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Anti-vax rallies stink of Fraser Anning's populism

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Craig Kelly's presence at the Melbourne rallies is a reflection of Fraser Anning's support of neo-Nazis in 2019 (Screenshots via YouTube)

The current anti-vax movement is starting to show signs of White nationalist politics as spouted by Fraser Anning in 2019, writes Tom Tanuki.

MP CRAIG KELLY, speaking at the “Kill the Bill” rally last weekend in Melbourne, reminded me of the lead-up to the 2019 Federal Election. I said this to comrades who’ve been involved in fringe politics for as long as I have and it turns out we all felt the same way.

The dung heap of the “populist” anti-lockdown movement and all the political-class blowflies laying eggs in it is the 2022 equivalent of ex-Senator Fraser Anning and the “populist” White nationalist movement. And Kelly’s speech reminded us of Anning attending a neo-Nazi rally in St Kilda in early 2019.

For regular readers, no, I’ve not switched camps in an interminable online commentator dispute over whether the anti-lockdown movement is “far-right” or just “led around by the hand by the far-right”. (Although I think the distinction is growing blurrier by the week.) There are absolutely many differences between then and now.

In January 2019, Fraser Anning flew interstate to attend a rally organised by neo-Nazis. The rally was for vilifying the South Sudanese. Anning, who replaced Senator Malcolm Roberts on a dual citizenship technicality and immediately after split from One Nation, was attempting to shape a mounting wave of racist sentiment into a voting block for an ethno-nationalist minor Party. 

It didn’t matter if Anning agreed with the neo-Nazi rally’s anti-South Sudanese message — Anning never really stood for anything at all. Anti-fascist research group White Rose Society revealed back then that his entire campaign team was comprised of neo-Nazis. He’d done some sort of a deal with the devil — say whatever we’ll tell you to and we’ll get you across the line masquerading as a “maverick” MP.

Those of us watching closely were howling about the growing danger of the White nationalist movement in Australia. When we countered it at rallies and online, we were regularly told we were “creating division”. Sounds familiar. We pointed to their growing rhetoric of violence and were told we were “silencing free speech”. Also eerily familiar.

Then Christchurch happened and 51 Muslims were killed as the direct result of that movement’s doctrine. The same day, Anning – the Parliamentary parasite of that movement – blamed the bloodshed on its victims. His edgy neo-Nazi campaign team overstepped that day and he was figuratively – and literally – chased out of town. He had miscalculated the potential for backlash after the movement in which he was laying eggs started making good on its promise of violence.

(The last I heard from ex-Senator Fraser Anning, he’d fled Australia to escape his debts and had created a far-right think tank with cartoon villain Steve Bannon, chief champion worldwide of far-right ‘populism’.)

The history of Anning and White nationalism in Australia is absolutely different to that of the “freedom” movement for the people swept up into it. They are not, by and large, racist antagonists. Not at the outset.

The White nationalist movement Anning was trying to use for political glory in 2019 could only welcome select identity groups into its fold:

  • White people;
  • a constantly shifting bracket of Europeans who can sometimes call themselves “White” when White nationalism needs friends; and
  • eager to-please non-White people who consume U.S. alt-right video content.

On the other hand, the anti-vax movement is as broad a church as you can get. It isn’t an identity category. Carrying on about a life-saving vaccine doesn’t really distinguish you from your neighbour at all. All it requires is a diet of disinformation from liars and con artists to maintain. But with no short supply of exciting bullshit online, anyone at all can join in — and that’s what’s happening.

Why look to manipulate a vanishingly small group of horrible White racists when you can indoctrinate and lead around pretty much anybody who’s scared during a pandemic? The anti-lockdown movement offers a vastly superior “populist” opportunity to White nationalism.

So the anti-lockdown movement has been, on the whole, very diverse. And no, yet again, I don’t think it has been fundamentally far-right in nature. I don’t think it’s fundamentally of any ideology. It’s a conspiracist Telegram trading ground in which people swap a hundred different narratives of pure bullshit. So while St Kilda in 2019 saw only approximately 400 racists attend that rally, last weekend’s “Kill the Bill” rally had 20,000 to 30,000 people. It’s a much bigger, more impressive game being played now.

The most striking similarity between last weekend and 2019, for me, was in the appearance of Kelly himself. Kelly also split from his political Party to pursue a “maverick” career path with a fringe minor Party. Listening to him stand and speak, I saw a politician who actually stands for nothing at all – who has climbed aboard the tiger of howling anti-vax sentiment in pursuit of his own interests – pretending to rage at how bad politics is. 

The stomach-turning hypocrisy of a politician seething at a crowd about how bad all the other politicians are — you’ll never see anything more truly condescending than this kind of rabble-rousing garbage. It’s exactly what Anning tried on at St Kilda in 2019.

I have learned all about “right-wing populism” from watching its most notorious worldwide proponent, Steve Bannon. Anning’s mate. Most famously, he was a member of the Trump Administration, but Bannon’s real game is touring the world and advising far-right politicians on how to con their way into power over any old concocted issue, as long you can get enough people to jump up and down about it. 

From Bannon, I have learned that “right-wing populism” really means sheer opportunism. A purely tactical display of telling a large audience with the potential for growth whatever they want to hear in exchange for opportunity.

The last manifestation of “populism” came in the form of divisive White nationalist politics. “Tactical racism”, some called it — never “tactical” in the minds of the actual racists it signalled to, but tactical to the politicians exploiting it. Now, they’re trying their hand at carving out teams based on vaccination status in a deadly pandemic. 

It’s a much more shrewd game. I’ve written about “citizen journalists” gaming these people for donations and prestige. I’ve commented on con artists fleecing the movement for enormous GoFundMe campaigns. Now begins the era, ahead of the Federal Election, for Canberran blowflies to buzz in and lay their eggs. A few thousand votes are worth risking the community for some scumbags.

Will Kelly end up faring as well as Anning did in the 2022 Federal Election? I don’t care about that as much as I care about the potential for violence. The final similarity between 2019 and now is the sense I have that people are about to get hurt and that those in the movement don’t care that they’re helping make it happen.

On every day of 2021, I have read threats of violence in their groups. Oh, yeah, “politicians”, they reckon, the populist punching bag of choice. But also the vaccinated. The Left.  Nurses. Doctors. Small business owners who adhere to COVID-safe regulations. Kids. Now we see Neo-Nazis constructing functional gallows on trailers to drive around protests. People carry nooses for commonplace protest theatrics. The air of immediate threat is more palpable than it was in 2019.

But I don’t think politicians will be the real targets. That’s not how it ended for the White nationalist movement in 2019, was it? I think that the innocent neighbours of these “populists” will be the ones to suffer. That’s what this amoral “populism” does: it turns person against person, to carve out an exploitable block of voters. Who cares if they attack each other, right?

Like the 20-year-old gas station cashier in Germany who was shot and killed in September for asking a customer to wear a mask. Or, locally, the nurses working in a homeless vaccination clinic in Melbourne being spat on and abused by anti-vaxxers. They’re not “Dan Andrews”, are they? No. They’re your neighbour. The nooses aren’t a message for untouchable politicians after all; they’re a message for anyone who disagrees.

When this wave of “populism” – and remember, that means sheer opportunism – kills or seriously hurts another worker, who will you blame? Will you blame the pack animals of the movement indoctrinated by Telegram groupthink? Or will you blame the anointed tier of influencers, “citizen journalists” and cynical politicians pushing that pack towards the edge? I know who I’ll blame.

On Saturday 20 November, in Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney and Perth, counter-rallies are being organised. I’m going to the Brisbane one. I’m not excited about it at all — I’m just trying to help organise people who care, in case they begin targeting vaccine clinics.

Tom Tanuki is an online satirist, social justice commentator, writer and comedian. He has worked in anti-racist political comedy, most notably through his satirical group the Million Flag Patriots and anti-racist group Yelling At Racist Dogs (Y.A.R.D.). You can follow Tom on Twitter @tom_tanuki.

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