My attempt to understand the rise – or the return, really – of the populist far right, at home and abroad.
I came to JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy with some considerable scepticism. Published a few months before last year’s US election, many commentators have claimed it’s the book that best explains Donald Trump’s rise and triumph.
I wouldn’t go that far, but it’s a worthwhile read nonetheless. It’s a candid and unadorned memoir about Vance’s childhood in rural, rust-belt Ohio that illuminates some of what fuelled Trump’s ascendancy: the disillusionment of the white working class, generational family dysfunction exacerbated by addiction and unemployment, poor education – the list goes on. This is primarily a personal story about Vance’s rather extraordinary escape from this disadvantage – through luck, happenstance, some hard work and a loving grandmother.
Here in Australia, the rise of populist right has been embodied by Pauline Hanson Mark II.
David Marr’s Quarterly Essay seeks to explain the political and demographic drivers behind Hanson’s return – with a particular focus on the politics of race – and does a good job of it. But it doesn’t really offer any new insights into a Hanson herself or the colourful people who now surround her.
Anna Broinowski’s Please Explain is poorly served by its title and cover, which suggest it’s some kind of takedown. In fact, it’s an excellent first-hand account of Hanson’s return. Broinowski is a filmmaker who thought in 2015 and 2016 that she was documenting Hanson’s latest ill-fated attempt to return to Parliament and recapture her mid-90s relevancy. In fact, she had front row seats (she spent months with Hanson, with unprecedented access) to one of the most stunning political comebacks of all time. This is the book to read if you want to understand the latest iteration of Pauline.
And Margo Kingston’s Off The Rails is the book to read if you want to understand just how little Hanson has actually changed over the last 20 years. This 1998 election campaign diary remains a rollicking ride, and goes to show that today’s One Nation is not in fact copying Trump’s playbook – it’s just rerunning the fights of yesteryear. The attacks on the “elites” of the political class and the media, the cosying up to the fringe groups like men’s rights activists, the Machiavellian backroom men who manipulate Hanson – Kingston’s book shows that none of what we see today is in fact new.