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The New Mainstream

Steve Bannon’s organizing model relied on an army of street brawlers and online cranks. The success of Le Pen and Farage in the European election shows something different: the far right is going mainstream.

Italy's Deputy Prime Minister and leader of right-wing Lega political party Matteo Salvini attends a news conference following the European Parliamentary election results at Lega's headquarter on May 27, 2019 in Milan, Italy. Emanuele Cremaschi / Getty

The problem with trying to fathom the European election results is that the continent is so vast and varied that there are multiple counterpoints to any apparent trend. Take one of the most common readings, holding that this weekend’s vote saw the long-threatened triumph of the far right. Doubtless this was a good night for nationalists: Italy’s Lega and the Brexit Party in the UK are two of the three parties who will be sending most members to the new parliament in Brussels, while Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN, ex-Front National) came first in France. Yet there were also a number of countries in which the far right’s vote stagnated or even fell.

Of those far-right forces who also stood in 2014, around a third saw their vote shrink: the two most striking cases were Jobbik in Hungary (from 15 percent to 6), and Golden Dawn in Greece (from 9 percent to 5). Other losers included Holland’s PVV (partly because of votes transferring within the far right), the Danish People’s Party (with Denmark’s centrist parties boasting of having outbid its anti-immigrant racism), and the Freedom Party in Austria (a 3 percent fall, perhaps less than might have been expected given its recent crisis). Even Le Pen’s vote dipped slightly.

At the same time, several expected breakthroughs did not materialize. While Spain’s Vox had scored over 10 percent in April’s general election, it slumped to 6 percent in the EU contest. There was a similar pattern in Germany, where the Alternative für Deutschland’s (AfD) vote shrank by 2 percent compared to the 2017 federal elections.

Overall, the far right saw its vote increase and consolidate. This was not its moment of triumph; the breakthrough has already happened. And this also has to do with a change in its organizing model. If as recently as three years ago the far right was using street mobilization and online campaigning to circumvent its lack of institutional support in politics or the conventional media, today its more successful parties are joining the mainstream. The Lega, RN, and Farage’s party are becoming increasingly like the establishment they claim to despise.

Polarization

This is not to deny that the far right has succeeded in polarizing the political field around itself. Indeed, in several countries, parties of the center were able to boost their vote precisely by presenting themselves as best placed to challenge an insurgent far right. In Poland, a new European Coalition won 38 percent of the vote, not enough to beat the dominant PiS but enough to run it close. In France, Emmanuel Macron’s zombie coalition La République en Marche could plausibly thank the RN for motivating liberal voters to turn out, however warily, for the president and against Le Pen. Their intention — to stop the RN — was more honorable than the party of privatizers and anti-democrats which benefited from it.

Much the same could be said of Britain, where the Liberal Democrats recovered to win 19 percent of the vote, The party is still widely remembered for its disastrous contribution to the 2010–15 austerity coalition with the Conservatives which was the high point of neoliberal policy-making in the UK. Yet many left-wing and centrist voters clearly calculated that, given that the Brexit Party was most likely to win, a high vote for the strongest anti-Brexit alternative might tarnish its victory. Unfortunately, if British politics is moving into a new cycle in which power will be contested between parties which are unequivocally for or against Brexit, Nigel Farage could have no more welcome antagonist than the Liberal Democrats. Obsequious in the face of the rich and contemptuous for those below, the party is vaguely socially liberal but willing to drop any such principles at the first hint of power.

Boosted by its opposition to Brexit and by dissatisfaction with socialists who have chosen to ally with the center-right, the elections also saw successes for the Greens: whose vote rose to 11 percent in Britain, and in Germany, where their vote was as large as that of the SPD and Die Linke combined. Ecologists also won seats in Finland, France, Ireland, and Portugal.

The liberals and the Greens defend the European Union. But the far right has targeted the EU as the “establishment” which it fights against. In so doing it has employed diverse tactics. In the United States, India, and Brazil, the Right has grown over the last three years through a series of international alliances and, above all, online. It has been able to share speakers, ideas, and funds across borders, with the likes of Donald Trump and Steve Bannon (as well as the governments of Russia and Israel) acting as global patrons even to the most despised white supremacist micro-parties.

In turn, the mainstream right has borrowed ideas from its far-right outliers. It has accepted the arguments that Muslims are a civilizational threat to the West or that immigration means, by definition, the racial subordination of white people.

Looking at the European election results, the fastest growing forces on the far right are those that stand furthest away from classical fascism. Parties like Jobbik and Golden Dawn bear a resemblance with classical fascism: they each own private armies, and have used violence against migrants and their political opponents. And they have also been on the decline for several years; Jobbik, because there are more effective authoritarians in government. Hungarian conservatism has already moved far to the right and the “demand” for open fascists is squeezed. Golden Dawn is also declining, partly because antifascist mobilization was able to force the trial of the party’s leaders, but also because it has been challenged by the center-right New Democracy. This latter party has shifted toward a Trumpian rhetoric in which it promises to “crush” its opponents on the Left, wage war against migrants, and reverse laws allowing gender transition. New Democracy has become what many other countries have had for years: an electoral party flourishing in the wide space between conservatism and fascism.

Outside Europe since 2016, the far right has benefited from the ideological sustenance offered to it by the mainstream right. Something like the same process could be seen in the recent EU elections. In Britain it was the Conservatives who created the conditions for the Brexit Party: first by calling the 2016 referendum on EU membership, then by failing to agree on a form of Brexit which even a majority of Tories would accept, and then in the final stages of the EU election campaign itself, when a series of Tory MPs encouraged public support for Farage’s party and told journalists that their own party would need to negotiate some kind of pact with it.

Organizing the Old Way

Equally, if it is easy to see the far right’s rise in terms of novelty, there are also convergences with older forms of right-wing politics. Unlike the tumultuous events of two years ago, when the successes of the Right were built around international cooperation and online organizing, the forces which have been most successful in the 2019 European elections have been the ones which have depended least on social media support and felt most like old-style parties.

Indeed, despite the acres of coverage in the liberal Guardian, warning of the vast impact the evil genius of Steve Bannon would supposedly have on the European elections, in fact he appears to have had little or no effect. Instead, his organization — “the Movement” — floundered. The one party on the European right to support it unequivocally was the People’s Party in Belgium. It won less than 2 percent of the vote and had no MEPs elected. Bannon himself was reduced to desperately flying from country to country, claiming the credit for other people’s success.

This is apparent even in the country where “the Movement” seeks to base its “international school,” where the Lega is increasingly occupying the space of the mainstream right. Despite its breakthrough in the March 2018 Italian election (rising from 4 to 17 percent), Matteo Salvini’s party could reach office only in alliance with the ideologically fluid Five Star Movement. Yet it has no longer remained at this stage of organization. Since then it has outgrown Five Star and succeeded in raking in voters who previously backed Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, creating local branches for a nationalist conservative party across Italy.

The two organizational models were most directly set in contrast in Britain, where Farage’s Brexit Party had to overcome his previous party, UKIP. Indeed, this latter seemed well-placed from an organizing point of view: it had a well-known name, having reaped millions of votes in the 2014 EU elections and the 2015 general election, and the support of social media personalities such as Tommy Robinson, who had more than a million Facebook followers before his account was shut down, or Carl Benjamin (Sargon of Akkad), the UKIP candidate for South West England with a million followers on YouTube laughing along with his rape jokes. Throughout 2017 and 2018, Robinson and then UKIP leader Gerard Batten took part in some of the largest public protests ever organized by the British far right.

Farage’s gambit was precisely to paint UKIP as beyond the pale, arguing that the party’s alliance with the likes of Robinson showed that it had moved too far to the right and crossed the line into outright extremism. That is, the Brexit Party sought to boast of its own nonracist credentials by distancing itself from a far-right foil. The success of that argument was reflected in the results the two parties ultimately achieved: as well as coming first-placed nationally, Farage’s party won ten times more votes than his former allies in UKIP. Indeed, this latter won no seats in the European Parliament, while Tommy Robinson (standing as an independent in North West England) won just 2 percent and lost his deposit. For a man who has long preferred the street to the Parliament, this venture into electoral politics was a humiliation.

The differences between 2016–7 and today suggest that we are at a different stage of far-right success. Three years ago, the far right was at a vanguard moment: it needed to appeal to new models and new styles of politics in order to present itself as an anti-establishment alternative. A connection with street politicians added to its allure, even where such figures carried more than a hint of fascism. Now, by contrast, the far right has had its breakthrough and is in a period of consolidation. Its gonzo wing has become an embarrassment to its career politicians.

A different generation of intellectuals, rooted in the Left, used to talk of a war of position: not the tactical “war of maneuver,” but a long battle of ideas whose outcome may not be decided for decades. Now the far right is preparing itself for such a battle, distancing itself from its more extremist guise as it seeks to penetrate the conservative mainstream. Antifascists need to equip ourselves similarly: if the far right is to be forced back from the bases it now occupies, this will be the work of many years.