Is it possible to live and let live in the post-Trump era? The online campaign to vilify Christopher Liddell, ex-White House Deputy Chief of Staff and Assistant to Trump, makes for an interesting case study. Liddell is a New Zealander whose illustrious career in corporate America once earned him plaudits back home.
The mastermind of this campaign is Phil Quin, a New Zealand writer and ex-Labour Party staffer with links to the U.S. Democratic Party.
The ‘aggressive and ongoing’ PR campaign Quin referred to was a series of phone calls Liddell made soon after a mob violently stormed the Capitol on 6 January. Liddell told journalists back home that he was ‘horrified’ by events. He supposedly considered resigning. But his crucial role in managing the transition of power from Trump to President-elect Biden had, apparently, convinced him to stay on. ‘I’m intending to stay and try to do the right thing for the country.’ To underscore this, Liddell emphasised that he was ‘100 percent’ committed to making sure the Biden Administration was ‘set up to succeed’. The New Zealand journalists appeared to believe Liddell’s sincerity.
But seasoned political hands were not convinced. It was either too little, too late. Or worse: bullshit. This suspicion was fueled when the ostensibly right-wing columnist Matthew Hooton revealed that Liddell was working with a public relations firm. Hooton had earlier written a column in The New Zealand Herald accusing Liddell of complicity in Trump’s unethical behaviour. Neale Jones, another ex-Labour staffer, put it thus: ‘Chris Liddell has been Trump’s right-hand – [Trump’s] lied to the American people, stoked dangerous conspiracy theories and pandered to far-right extremists.’ Jones went on to say that Liddell was a disgrace to New Zealand and ‘should be a social pariah for his choices’.
That kind of sentiment has become rather banal among the New Zealand commentariat. No one battered an eyelid when David Cormack, a public relations expert, compared Liddell to Nazi war criminal Albert Speer. In support of this historical analogy he gave a list of offences committed by Trump as if they are morally equivalent to the atrocities of the Third Reich. These include the use of tear gas against protestors, Trump’s enabling of the far right, his ban on Muslim immigration, and the separation of families at the border. While progressives are right to condemn such policies, it is wrong to infer that the Trump Administration is ‘fascist’.
One of the leading authorities on historical fascism, sociologist Michael Mann defines fascism simply as ‘the pursuit of a transcendent and cleansing nation-statism through paramilitarism’. Such a definition would imply the systematic use of violence to ‘purify’ society and entrench a totalitarian ideology. There has been no shortage of commentators declaring that what happened in Washington D.C. on 6 January proves Trump is a fascist. But there is no evidence that the ransacking of Congress was planned by the Oval Office or linked to anyone in Trump’s circle. If such evidence did emerge then we can be reasonably confident that justice would prevail under the Biden Administration.
Further complicating this narrative is Trump’s incoherence. At no time did the President directly encourage or condone violence. Bizarrely, he told the mob to go ‘peacefully and patriotically’ as they marched from The Ellipse. Indeed, like the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, pro-Trump demonstrations appear to have been ‘largely peaceful’ until 6 January. While this does not absolve the President of moral culpability for inciting violence, his behaviour does not fit the profile of a Hitler or a Mussolini. In contrast to historical fascists, Trump attempted to usurp power by legal means, namely through the courts. A shameful abuse of process? Yes. But it was not a coup d’état in any real sense.
So, where does this leave the Kiwi ‘anti-fascists’ who seek to give Liddell his Nuremberg? One may find Liddell’s support of Trump offensive and there is nothing wrong with expressing that disgust. But for a liberal democracy to function, let alone survive, we must tolerate people we vehemently disagree with. There are few exceptions. Any reasonable person would agree that those who spread hate and resort to violence should not be tolerated in civil society. However, there is no reason to believe Liddell is motivated by racial bigotry or violent beliefs. As New Zealand journalist Alex Braae wrote in 2018, Liddell stood apart from the ‘the lunatic pro-racism wing’ of ex-Trump adviser Steve Bannon.
Arguably, it is Liddell’s commitment to democratic norms and the American way of life that has made him a target for the social justice movement in New Zealand. His main offence is to have worked for a legitimately elected government in the world’s preeminent liberal democracy. Indeed, there is a lot one can find objectionable about the Trump Administration. But that is not a good enough reason to ‘cancel’ Liddell from society. We all have to make complex moral judgements. Sometimes, there is no universal answer. That is especially so in politics. If we were to shun everyone who we believe got it wrong, there would be no society. Perhaps it is better to live and let live.
Josh Van Veen is former member of NZ First and worked as a parliamentary researcher to Winton Peters from 2011 to 2013. He has a Masters in Politics from the University of Auckland. This article was originally published by The Democracy Project HERE.