The slippery slope to tyranny

Russia, China and North Korea have pretend parliaments. Is that where we’re headed?

Bill Maher is an old-fashioned, rough and tough kind of comedian, not above profanity if it suits the purpose. But he’s from New York, with Irish and Jewish parents, so what do you expect?

But he had a liberal-arts university education, and if that taught him anything it’s how a democracy ought to work. He learned about fair elections, about open, equitable and civil societies ruled by law, and why power should never be all in one place, or in one person.

He also has one of the sharpest political minds in America. Right now, as he’s been making clear on his HBO show Real Time, these democratic principles are in big trouble. Come to think of it, they’re not in such good shape on this side of the Pacific. Or this side of Bass Strait.

Maher has been focusing his keen satirical gaze on the Republican Senate’s idea of a fair impeachment trial (no witnesses) and Donald Trump’s triumphalism in the wake of his unsurprising acquittal.

Here’s Maher’s take on the Senate Republican majority: “Republicans have to admit they don’t just hate Democrats. They hate democracy… Stop saying Republicans don’t have principles. They do; they are deeply committed to all things undemocratic.”

On the Republican majority’s year-long refusal to endorse Barak Obama’s crucial Supreme Court nominee, abandoning the tradition of holding hearings promptly: “That’s the old America. A nation of laws. We’re living in the new America, with only one law: ‘Make me’.”

Audience laughter subsides when Maher describes a country sliding into authoritarian rule: “You don’t get a text alert. Things will look the same on the surface. The buses will still be running. The cops will still be patrolling. You’ll still get your hair done…

“Americans are always worried that when we lose our freedom it’ll look like the movie Red Dawn, with tanks in the streets. That’s not how a republic ends. We keep the names on the institutions; we just change what’s inside. We still have trials; we just don’t have witnesses. And you still subpoena people; they just don’t show up…

“When Rome stopped being a republic, it didn’t stop having a senate. And neither have we; it’s just more like student government now. Because that’s what dictators do. Russia has a pretend parliament. So does China. And North Korea.”

Maher believes that if Trump is defeated in November he will refuse to leave the White House. No fan of Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, he wonders aloud that maybe the “angry mob” Sanders controls might be good, “because at least Sanders people will fight. They’ll fight Hillary [Clinton], but it’s a start.”

Democrats, says Maher, must follow the Republican lead: “Republicans always have dirty tricksters on their payroll… Well, we’re going to need some reptilian scumbags of our own – good Democrats who are willing to stand up and do the wrong thing.”

As a Democratic “reptilian scumbag” he suggests Michael Avenatti, a lawyer who after pursuing Trump on behalf of porn star Stormy Daniels was convicted for trying to extort millions of dollars from Nike, the sportsgear company. “But he’s in prison, so let me get the ball rolling.”

Maher wants the Democrats to use a few Republican tricks, like a video ad with edited footage of Trump stumbling over words, to get across the idea that he’s a “neurological mess”. Or by shouting “You lie” during State of the Union addresses, as a Republican member of Congress did to Obama in 2009.

Showing an actual “deep fake” ad making Obama seem to say something he didn’t, Maher scrapes the bottom of the barrel in offering a fake video pretending to be “lost” 2013 CCTV footage from a Moscow hotel room showing Trump with prostitutes doing kinky things.

All totally out of order, but it makes the telling point that any political gain from using lies and fakery entices others to follow, dragging everyone progressively lower into the dirt.

In Australia, Clive Palmer’s $80 million election campaign featured that kind of fakery, deep or otherwise. But dirty tricks were not confined to Palmer and many were successful, setting the worst kind of example for future campaigns.

As in the US, our own politics have become a battle for the low ground, as principles are cheapened, precedents flouted and public institutions diminished for party or personal gain.

Liberal democracy is under siege. It still exists in name. Rituals are still observed. We’ve heard no alarms and seen no troops. But as Maher says, when coups happen there are no text alerts.

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