism a “populist” – here that includes Pauline Hanson. In the latest Lowdown, Hightower quotes “a major player in this year’s presidential race” who recently helped him defend the democratic ideal of genuine populism. “I’m not prepared to concede the notion that some of the rhetoric that’s been popping up is populist,” said this major player, adding that a politician doesn’t “suddenly become a populist” by denigrating people of other races, cultures, religions, and nations.

“That’s not the measure of populism. That’s nativism or xenophobia or worse. Or it’s just cynicism. So I would just advise everybody to be careful about suddenly attributing to whoever pops up at a time of economic anxiety the label that they’re a ‘populist.’ Where have they been? Have they been on the frontlines for working people? Have they been [laboring] to open up opportunity for more people?”

Nope, that wasn’t Sanders. It was Barack Obama, delivering an impromptu cheer for true populism at a June 29 press conference. (Hightower did hasten to add that Obama himself “has hardly been a practicing populist.”)

For all of that, one other thing that keeps voters rallying behind the Trumps and Hansons, is that there is a rapidly growing percentage of America’s and our populations who can’t earn a decent income, and who also see and hear loud and clear that the richest one percent, and even more outrageously the .01 percent, are accruing more wealth and more income every day while regular folks, even some who waste $4.50 on a coffee, are scraping the barrel to get by – or they’re not getting by. Two basic facts of life in the USA today that go unreported by mainstream media and ignored by PJ O’Rourke are (1) the richest one percent of Americans own and earn about what the lowest 90% do, and (2) about 54% of US government discretionary spending goes to “defence.” Cut those two stats in half and you could truly make America great. 

Phillip FrazerComment