We've seen the militias, in Kentucky, in Texas, in Oregon, in Michigan: mainly white men, sometimes thousands strong, armed with military-grade weapons. There they are in the news clips, in their caps and bandanas and camo gear, shouting their slogans, hoisting their guns. They call themselves Proud Boys and Oath Keepers and they're training to defend, they say, their values and way of life.
They have killed and will kill again: they are the modern, public manifestation of the Ku Klux Klan. The President of the United States, campaigning in an election he says could be "stolen" from him through "voter fraud", although there is no evidence for it, has encouraged these armed groups to "stand back and stand by".
You don't have to believe Donald Trump is readying himself to lead a fascist rebellion to recognise that after the election, it could happen anyway.
Yes, I'm afraid. This is part 1 of a two-part essay on why.
The problem in America is not Trump, or not merely Trump. Nor is it ignorance and bigotry, nor even the Republican Party and its backers, who prop him up because they prize their own self-interest far ahead of the values to which they repeatedly swear allegiance.
All those things blight the country, to be sure. But underpinning them all is something even harder to overcome: the American political system cannot manage its own crisis. Their democracy is eating itself.
Electoral boundaries are gerrymandered, voter suppression and campaign-funding outrages are widespread, the administration and the judiciary have been corrupted to serve a partisan cause, independent media are corrosively attacked and foreign interference condoned.
None of it happened despite the democratic process, as if envelopes stuffed with money were being passed hand to hand. It has all been explicitly enabled by that process, by decisions of the legislatures and courts of America's state and federal governments.
As for those militias, in most other countries they would be treated as a major threat to civil life and public order. But in America, the right of armed, private militias to exist and to parade down the main street is guaranteed in the Constitution. And their motivating impulse – their hatred of Black people – has been institutionalised throughout society, from the nation's beginning.
Democracy, we like to think, has a great, historical capacity to repair and renew itself. But is that true for America? The rot is deep. Trump has enabled it and benefited from it, but he did not cause it and he will not be the last of its champions.
Will America renew its greatness, so to speak, after this election, or is it about to become a failed state?
Perhaps it is that already. Despite having the most sophisticated healthcare services and largest economy the world has ever seen, America was miserably and scandalously unable to protect itself and its citizens from the Covid pandemic.
And it looks like it's still just getting started. Hospitalisations rose 40 per cent in the past month, deaths have exceeded 225,000, record numbers of new cases are now being reported daily and some experts fear the growth is about to become exponential. It's a nightmare.
MEANWHILE, IN Auckland ... I went to the breakfast launch of some new electric ferries in Auckland, not so long ago. Many influential people were there: councillors and officials, executives from Auckland Transport, business leaders, engineers. People with their hands on the money, people who know about boats, people who know about public transport.
It wasn't a real launch, of course. We don't have any electric ferries. It was the launch of a proposal: to build them, here in Auckland, and when it came time for the America's Cup, to have the Prime Minister show the world's visitors – media and tycoons alike – just how forward-thinking our engineering, transport planning and climate activism had become.
Didn't happen. Why not? Because although council agency ATEED and ferry operator Fullers360 support the proposal, nobody who could have made it happen, cared enough.
The outgoing Government's plans for e-vehicles didn't happen either. Most notably, they included a feebate scheme that would place a levy on gas guzzlers in order to subsidise low-carbon vehicles.
This is absurd. The process of creating a zero-carbon economy is enormously complex and will take decades, but in that process, phasing out fossil-fuel vehicles, on the roads and the water, is low-hanging fruit. In many parts of the world, like Britain and California, it's already happening.
All it requires, for cars, is to set a deadline for no more imports, a roll-out of charging stations and plans to produce more electricity. Over 15 or 20 years, it can be done without hardship to anyone.
It's not like the target is in dispute. Who, seriously, thinks we'll be driving petrol-fuelled cars in 20 years' time? Yet the more we delay, the more expensive the change will be and the greater the risk it will bring hardship.
The feebate scheme didn't happen because the National Party and NZ First blocked it, purely for selfish political reasons.
In Avondale right now, protesters have prevented a landowner from cutting down a large stand of native trees on a suburban street. The owner wants to sell the land for housing; buyers will need the land cleared. The council says it can't, or won't, or both, step in and buy the land as a reserve. Stalemate, although that's only true as long as the protesters maintain their occupation.
The problem is the mayor's urban forestation strategy, which focuses on planting saplings but does nothing to preserve mature trees. The problem is the council, whose planning processes can't cope with an emergency like this. The problem is the law, introduced by the previous National-led Government, that prohibits councils from designating groups of trees for preservation – precisely in order to make it almost impossible to stop landowners cutting them down.
The problem is, although it's likely very few people think those trees should go, the system doesn't seem capable of saving them.
But hasn't Auckland Council declared a climate emergency? Don't we now have a framework that makes such climate and environmental issues easier to resolve?
Well, yes, we do. It's called Te Tāruke-ā-Tāwhiri: Auckland's Climate Action Framework and it was adopted in July last year. But it's written in impenetrable officialese, it isn't binding and it's not being led from the top. So far it has had limited impact on policy or public life.
The framework, to its credit, sets some ambitious targets: a 50 per cent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030, for example. That's not just council operations, it's the whole city.
But how are we going to do it? We're getting a few electric buses, but that won't cut it. There's no actual action plan and, as yet, no budget.
And, rushing at us like a dirty diesel locomotive in a tunnel, Auckland Council is facing a major fiscal crisis caused by the collapse of revenue streams during the Covid pandemic.
I'M SCARED. I didn't used to be scared. I'm usually the optimist in the room. Wilfully and happily so. I'm Pollyanna.
I believe in people's capacity to affect change for the better. I believe crisis brings out the best in us, although it brings out other things too. I believe that even with little steps you can walk a long way, given enough time and the courage to keep going. I believe we have the courage.
And in this country, I believe we have very good walking shoes. From the Treaty of Waitangi to women's suffrage, the 40-hour week to the welfare state, the anti-nuclear movement to marriage equality, we have achievements to be proud of. You can add the power of kindness to that list.
I believe we believe in ourselves. I believe, with Jacinda Ardern, that persuading the crowd to walk with you is important.
And we have started with those little steps. But we're not taking nearly enough of them. We're not doing it here and the rest of the world's not doing it either.
How bad will the droughts and floods and wildfires need to become? How many Pacific countries and coastal cities will drown? How many wars and how many people turned into refugees? And why does anyone think it will be easier to do the right thing when the pressures have become intolerable?
We have entered a time of great species extinction. Glaciers are retreating and ice shelves breaking up in Antarctica and Greenland at a far faster rate than was predicted. The Arctic permafrost is melting. But oligarchs in Russia and greenwashed oil companies in the West don't read these things as signals of catastrophe. They see them as opportunities for further exploitation. Deep-sea mining, fracking, tar sands, new exploration all over the world.
And who's going to stop it? Autocratic governments in Russia and the rest of the old Soviet empire are only too keen to keep digging. Europe props them up as the buyers of that oil and gas.
America, despite the destruction climate change wreaks on it every year, is blithely determined to remain the worst polluter in the world.
In New Zealand, per capita, we are also one of the worst emitters in the world, and our emissions are still rising.
The National Party campaigned in the election on a promise not just to reverse the ban on new oil and gas exploration, but to supercharge the process. We could become like Norway, said leader Judith Collins, turning the oceans off the east coast of the South Island into "the North Sea of the south".
This was the party, in Government, that signed the world's most significant agreement on climate change: the 2015 Paris Accord.
So what's going to happen? Can America rebuild its subverted democracy, and what will happen to the rest of the world if it doesn't? Is there any mechanism to call oil and coal barons to account? Can we convert our own economy to achieve the goals of ending poverty and eliminating carbon emissions?
Auckland Council's climate emergency framework, typically for such plans here and elsewhere, expresses its intentions as 10-, 20- and 30-year goals. But that's absurdly slow.
The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has told us that by 2030, to avoid a runaway climate catastrophe, we should have reduced global emissions by 45 per cent on 2010 levels. That's just 10 years away, and we can't even agree on a date to stop importing petrol-driven cars.
We're preparing long-term aspirational plans, because that's how our decision-making processes work. But while we talk, the immediate crisis threatens to overwhelm us.
We like to say the kids will save us. Greta Thunberg abroad and the School Strike for Climate movement at home represent great hope for the future. I've said it myself.
It might be true, but what a terrible thing to load on them. We made this mess, but it's okay because they'll be able to clean it up. Is that our solution?
INACTION ON many fronts. During the election campaign, at a Grey Power rally in Nelson for Judith Collins, an angry man asked her what she was going to do about the dispute at Ihumātao, where a Māori protest village is preventing Fletchers from building a new subdivision. The protesters have been there for four years.
Collins said, "I will not spend a cent." If she was PM, she would not authorise a payment to Fletchers to give up the land and nor would she allow the Government to help develop any other possibilities for the site. She was applauded.
There's a market for those views, as there always has been, but they are naive and dangerous.
Is there really a politician in Parliament, Collins included, who believes you can just run the protesters off the land and life will return to normal? How would you do it? With the police, like at Bastion Point in 1978?
That's completely nuts, unless you want to spark enormous, uncontrollable, race-based social upheaval.
Whether you think they're right or wrong, the protesters are not going away until the issue is settled. So negotiation is essential. The Government could stay out of it but that hasn't worked and shouldn't work. The State has a role in the history of this conflict, right from the original confiscation of the land in the 1860s.
Besides, if the issue is money, what is the actual problem? The entire Treaty settlements process has, to date, cost less than $2.5 billion: about the same as two months of National Superannuation. At Ihumātao, just a few tens of millions are at stake: essentially, it's money to pay off Fletchers and to help establish the land to the benefit of mana whenua.
There's scope to expand the iwi village, develop the land for horticulture, create a cultural centre and make it a visitor attraction. Ihumātao is the site of one of the earliest arrivals; it has remarkable geological formations and significant archaeological remains from both Māori and Pākehā settlement. And it has an astonishing, bleak, soulful beauty. Also, it's right by the airport, which gives it solid tourism potential.
Eventually, mana whenua will decide how it should be used, but with support from Crown and council, it could become a place where great things happen. Just as is happening today at Bastion Point, with housing, healthcare, a major plant nursery, a big cultural programme and so much more, on and around the Ngāti Whātua marae.
To say no to this is just racism. That's all it is.
It's bad enough that it flourishes among some retired people in Nelson: people who are completely unaffected by the conflict and have absolutely nothing to lose from a lasting settlement. It's far worse when that racism is not called out by the politicians they respect, and so, in effect, is condoned by those politicians.
Why are we so stuck on this? It's a foundational issue for this country and it really shouldn't be so hard to sort out.
AND WHAT about the extraordinary world of economics, where two astonishing things happened this year? First, governments put themselves colossally in debt. To themselves.
And second, many of those same governments stepped up to lead in a time of national emergency.
Does this mean neoliberalism is now dead? The theory of political economy that says governments should balance their books, cut taxes, cut services and above all get out of the way of private enterprise, has run rampant through the world for the past 40 years. A business has "no social responsibility beyond making a profit", said the economist Milton Friedman, and boy did the titans of business take that to heart.
But then along came a pandemic and what did neoliberalism turn out to be? Useless.
In fact, worse than useless. Failure to cope well with Covid, both economically and in terms of human misery, correlated closely to state failure. Where the public health infrastructure and/or political leadership were missing, the disease ran riot.
Neoliberalism should have been dead even before this: the moral bankruptcy exposed by the Iraq War and the global financial crisis (GFC) should have seen to that.
But if there's one thing capitalism is good at, it's adaptation. Millions of lives were ruined by the GFC, but the banks bounced back, so did the sharemarket and so did property.
We know from the GFC that a society in thrall to the profiteering of capitalism will fail its citizens, over and over. This is not a failure of personal ethics or political leadership, although both can make everything worse, nor is it a quirk of circumstance. It's baked into the system.
And now we confront the same problem, again. Neoliberalism doesn't work but the Government doesn't seem to know what to do about it. It's not about ending capitalism, but it is about choosing a better way to make it work.
Because, despite 40 years of neoliberals telling us history has ended and there is no alternative, that's not true. There is a better way.
Post-Covid, it involves the creation of a new, high-wage, low-carbon economy, with Government support for the companies and industries that will lead the way, as South Korea did with Samsung and Hyundai. In our case, hi-tech sustainable agriculture is high on the list.
It also involves a fairer tax system, higher welfare payments and a welfare system that seeks to help and not punish those who need it.
But the PM has ruled out tax reform aimed at the wealthy, which is necessary to fund so much of the rest. And, the old problem, plans for everything are moving so very slowly.
Will we see it? Or will the underlying bedrock of neoliberalism remain in place?
THE WORLD has changed. We're into the third decade of the 21st century and if it wasn't clear from 9/11 and the GFC, it surely is now: this is the Century of Crisis.
We've learned from Covid that in a crisis, two instincts arise. One is to build back better: to treat the crisis, which has undone so many economic and social norms, as an opportunity remake them into something more fit to help us face the future.
The other is to insist we need the security of what we used to have. To say, "Now is not the time to be thinking of change."
It's not clear which instinct will prevail in New Zealand, but the voices clamouring for the latter are loud.
And although the PM seeks consensus on change, the fact is it isn't always possible. Social movements are always opposed; progress is always hard-won.
We've just had Labour Day, commemorating the efforts of carpenters in Petone in 1840 to force a 40-hour working week on reluctant bosses. They won because they organised themselves to do it. The welfare state, Māori land rights, LGBTI rights, all were won through political struggle. In this century, beating children was banned and abortion was decriminalised despite the angriest opposition.
But we forget that. We're asked to think consensus is essential before we change, while our political structures bind us to what already exists, rarely helping us embrace the new.
Some of the challenges coming now are enormous; others, in comparison, much less so. But the problem with most of them is the same: we're not coping.
The Century of Crisis. The first thing you discover in a crisis is: you're not ready. Then you discover pain, loss, fear, despair. Then you realise you're not alone. And with that, it becomes possible to hope.
I do believe that. Because while I'm afraid, I'm also hopeful. Democracy can be strengthened. Leadership can be courageous. The best can rise. You see, still the optimist.
That's part 2 of this, coming soon: how to hope.