Fear and loathing at the Sydney Institute

Just when Tony Abbott thought he had found his adopted son, Hunter S Thompson put a gun to his own head and pulled the trigger. Perhaps Thompson burned his way into Abbott’s mind that day — the emotion of the time made everything that happened then seem more intense and significant. And now, with his ministerial career flashing before his eyes, Abbott turns to the dead journalist for reassurance.

On Tuesday, in a speech to the Sydney Institute, Abbott ended with a Hunter S Thompson quote:

"In a democracy people usually get the kind of government they deserve – and they deserve what they get."

The words are from the mouth of Thompson’s fictional character Raoul Duke. But the first part of the quote Thompson attributes to failed presidential candidate, Adlai Stevenson. In 1968, Richard Nixon was poised to take the presidency. If what Stevenson said is true, wrote Thompson, "then 1968 is probably the year in which the great American chicken comes home to roost… either for good or for ill."

Thompson loathed Nixon. He saw him as a political technician without passion or principle — "his ‘skill’ is nine parts experience to one part natural talent, and his concept of politics is entirely mechanical", he wrote. Abbott feels the same way about Rudd. He calls him the most "political of politicians" and likens him to the star of a soap opera — a contrived product of his political handlers.

In his speech, Abbott "tries to probe what’s happening between voters and the Howard Government that threatens to deprive it of the usual reward for being good at its job." Why, he wonders, has the public been led astray by a manipulator like Rudd? But is there a sub-text here — a whiff of sour grapes? If voters are so fickle and so unable to look after their own interests, how much of an honour is it, really, to win their vote?

The government-they-deserve quote can too easily look like the self-justifying thinking of losers — candidates who deal with the pain of failure by denigrating the intelligence of the electorate. According to some sources Stevenson was on the campaign trail when a supporter assured him he’d "get the vote of every thinking man" in America. Stevenson said thank you, but added that it wouldn’t be enough. To win, he needed a majority.

PS: Nobody seems quite sure where the "government they deserve" quip comes from. H L Mencken made a similar comment in 1916 — "Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard."

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Geoff R
14 years ago

Abbott is trying to set himself up as the daring of the press gallery, the thinking principled man like Howard in the 1980s (with Costello assigned the role of Peacock). Howard however did have distinctive positions that could strike a chord with voters. Abbott has much less, his Catholic moral conservatism is out of step with voters and it discourages him from the ethnocentrism that would play well with the Liberal base. Abbott like Howard writes and speaks well but there is little substantive content, as opposition leader he would struggle to differentiate himself from Labor on any electorally popualar axis.

Robert
Robert
14 years ago

It must be terribly frustrating from the Coalition’s perspective to see Rudd is so popular. What has Rudd achieved? What’s his background, other than a few feature pages in newspapers and some articles, and a bit of a stint in China and with Goss and some personal screen shots? In a righteous world, how could a non-real/non-substantial political entity like Rudd loom over them – a confection, a media mirage to take their jobs and run the country for god’s sake? No wonder Abbott and Howard et al have the shits.

And no wonder the temptation to go to the lowest common denominator in the country is so strong so to ensure a majority. There is no end to the measure of the mass misconceptions in the wider public, these words like all others, included, for we each see the world incompletely in our own way. It is a rare leader as we know who can gently grasp the teasing inchoate trends of the greater mind and weave them into an actual national narrative, and not upset the bunched up, knotted up, mindstuff below. Far easier to toss a salve to the lower bit and watch it suck it up not with gratitude as is this bit’s wont but with hungry expectancy, it slurping and sloughing around and stuffing its face, not so that it may grow and see the world from a loftier height, but so that its arms don’t get tired clinging to itself.

But what if you don’t toss a salve, and toss something inspiring instead?

Go the majority, an amazing concept, if not a real thing.

And the thinking person’s vote is itself a ripper – I have a friend who is very much in that group, whose mind has been focused elsewhere of politics, who asked not two months ago “Is John Howard Labor or Liberal?”. Shocking, but indicative of something how common?

cs
cs
14 years ago

So, with an apparent straight face, Tony Abbott has quoted Hunter S Thompson, who stood for everything that Abbott doesn’t, in order to suppose that Kevin Rudd is a “manipulator”. As the Doctor once wondered, “Who does vote for these dishonest shitheads?”

David Rubie
David Rubie
14 years ago

cs,

I suspect Abbott quoting Hunter S. Thompson is something like Gillard accusing the liberals of not understanding Menzies – it’s little more than a bit of a gee-up and just as ineffective.

cs
cs
14 years ago

Oh no! I’ve been manipulated!

Link
14 years ago

“It is a rare leader as we know who can gently grasp the teasing inchoate trends of the greater mind and weave them into an actual national narrative, and not upset the bunched up, knotted up, mindstuff below. Far easier to toss a salve to the lower bit and watch it suck it up not with gratitude as is this bits wont but with hungry expectancy, it slurping and sloughing around and stuffing its face, not so that it may grow and see the world from a loftier height, but so that its arms dont get tired clinging to itself.”

Effing reckon. Not sure anyone can “gently grasp the teasing inchoate trends of the greater mind”. Bloody hell! (Heh).

Er . . . Abbott’s a twat.

Don Wigan
Don Wigan
14 years ago

Loved that Adlai Stevenson story, Don. When I first studied politics in the 60s, there was a lot of thinking at that time that Americans didn’t like their political leaders to have a sense of humor. Stevenson was even cited as the example, haing failed twice against Ike.

The story quoted then was Stevenson’s response to a complaint against him that he was an egghead. It was, “Eggheads of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your yolks!” According to legend it wasn’t all that well received.

Although Abbott’s got it backwards, the Hunter S Thompson reference was interesting. I’ve long been thinking about Howard’s time and legacy as it (hopefully) moves to its end. The closest comparison I can make is to Nixon. He has exploited Fear and Loathing superbly (or disastrously if you care about appealing to the better instincts of people). I think that like Nixon he is a manipulator, caring little for anything except re-election. Hence he never gives pause to the slightest regret about the Iraq disaster.

He sees almost everything in terms of combat with Labor. Hence the hubristic overkill with Workchoices. He was thinking that if he can destroy the unions base, he can stuff Labor. The uranium response belatedly to global warming can also be seen in those terms. There have been allegations of closed-door dealings with mining magnates (which may well have occurred), but I’m sure the guiding factor was that this will divide Labor as The Republic divided the Liberals.

Again he misjudged it as a positive climate change response. And as with Workchoices, he underestimated other factors such as NIMBY on power stations. It’s a can of worms.

The only difference I can see is that Nixon did actually attempt to do some good in foreign matters such as China and disarmament. Howard’s main positive legacy, and not to be sneezed at, was his attempts at firearms control. But it was very early in his reign.

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
14 years ago

Rudd is certainly an arch manipulator and as much as I dislike him, Mark Latham, was probably spot on with his characterisation of Rudd as a kind of cross between Uriah Heap and Cesare Borgia. In short, Rudd’s about as believable as John Howard, but he has cleverly positioned himself as a younger, fresher, 21st century John Howard – and it’s working.

I think it’s high old time that Australia changed government and Rudd represents the best chance of doing that. But Hunter S Thonpson’s take on Therese Rein would have been gold.

cs
cs
14 years ago

Politically, I think Geoff’s angle operates for Ruddy.

Yet I am also reminded of an old adage. The new leader, it was once frequently said, easily wins the friendship of those who were satisfied with the existing government, and were only hostile because he was the leader of the opposition; far more troublesome are those who were dissatisfied with the existing government and only became his friend because he was the leader of the opposition.

Re the earlier, there is a serious qualitative difference between Gillard/Menzies and Abbott/Hunter. The former makes the the debatable point about what happened to the liberal in the Liberal Party; the latter is a cheap hypocritical pose, perhaps akin to the anti-fun priest borrowing a leather jacket for the school dance.

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
14 years ago

CS – An old adage?

“…we shall find that it is easier for the prince to make friends of those men who were contented under the former government, and are therefore his enemies, than of those who, being discontented with it, were favourable to him and encouraged him to seize it.”
http://whitewolf.newcastle.edu.au/words/authors/M/MachiavelliNiccolo/prose/ThePrince/theprince020.html

So your advice to the new prince would be…?

David Rubie
David Rubie
14 years ago

cs wrote:
there is a serious qualitative difference between Gillard/Menzies and Abbott/Hunter. The former makes the the debatable point about what happened to the liberal in the Liberal Party; the latter is a cheap hypocritical pose

How many chords has the Gillard/Menzies business actually struck? I assumed they tried it on because earlier incarnations of Howard appeared to venerate “I did but see her passing by” sentiments. It’s a strange position to be taking (Menzies wouldn’t be allowed in the modern Liberal party) as if re-casting a conservative prime minister as some kind of bastion of small-l liberal values will have any effect on the behaviour of modern Liberals or the voting intentions of a population who can barely remember Keating and Hawke.

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
14 years ago

I hadn’t noticed the asymmetry before. The Liberals attact Labor for being too labour — too closely connected to the labour movement. But Labor attack the Liberals for not being liberal enough.

cs
cs
14 years ago

So your advice to the new prince would be?

The new prince is a far better politician than me, so I would decline the opportunity to make a fool of myself by giving him advice. At the most, I would make private notes in the way of play, merely to see how closely I could anticipate him. Relecting off Geoff’s comment, I would, perhaps, note that all those who rush to compare the new leader with the old are friendly forces, comforting those citizens who dislike change. These commentators are therefore to be ignored, beyond a private smile. On the other hand, those who have merely got on board because they detest the old leader are a tricky lot to manage. The old leader will constantly seek to project the new leader in the image of the most popularly detested among them, thus marking the newcomer out as being different from himself as is possible to imagine. The caravan of convenience behind the new leader will always be vulnerable to this flattery from their detested enemy, as it promotes their public status. The caravan is therefore to held at a safe distance, so the new leader always remains free to publicly cut their heads off as necessary. It is therefore crucial, I suppose, for the new leader to win popular appeal well beyond the caravan and its followers.

Its a strange position to be taking (Menzies wouldnt be allowed in the modern Liberal party) as if re-casting a conservative prime minister as some kind of bastion of small-l liberal values will have any effect on the behaviour of modern Liberals or the voting intentions of a population who can barely remember Keating and Hawke.

Hardly. The division between conservatives and liberals on the right side of politics is always worth ploughing at gatherings of business leaders (as distinct from gatherings of people “who can barely remember Keating and Hawke”), which was where Gillard was, and especially when the topic is industrial relations, as it was. “You can support our policy” said Gillard effectively, “even if you usually support the LNP, provided you support the liberal ideals of the party. The approach flatters businessmen, who usually don’t know about anything except commerce but like to imagine themselves enlightened.

David Rubie
David Rubie
14 years ago

cs wrote:
The approach flatters businessmen, who usually dont know about anything except commerce but like to imagine themselves enlightened.

I like the intention cs, but I’m not sure it’s effective. Menzies for most people under 40 has about as much cultural resonance as Montgomery Clift. It might play well with the older businessmen, but that generation is just about to retire, while the rest of them will largely remember their best economic times as being under the Howard government. As a way of calming the horses, I think it’s limited.