Last week, somewhat overshadowed by the events in Washington, the Democrats took control of the US Senate. The Democrats now hold a small majority in both the House and the Senate until 2022, giving President-elect Joe Biden a better chance of getting climate actions through Congress.
Biden’s key nominees to environment and climate positions in his administration must be approved by the Senate, and the Democrat majority provides a clearer path for this.
Now we have a better picture of the climate-engaged Biden administration, the question for Australia is how the changes will affect our domestic climate politics.
An aggressive US climate policy rollout could provide a much needed dose of reality to the climate discourse in Canberra. It may also prompt Australia’s major parties to acknowledge the inevitability of a transition to a zero carbon economy.
The nominees for Biden’s climate team are both well qualified and set new benchmarks for diversity. The initial response to the picks has been positive, both from the US climate activist community and more mainstream Democrats.
Congressional representative Deb Haaland will become the first Native American to serve as Secretary of the Interior. Michael Regan, currently head of North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality, will be the first African American to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Biden also tapped several Obama alumni for key climate roles. The most notable is perhaps former EPA head Gina McCarthy, who will fill a newly created role as White House national climate advisor.
Former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm is nominated as Secretary of Energy, and former presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg will lead the Department of Transport. Former Secretary of State John Kerry’s appointment as US Presidential Special Envoy on Climate was announced in late November.
The team will be charged with delivering Biden’s ambitious climate platform, which includes:
Beyond simply rejoining Paris, one suspects Biden will want Kerry to reclaim the US’ leadership role in the global quest for zero carbon. This will create a challenge for Australia.
Our Paris targets are modest at best. However in recent years, Trump’s antagonistic position on climate action meant the US absorbed the bulk of international criticism. The Biden win means Australia’s perceived lack of climate ambition will come under greater international scrutiny.
One suspects Morrison and other Liberal leaders understand key parts of their base object to Australia being viewed as a climate laggard. That much was made clear by the ousting of Liberal MP Tony Abbott in the blue-ribbon seat of Warringah at the last election. It follows that these Liberals privately recognise their net-zero timetable needs greater precision than the current “sometime in the second half of the century” approach.
Not all in the Coalition, especially in the National Party, share this view. Some will point to electorates most vulnerable to economic harm from reduced fossil fuel extraction, reformed land-use practices and lower agriculture emissions.
But politicians need to be adaptable. For Morrison to succeed in a post-Trump world, he must shift policies in a way that satisfies wealthy Liberal voters without driving regional voters to One Nation.
The Australian Labor Party will no doubt welcome the Coalition’s international climate discomfort. But should they regain power at the next election, they will face broadly similar issues. And the Greens will push Labor for aggressive targets hard to sell in key regional electorates.
Australia’s journey to decarbonisation has more in common with the US than most other developed nations, such as those in Europe. Challenges and opportunities we share with the US include:
the need to deal with emissions from land-use (such as tree clearing) and agriculture emissions
an historic reliance on coal and coal mining
domestic natural gas extraction
high quality wind and solar resources (and hence possible future hydrogen production)
good potential to capture and store carbon dioxide underground
pumped hydro options
disproportionate political power among regional populations. `
So a credible Biden pathway for both carbon-free electricity by 2035, and a net carbon-free society by 2050, will translate reasonably well into an Australian context. Once the US shows how decarbonisation can be done, Australia’s major parties will hopefully admit the transition is unavoidable.
One hopes this acknowledgement would be reflected in domestic policies to phase out domestic coal use – perhaps adopting US systems that financially reward storage and provision of backup power. Australia must also follow Biden’s lead and plan for electric vehicles with greater urgency.
More detail and less rhetoric on climate policy would be a welcome change across Australia’s political spectrum, including specifics on how affected communities will be helped through the transition.
The Biden win is good news for climate action globally. But it will bring into sharper focus the breadth of change needed to achieve zero-carbon. And a more honest and open discussion about decarbonisation will deliver inconvenient truths for all players.
This, of course, assumes Biden delivers a credible and coherent climate plan. With Republicans in a weakened congressional position for the next two years, the biggest obstacle to progress will be internal fights between moderate and progressive Democrats, particularly in the Senate.
Political leaders in Australia, and elsewhere, will be watching closely to see how Biden’s team rises to the challenge, and what their path to success looks like.
Through recent natural disasters, global upheavals and a pandemic, Australia’s political centre has largely held.
Australians may have disagreed at times, but they have also kept faith with governmental norms, eschewing the false allure of populism beguiling voters elsewhere.
Our federal and state governments enjoy broad public confidence and draw their core legitimacy from the middle ground, whether it be centre-left or centre-right.
But if Australians followed the 2020 presidential race in the United States with greater-than-usual interest, it was because when boiled down, it presaged a plausible descent for Australia’s politics, too.
Last November’s poll offered a choice between two fundamentally different futures for the US.
On the one hand, there was an assumption that free and fair elections, the rule of law and concepts such as pluralism and civility are central to government and society.
On the other, there was an angry, polarising disintegration, in which rules can be broken, facts undermined, critics abused and the usual accountability mechanisms silenced.
As a partner democracy with deep cultural, economic, and strategic ties with the US, Australians lapped up the theatre of the Trump versus Biden contest. But many also worried the verdict of America’s 150 million-plus voters would have material implications down under.
Strategically, these implications included a continuation of the US global retreat, which had already seen China moving to fill the leadership void.
Domestically, it might involve the insidious adoption of Trumpist methodology within Australia’s political right.
Manifestations of the latter are already advanced in sections of our news media, and the willingness of political leaders to bluster through mistakes and exposed wrongdoings, refusing to apologise, explain or resign.
This is a key take-out of the Trump approach: notions of honour and tradition, long relied upon to protect probity and avoid conflicts of interest, can be ignored. Those seeking transparency or who uncover maladministration can be depicted as political opponents or extremists, motivated by hatred and prejudice.
For the Westminster tradition, where confidence rests on protections only ever partly codified, the dangers are existential.
Evidence of this deterioration can be seen in the marked tendency of governments to stare down calls for resignation, ignore significant public disquiet, and press on.
In 2020, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian admitted an intimate association dating back years with a disgraced former MP who, it turned out, had been arranging property deals for commission, even as a backbencher.
Berejiklian’s defence amounted to a blunt “I’ve done nothing wrong”.
The origin of forged documents, released by federal Energy Minister Angus Taylor to defame the Sydney City Council, has never been properly explained.
Explosive revelations of political interference in a A$100 million federal sports grants program have never been conceded (although, Berejiklian recently admitted “political” allocation is standard practice when forced to explain similar outrages in a state program).
There is also the A$30 million Leppington Triangle land purchase which benefited a political donor, but brought no resignation. And the Robodebt debacle, which caused massive community suffering and cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, but cost nobody their job.
Contrast this with the response in The Netherlands where the entire cabinet, including Prime Minister Mark Rutte, resigned on Friday. This was over a scandal involving child welfare payments, which had led to parents erroneously being labelled fraudsters.
As Rutte explained,
We are of one mind that if the whole system has failed, we all must take responsibility, and that has led to the conclusion that I have just offered the king, the resignation of the entire cabinet.
The two scandals are remarkably similar in nature, and in the scale of the taxpayer-funded recompense, but could scarcely be more different in the level of political responsibility taken.
Previously, ministers have resigned over comparatively technical breaches. This includes the unwitting importation of a Paddington teddy bear in the 1984 case of Labor’s Mick Young – the bear, which would have attracted an import duty measured in cents, was actually in his wife’s luggage.
A Berejiklian predecessor, Barry O’Farrell, quit in 2014 after advising the Independent Commission Against Corruption he had no recollection of receiving a single – albeit valuable – bottle of wine. Announcing his resignation, he said,
I do accept there is a thank you note signed by me, and as someone who believes in accountability, in responsibility, I accept the consequences of my action.
The army minister Andrew Peacock offered to resign in 1970 after his wife appeared in an advertisement for Sheridan sheets. A few years later, two Fraser government ministers fell on their swords over a colour TV carried into the country but declared as black-and-white on a customs form.
The mere appearance of wrongdoing used to be enough to raise public confidence problems and thus end a ministerial career. Now, even the substance of dishonesty, non-disclosure or incompetence avoids meaningful sanction.
The right-wing extremism that informs Trump’s base has become all pervasive. It has certainly captured the Republican party – only ten of whose House members voted to impeach the outgoing President – despite the president’s sworn commitment to:
support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.
The facts show President Trump entreated supporters to storm the Congress, in an attempt to stop the lawful certification of his replacement.
It was a mark of Trumpian reach into Australian political culture that neither that outrage, nor his wilful mishandling of the coronavirus, has brought clear condemnation from the Morrison government.
Another trait of Trumpism is the tacit legitimisation of an extreme right-wing discourse of grievance, white supremacy, and anti-establishment conspiracy theory.
Despite clear mainstream costs, senior Morrison ministers have pointedly refused to contradict or discipline their own MPs (Craig Kelly and George Chrsistensen) spreading incorrect and potentially dangerous Trumpist dogma surrounding US electoral fraud, Black Lives Matter, COVID-19 treatments, and claims of left-wing agent provocateurs in the Capitol insurrection.
Drawing a typically Trumpist equivalence, acting Prime Minister Michael McCormack referenced last year’s Black Lives Matter rallies – which he derisively termed “race riots” — to play down the Capitol siege while also trotting out offensive lines such as “all lives matter”.
Faced with a backlash, McCormack decried those “confecting outrage” as “bleeding hearts”.
It suggests the calculation already being made by ministers is that nourishing an extremist culture of resentment and anger is more useful to a centre-right government than courting the political middle ground.
America has already been down this path, and we know where it leads.
The alt-right, QAnon, paramilitary and Donald Trump-supporting mob that stormed the US Capitol on January 6 claimed they were only doing what the so-called “founding fathers” of the US had done in 1776: overthrowing an illegitimate government that no longer represented them.
This was the start of what they called the “second American Revolution”.
This is why the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag was visible in the chaos — a symbol of resistance that dates back to the (first) American Revolution and was resurrected a decade ago by Republican Tea Party activists.
It is not hard to understand the appeal of this history to Trump’s followers. The era of the “founding fathers” has always loomed large in the minds of most Americans. And stories about the past are, after all, how individuals, families, and communities small and large, make sense of themselves.
Yet, it is worth noting these recollections of the past are necessarily selective.
Alt-right extremists, following conservative politicians, have also drawn succour from the Constitution, particularly when it comes to their “rights”, such as the right to free speech and bear arms.
These and other rights were not actually enumerated in the original Constitution, but rather tacked on in the Bill of Rights — a set of ten amendments passed to appease opponents of the Constitution and get it ratified.
These rights are fused together with the more vague yet “unalienable” rights enunciated in the 1776 Declaration of Independence — chief among them being the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.
Drawing on philosopher John Locke’s ideas, the Declaration of Independence proclaims “we the people” come together to form a government to protect these rights.
And crucial to Trump supporters today, it says,
whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.
This was the sentiment voiced on January 6 when pro-Trump rioters stormed the Capitol. They chanted “This is our America” and “Whose house? Our house!”
Trump himself encouraged this thinking when he told the crowd before they marched to the Capitol, “You’ll never take back our country with weakness.”
The question is: who do Trump and, more broadly speaking, the alt-right think has taken the United States from them?
The answer is evident in how the alt-right imagines the past: their vision of history omits or callously ignores the fact their constitutional rights have come at the cost of the lives and rights of others.
Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence it was a “self-evident” truth “that all men are created equal.” Generations of enslaved and free Black activists and their allies have worked towards realising this goal.
But for the founding fathers, and many of their white supremacist heirs, true “citizens” were exclusively white and male. A few years after penning the declaration, Jefferson denounced Black people as inferior. He owned hundreds of slaves. Even his own children, whom he fathered with Sally Hemings, were born into slavery.
Almost all of the founding fathers, in fact, were slaveholders or profited from the slave trade. Neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution freed any of the half million enslaved people in the new United States — one-fifth of the population.
Rather, the Constitution purposefully entrenched the institution of slavery. By protecting the rights of slaveholders to pursue their happiness by holding on to their “property”, it doomed four more generations to enslavement.
By the start of the Civil War in 1861, there were 4 million people enslaved in the US.
The Constitution also gave the government the power to raise an army. After the American Revolution, this power was used time and again to wage a long genocidal war against Native Americans across the continent.
When enslaved and free Black people and their white abolitionist allies acted against slavery, slaveholders invoked the Revolution. They claimed they were undertaking God’s will to complete the work begun in 1776 of creating a free nation, and made slave-holding former President George Washington their hero.
It took an unprecedented and destructive Civil War to finally put an end to slavery, and another century or so for African Americans to achieve full rights as citizens in the United States. Every step of the way, they were contested and blocked by individuals, groups, states and judges who claimed they were upholding the principles of the Constitution.
Why is the Confederate flag so offensive?
It should be no surprise, then, the alt-right movement is invoking the same “Revolution” today.
After Barack Obama’s presidency, Trump gave a voice to the grievances of his largely white supporters who feared they were being displaced in their own country.
And following the summer of the Black Lives Matter movement and Trump’s baseless claims the 2020 election was stolen, the Capitol Hill insurrectionists firmly believed “they” had lost control of the United States. They were no longer the “we the people” in charge.
As in the past, they also had the support of prominent politicians beyond Trump. One of their supporters, the newly elected Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene (who is also a QAnon supporter) declared before the January 6 move to block the certification of Joe Biden’s presidential victory,
“This is our 1776 moment”.
And Congressman Paul Gosar, a prominent Trump supporter, wrote an op-ed entitled “Are we witnessing a coup d’etat?” in which he advised followers to “be ready to defend the Constitution and the White House”.
It has never been entirely clear when exactly the United States was last great in the minds of Trump supporters wearing their “Make America Great Again” caps. It might be the Ronald Reagan presidency of the 1980s for some, or sometime prior to the civil rights, women’s and gay liberation movements and the US defeat in Vietnam.
But there’s no doubt as to when this mythical greatness started. The yearning for the founding era — a time when slaveholders overthrew a government to protect their rights (including the right to hold people as property) — is palpable.
But Parler too was axed, as Amazon pulled its hosting services and Google and Apple removed it from their stores. The social network, which has since sued Amazon, is effectively shut down until it can secure a new host or force Amazon to restore its services.
These actions may seem like legitimate attempts by platforms to tackle Trump’s violence-fuelling rhetoric. The reality, however, is they will do little to truly disengage his supporters or deal with issues of violence and hate speech.
With an election vote count of 74,223,744 (46.9%), the magnitude of Trump’s following is clear. And since being banned from Twitter, he hasn’t shown any intention of backing down.
With more than 47,000 original tweets from Trump’s personal Twitter account (@realdonaldtrump) since 2009, one could argue he used the platform inordinately. There’s much speculation about what he might do now.
Tweeting via the official Twitter account for the president @POTUS, he said he might consider building his own platform. Twitter promptly removed this tweet. He also tweeted: “We will not be SILENCED!”.
This threat may come with some standing as Trump does have avenues to control various forms of media. In November, Axios reported he was considering launching his own right-wing media venture.
For his followers, the internet remains a “natural hunting ground” where they can continue gaining support through spreading racist and hateful sentiment.
The internet is also notoriously hard to police – it has no real borders, and features such as encryption enable anonymity. Laws differ from state to state and nation to nation; an act deemed illegal in one locale may be legal elsewhere.
It’s no surprise groups including fascists, neo-Nazis, anti-Semites and white supremacists were early and eager adopters of the internet. Back in 1998, former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke wrote online:
I believe that the internet will begin a chain reaction of racial enlightenment that will shake the world by the speed of its intellectual conquest.
As far as efforts to quash such extremism go, they’re usually too little, too late.
Take Stormfront, a neo-Nazi platform described as the web’s first major racial hate site. It was set up in 1995 by a former Klan state leader, and only removed from the open web 22 years later in 2017.
Banning Trump from social media won’t necessarily silence him or his supporters. Esteemed British psychiatrist and broadcaster Raj Persaud sums it up well: “narcissists do not respond well to social exclusion”.
Others have highlighted the many options still available for Trump fans to congregate since Parler’s departure, which was used to communicate plans ahead of the siege at Capitol. Gab is one platform many Trump supporters have flocked to.
It’s important to remember hate speech, racism and violence predate the internet. Those who are predisposed to these ideologies will find a way to connect with others like them.
And censorship likely won’t change their beliefs, since extremist ideologies and conspiracies tend to be heavily spurred on by confirmation bias. This is when people interpret information in a way that reaffirms their existing beliefs.
When Twitter took action to limit QAnon content last year, some followers took this as confirmation of the conspiracy, which claims Satan-worshipping elites from within government, business and media are running a “deep state” against Trump.
The promotion of violence and hate speech on platforms isn’t new, nor is it restricted to relatively fringe sites such as Parler.
Queensland University of Technology Digital Media lecturer Ariadna Matamoros-Fernández describes online hate speech as “platformed racism”. This framing is critical, especially in the case of Trump and his followers.
It recognises social media has various algorithmic features which allow for the proliferation of racist content. It also captures the governance structures that tend to favour “free speech” over the safety of vulnerable communities online.
For instance, Matamoros-Fernández’s research found in Australia, platforms such as Facebook “favoured the offenders over Indigenous people” by tending to lean in favour of free speech.
Other research has found Indigenous social media users regularly witness and experience racism and sexism online. My own research has also revealed social media helps proliferate hate speech, including racism and other forms of violence.
On this front, tech companies are unlikely to take action on the scale required, since controversy is good for business. Simply, there’s no strong incentive for platforms to tackle the issues of hate speech and racism — not until not doing so negatively impacts profits.
After Facebook indefinitely banned Trump, its market value reportedly dropped by US$47.6 billion as of Wednesday, while Twitter’s dropped by US$3.5 billion.
When it comes to imagining a future with less hate, racism and violence, a key mistake is looking for solutions within the existing structure.
Today, online media is an integral part of the structure that governs society. So we look to it to solve our problems.
But banning Trump won’t silence him or the ideologies he peddles. It will not suppress hate speech or even reduce the capacity of individuals to incite violence.
Trump’s presidency will end in the coming days, but extremist groups and the broader movement they occupy will remain, both in real life and online.
Medievalist references littered the insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6th.
Rudy Giuliani called for a “trial by combat”; the “Q Shaman”, Jacob Chansley (also known as Jake Angeli), was covered in Norse tattoos; rioters brandished a flag with a Crusader cross and the Latin words Deus Vult: a Crusader war cry meaning “God wills it” that has been taken up by the far-right.
These far-right appropriations of the European Middle Ages are important reminders that recent violence has a long history and global scope. Medievalist symbols were displayed at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. The Christchurch terrorist’s manifesto referred to Norse and Crusading medievalisms.
There are many other examples.
Extremists misinterpret and appropriate medieval culture to suit their own purposes. They add new modern meanings to historical images and ideas and put them in new contexts. To understand why and how, we need to look to the modern world, not the Middle Ages.
The association of the European Middle Ages and white identities reflects modern racisms more than medieval realities.
In the late 18th century, nations like England, Germany and France needed new origin stories that accounted for the emerging pseudo-science of race and the support imperialist claims of superiority over peoples they sought to subjugate.
The Middle Ages had been understood as a dark period of barbarism between Classical and modern times, but were re-imagined as the crucible of European whiteness and its variations such as “Celtic” and “Anglo-Saxon”.
The roots of social and cultural institutions were linked to ideas of biological descent.
In the 1700s, the Germanic “Gothic race” was understood, especially by the English and Germans who claimed descent, as having an inherent love of freedom, capacity for violence and respect for women. These supposed qualities were said to have led to the feudal system of government, chivalry and particular cultural aesthetics.
The same ideas were linked to an imagined “Anglo-Saxon race” in the British Empire and its colonies. Racialized ideas about freedom that come from the 18th and 19th century are still influential among white extremists.
In architecture, academia, literature, language and art, whiteness was associated with the Middle Ages in ways that still resonate in 21st century society and culture. Pre-Raphaelite art created a white medievalist aesthetic reflected in modern TV shows like Game of Thrones (2011-19) and The Last Kingdom (2015–).
This association of white racial and cultural identity with the European Middle Ages is still strong in mainstream culture, as well as among extremists. We only need to look at controversies, such as the black British actor Jodie Turner-Smith playing Anne Boleyn.
White extremists take up existing ideas to legitimise their ideologies and false claims about the past. A rigidly structured feudal society ruled through violence by a king and nobility is appealing to fascists.
Most Western nations, including Australia, understand the European Middle Ages as part of their heritage. A copy of the Magna Carta, an English royal charter from 1215 often said to have enshrined trial by jury and other legal freedoms, hangs in Parliament House in Canberra. This makes medievalist symbols useful in allowing extremists to reach across national borders.
Medievalism is everywhere in contemporary Western culture, from entertainment like Vikings (2013-20) and the Assassin’s Creed video game franchise, to home loan and credit card advertisements, political discourse, themed restaurants and much more.
This helps make extremist associations deniable. Hate symbols can be hidden in plain sight when their meaning is open to question.
While Chansey’s tattoos are classed as hate symbols by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), they also note they are sometimes used by “non-racist pagans”.
Popular culture medievalisms contribute to this deniability and provide opportunities for radicalisation through shared interests.
Former Ku Klux Klan member Derek Black started a section dedicated to Lord of the Rings and fantasy (a major area of popular medievalism) on the white supremacist site Stormfront in the early 2000s specifically to recruit people to white nationalist ideology. He told the New York Times he thought people who liked the “white mythos” of Lord of the Rings could be “turned on by white nationalism”.
More recently, video games and gaming websites — where medievalist material is common — have become major sites of concern for anti-radicalisation practitioners and policy makers because of activity by the far right.
Recent years have seen an increase in white extremist violence, including — but not limited to — mass-murderous terror attacks. It is increasingly important that we are aware of hate symbols.
The ADL’s advice to consider context in deciding if a particular use of a symbol is “racist” is not necessarily useful in deciding whether it is a sign of white extremism because of deniability and exploitation of common beliefs.
Medievalist symbols like those displayed at the Capitol have been linked to white European identities for centuries. Their use by violent extremists means that this connection can not be denied, ignored, or thought of as a neutral choice. We must deliberately, actively, and explicitly reject hateful meanings and the violence that goes with them in all aspects of our medievalist modern world.