Hard Talk

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a couple of thousand words about Trump, the hard right, immigration, and Israel and Palestine, which I thought I’d post here, but which need some context first about why I wrote them.

After several years away from limerick-writing, I’ve written a lot of them in the last year or so, partly to get my head back in the creative writing game, partly to take my mind off other things. Mostly they’ve been for a modest audience of fellow doggerel-etymologists at the OEDILF, where we all critique each other’s work. It’s a mixed crowd, mostly American and mostly older (than me), and we have members whose politics are the opposite of mine, but as we’re mainly writing on non-political subjects we usually rub along okay.

A couple of weeks ago, though, I was served up the random word suggestion of hard right, and ended up writing and submitting this:

In the States, the hard right want a fight / With Latinos and Jews: 'They ain't white! / They're all liberal and woke, / Not like him, her 'n' folk— / Yet they all get to vote! It's hard, right?' // With immigrants, too: the hard right / Want to 'give them illegals a fright'. / They're biding their time / Till they've made it a crime / To exist if a person's non-white.

(The pun in the fourth line led to another.)

The first editor to encounter this wondered about the last line’s suggestion of “genocidal intent”, saying that genocide is “not exactly part of the mainstream political landscape” in the US. I pointed out that the hard right isn’t mainstream, and that the verse is essentially about white supremacists. (“To exist” was initially going to be “to enrol”, but that felt like it was pulling punches.)

Although he didn’t enjoy defending them, he replied that even white supremacists aren’t genocidal. I wasn’t so sure. Genocide doesn’t just mean killing people; the UN Convention on Genocide lists other acts short of killing that still constitute it. I found someone else who would have agreed:

The ultimate logic of racism is genocide, and if one says that one is not good enough to have a job that is a solid quality job, if one is not good enough to have access to public accommodations, if one is not good enough to have the right to vote, if one is not good enough to live next door to him, if one is not good enough to marry his daughter because of his race. Then at that moment, that person is saying that that person who is not good to do all of this is not fit to exist or to live. And that is the ultimate logic of racism. —Martin Luther King, 14 March 1968

In any case, I feared this was reducing the range of possible interpretations down to a single possible interpretation: making it a crime to exist is florid language, sure, but it doesn’t have to mean literally executing people (although it can). It can imply not existing in political terms; not constituting any threat to white political power.

And although I had white supremacists in mind, I wouldn’t limit that to a particular stripe of white supremacist: I’d include full-blown neo-Nazis, the KKK and others who would be quite happy to see non-whites dead, or are comfortable that non-whites suffer excessive deaths at the hands of racist cops or discriminatory healthcare policies or whatever else it might be. At the very least, there are many white supremacists who would happily see whole chunks of society deported, so that they don’t exist within their own country any more. The Nazis considered that, too, before they settled on the Final Solution; they had ideas of sending all of Germany’s Jews to Madagascar.


When I was going to limit the focus in an earlier draft to disenfranchisement by making it a crime to “enrol” rather than exist, I had MAGA and Trump in mind, and played around with including them in a draft or two. But even though MAGA counts as hard right for me, I thought I’d restrict the focus to the hardest of the hard right to spare the feelings of one or two fellow OEDILFers who might feel aggrieved to hear their views described as such.

I should have known that it wouldn’t make much difference. A week later, a second editor arrived: one who identifies as MAGA, the “vast majority” of whom “are not white supremacists—sorry to disillusion you”. He spoke of the “difference between legal immigration and illegal immigration”, saying he was “fine with foreigners going through proper channels”, but that “the current flooding of people at the border is making a mockery of immigration”.

If you don’t identify with any of the attitudes described here, I observed, then it isn’t about you; if you don’t see yourself in it, then I don’t think of you as unequivocally hard right. If there are elements that touch a nerve, though, such as the mention of “illegals”, then it’s more of a grey area.

Trump, to start with, has said openly that he’ll govern as a dictator if he wins again, so either we dismiss his words as bullshit, in which case he’s a bullshitter whose words can’t be trusted, or we take them seriously, in which case he’s a danger to American democracy itself. Leaving aside any of his previous track record, up to and including 6 January 2021, that alone makes him a dangerous choice of US leader in my eyes. But millions would and will still choose him.

Are Trump’s personal views “hard right”? He certainly says plenty of things the hard right would say; I suspect it isn’t out of a strong personal ideological position, but that doesn’t really matter if the effect is the same, and there are plenty with stronger ideological positions on the hard right who see him as a fellow-traveller. One of the big challenges for US politics is that Trump has been and is the choice of the hard right—Proud Boys, Stormfronters, Charlottesville protesters chanting “Jews Won’t Replace Us”—but Biden isn’t the choice of the hard left. That means that anyone on the right of US politics might feel they have to support a candidate more extreme than they are, someone championed by more extreme people, because he’s the non-Democrat and they can’t bring themselves to vote for Biden; whereas voters of the hard left won’t support Biden, eroding his chances unless the number of centre and centre-left voters (plus any “Never Trump” voters of the centre-right) is big enough to compensate.

That’s one reason I see MAGA as a hard right movement, even if not all Trump voters or self-identified MAGA people would see themselves that way: because Trump’s words and policies were and are so often targeted to the hard right, with the help of people like Stephen Miller, Steve Bannon and Roger Stone. The dehumanization of migrants is part of that. Migrants are just people, in all of their diversity and complexity, whose circumstances at home have prompted them to seek a new life elsewhere. I’m a migrant: I moved from one rich country to another one, and the two are culturally close, but I’m still a migrant, and my migration was driven by economic and employment choices too. I don’t see that as making me morally superior to somebody driven by a desperate need to escape war, or famine, or extreme poverty: they have a much stronger reason and compulsion to migrate than I did. I would have been okay back in Australia, one way or another, but there are many, many migrants who couldn’t say the same. That’s why they become economic migrants, boat people, refugees, asylum seekers: I hate the way those terms, which should prompt compassion, are used pejoratively by so many nowadays.

The term “illegals” gets used in the media and by politicians all the time in Britain, too. But I, like many others, consider it dehumanising to refer to fellow human beings that way: it doesn’t matter if what they’re doing is illegal, they aren’t. Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel once said that “no human being is ‘illegal’“, and for the sake of our own humanity I see it as essential not to lapse into that usage.

Why is it okay to speak about “illegal immigrants” when we don’t speak about illegal drivers, illegal travellers, illegal merchants, illegal internet users? Law isn’t some untouchable moral good: there are plenty of laws that don’t align with timeless moral values, or even contemporary majority values. Western countries in recent years have closed off more and more legal migration routes, and made it harder to access the ones that are available. We’ll always be able to cast refugees as “illegal immigrants” if we don’t allow them any way to legally seek refuge.


This second editor had mentioned another issue—which I hadn’t—of Israel, and of hard left attitudes towards it, saying that “it is the hard left that wants a fight with the Jews” and who are “wanting to annihilate Israel and downplaying the horrors of 7 October 2023”.

I’m well aware that the championing on the left of Palestinians and criticism of Israel can veer into antisemitism. I have enormous sympathy for the plight of Jewish people over the centuries, especially in the twentieth century, and don’t dispute the right of Israel to exist. As a student (and product) of colonialism, though, I see Zionism in the nineteenth century as an outgrowth of that era’s colonial worldview, which was given the seal of approval by the past masters of modern colonialism in the form of the 1917 Balfour Declaration. All of that predated Nazism and the Holocaust; the establishment of Israel wasn’t a brand new idea created out of whole cloth in the 1940s. And there’s no disputing that the migration of thousands of Jewish people into former Mandatory Palestine displaced people who had lived in particular areas for centuries. As I said, I’m a product of colonialism myself: I was born and grew up on an island the British had secured for themselves through invasion and genocide. But I don’t deny the right of modern Tasmania to exist, or suggest that modern Tasmanians of European descent are invaders or colonizers. We are undeniably their descendents and beneficiaries, though, and that bestows on us an obligation to recognise the rights and continuing claims of the descendents of our state’s original people.

Because Israel has grown in stages, the question of what is and isn’t a justifiable set of Israeli borders is complicated. When I was born, Israel wasn’t even twenty years old, so it’s no surprise that its very existence was still hotly contested in the years when I was growing up by the people it had displaced. It had just trounced an attempted invasion in the 1967 Six-Day War and occupied a significant amount of formerly Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian territory, including Gaza. The legitimacy of Israel’s possession of Gaza, the West Bank, the Golan Heights and Sinai was therefore an ongoing question in the 1970s and 1980s, and letting Israel do what it liked in any of them “because Israel” was never going to be the basis for any sort of lasting peace. (At least Sinai has been off the table since 1989.)

The same goes for what Israel has done and is doing in response to Hamas’s terrible attacks of October 7th. You won’t get the slightest defence from me of those attacks by Hamas, any more than I would defend those of 9/11 or at the Bataclan or in Bali. But if ever a response was disproportionate, the indiscriminate bombing of urban areas which are home to two million people, killing tens of thousands of people, destroying almost all of the region’s hospitals, displacing almost the entire population, leaving half a million at serious risk of starvation, would qualify, no matter who’s doing it. Personally, I don’t blame Israelis for that disproportionate response (and certainly not “the Jews”): I blame Netanyahu. He’s a political leader—and not a particularly popular one in his own country—not somebody beyond criticism by virtue of his race or religion. But if there are specific Israelis envisioning the displacement of 95% of the Gaza population so that it can be resettled by Israelis—and there are, in Netanyahu’s own cabinet—then I condemn them too.

None of that is antisemitic: Netanyahu doesn’t represent all Israelis, and Israel doesn’t represent all Jewish people, any more than Boris Johnson ever represented me, an Australian-born person of British descent who is now also British and therefore had him as prime minister for a while. If there are people on the left who are straying into blood-libel territory, then I condemn them too; they’re no friends of mine. But I don’t hear anyone on the left chanting “Jews Won’t Replace Us”.


These journal articles might not accessible from outside a university, but the abstracts should be, at least:

Bindman, Geoffrey (2019), “Criticizing Israel is Not Antisemitism“, European Judaism: A Journal for the New Europe, Vol. 52, No. 1, pp. 111-118.

Hersh, Eitan, and Laura Royden (2023), “Antisemitic Attitudes Across the Ideological Spectrum“, Political Research Quarterly, Vol. 76, No. 2, pp. 697–711.

19 February 2024 · Politics