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Right-Wing Populism May Be Wounded, But It’s Certainly Not Dead

With Trump’s defeat and other setbacks for the Right around the world, some commentators have proclaimed the death of right-populism. But the structural factors that gave rise to it remain in place, and only a recharged left-wing movement can address them.

France's far-right party Front National (FN) president, Marine Le Pen, and former adviser in the Donald Trump administration, Steve Bannon, give a joint press conference during the Front National annual congress on March 10, 2018 at the Grand Palais in Lille, north of France. (Sylvain Lefevre / Getty Images)

Donald Trump has been defeated, and for all his wallowing in a state of denial, will soon have to leave the White House. But does the Trump defeat really signify the end of Trumpism and its global counterparts?

The rise of a new nationalist right, represented by figures such as Trump, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Italy’s Matteo Salvini, and France’s Marine Le Pen, was the most significant political trend of the 2010s. Using a toxic reactionary discourse that combined national chauvinism, enmity towards migrants and minorities, and denunciation of intellectuals and experts as traitors to the people, these figures achieved impressive electoral successes, with many conquering the heights of state power or coming close to it.

Now that Trump is on the way out, the big question is whether this upsurge of the far right proves to be just a flash in the pan or a persistent trend.

A Paper Tiger?

Aurelien Mondon’s and Aaron Winter’s Reactionary Democracy gives one the impression that after Trump’s defeat, this trend is likely to subside. Mondon and Winter argue that “far-right support has been exaggerated” and “certainly does not justify the disproportionate coverage and treatment these parties have received, and the way their ideas have been mainstreamed by opportunist politicians.”

They counter arguments that have been popularized by writers such as David Goodhart, Eric Kaufman, Matthew Goodwin and Roger Eatwell, according to whom the success of the neo-nationalist far right stem from deep-seated structural problems and popular concerns about migration and globalization. The authors insist that these sentiments are by and large the product of media coverage.

The very liberal establishment against which the far right ostensibly struggles has favored its rise. Centrists have validated many of the racist views introduced by the far right, while the news media has granted inordinate coverage to far-right bravados, helping shape a bogus image of such forces as the only alternative to the neoliberal system.

Mondon and Winter highlight the mendacity of the nationalist right’s claim to offer such an alternative, and the cosy relationship it actually enjoys with the establishment. Many far-right leaders have received generous financial support from the capitalist class, even as their rhetoric branded that class as part of the hated “globalists.”

In the case of Trump, the alliance with the establishment has been even more blatant, with a capitalist directly entering the field while presenting himself as a champion of workers. One could even describe the Trumpian right as the emergency boat that the capitalist class prepared for itself in case the yacht of neoliberalism foundered, necessitating a more authoritarian turn to ensure a “business-friendly environment.”

Premature Celebrations

There is a risk of complacency in this view of the far right as simply a product manufactured by the neoliberal establishment and the corporate media. It could lead us to assume that after Trump’s demise and its symbolic defeat, it will be consigned sooner or later to the dustbin of history.

Since the US presidential elections, many liberals and left-wingers alike have been celebrating what they see as the end of the global nationalist right, reinforced in the British context by the recent sacking of Dominic Cummings — mastermind of the pro-Brexit Leave campaign — from his position as chief adviser to Boris Johnson. But such celebrations are premature. Trumpism is here to stay, even after Trump’s departure.

The tenacity of this political current derives not only from the evident support it enjoys among large sections of the establishment. Far-right discourse also provides an effective reactionary response to fears of decline harbored by many blue-collar workers who have seen their living conditions undercut by neoliberal globalization.

The return of neoliberal centrism with perhaps a few social-democratic promises for seasoning — as in the campaign platform of Joe Biden — will not see off Trumpian politics in the long run. It will require a structural transformation to address the imbalances and social traumas upon which Trump and his counterparts have fed.

Margins of Victory

Controversially, Mondon and Winter argue that the increase in electoral support for far-right parties has been more limited than previous writing on the subject would suggest. They insist that far-right forces have never enjoyed majority support, and that their electoral advances relied upon mass abstention.

It is true that working-class voters have been more likely to abstain altogether than to support the nationalist right. However, we can’t necessarily assume that people who abstain would be less likely to support far-right candidates if they did cast a vote than those who take part in elections. The turnout in the US presidential election this year was the highest for more than a century, but Trump’s vote share actually went up slightly, and he added more than ten million votes to his 2016 total.

On the other hand, the authors are right to note how the far right has taken advantage of the weakness and fragmentation of its adversaries. An early example was the participation of Jean-Marie le Pen in the second round of the 2002 French presidential election, having won 16.8 percent of the vote in the first, only to be crushed by the incumbent Jacques Chirac.

As the tiny margins of victory for the Brexit referendum and Trump’s 2016 campaign show, the far right has been very effective at exploiting both the weakness of its opponents and the tiny margins of opportunity that history has thus far offered it. This is something that the left should learn from.

Going Mainstream

For Mondon and Winter, the key ingredient in the success of the far right has been the support lent to it by mainstream political parties and media outlets. They highlight the issue of migration: opinion surveys show that it usually ranks low among the concerns that respondents have experienced personally, while at the same time ranking high when they are asked to identify the main threats facing the country as a whole.

Sensationalist reporting of migration has strongly conditioned public opinion, presenting migrants as a dangerous and criminal element — even a civilizational threat. The entry of far-right views into the mainstream was only possible because the media broadened the range of opinions considered acceptable, normalizing xenophobia.

This “mainstreaming” also draws support from a panoply of online “alternative” media outlets such as Quillette, the online magazine founded by Australian journalist Claire Lehman, or the libertarian site Spiked, staffed by former members of the Revolutionary Communist Party, a bizarre sect that has mutated into a right-wing network. The book argues that platforms such as these, often funded by wealthy donors like the Koch brothers, have helped normalize racism.

This channel of influence has even infected some sections of the left, convincing them that the only way to stop the working class from turning to right-wing parties is to adopt social conservativism. The authors also identify works by academics, such as Eric Kaufmann’s Whiteshift or Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin’s National Populism, that have ultimately served to grant the nationalist right a veneer of credibility.

They reject the description of the new far right as a “populist” force, arguing that such labels end up legitimizing far-right views as the authentic voice of the people:

The misuse of the category of populism and the hype of the threat it represents — as the only alternative to the establishment, as wholly unacceptable — has allowed the systemic failures of liberalism to go unremarked within public discourse, impeding the emergence of real alternatives.

It is true that the promiscuous deployment of the term “populist” — as a label for the nationalist right of Trump, Salvini and Bolsonaro on the one hand, and the socialist left of Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders and Pablo Iglesias on the other — has given rise to serious misunderstandings. Figures such as Tony Blair’s intellectual protégé Yascha Mounk have also used it to present left-wing forces as the mirror image of the far right.

However, the popularity of this category also reflects something real: there was a certain parallel between the electoral strategies of the nationalist right and the socialist left, both of which sought to gain support from the popular classes, who were increasingly fed up with the parties of the neoliberal center. Ultimately, the far right achieved such spectacular successes precisely because it was able to make a deeply toxic platform, formerly acceptable only to the retrograde sections of the petty bourgeoisie, attractive to sections of the working class who had previously been loyal to the social-democratic left.

Reformulating Racism

The most important contribution of Reactionary Democracy is its reconstruction of the contemporary far right’s intellectual roots in different Western countries. The case of the French Nouvelle Droite, spearheaded by philosopher Alain De Benoist, is particularly important. It encapsulated the struggle of the far right to penetrate the so-called “cordon sanitaire” of the post-war decades, which had ensured that people and parties with explicitly fascist views were excluded from the public sphere.

De Benoist was a key intellectual inspiration for the transformation of the Front National through a strategy of dediabolisation, shedding its traditional image. As Mondon and Winter explain, De Benoist reformulated racism. Instead of presenting racist views in terms of biological supremacy, he claimed to be concerned about the protection of cultural diversity and unique national histories.

Moving from “traditional” to “illiberal racism,” the new right has tried to make xenophobic opinions palatable in societies that are already de facto multicultural, where overt declarations of allegiance to fascism and old-style racism would fall flat. Today’s far-right leaders, from the French party that now calls itself the Rassemblement National, to Britain’s UKIP and the Lega in Italy, flatly deny being racist. They claim to be engaged in a fight to defend the national community against the onslaught of globalization and cultural uniformity. They hijack the liberal discourse of tolerance, openness and free speech, bending it towards reactionary ends.

This new illiberal racism goes hand in hand with strong feelings of victimhood. Far-right leaders often present themselves as the only ones who are brave enough to stand against the status quo, which for them is represented by so-called “PC culture” and “cultural Marxism.” They claim that censorship dominates the public sphere, stifling all expressions of opinion that don’t comply with this agenda. For example, the leader of Spain’s far-right Vox party, Santiago Abascal, has alleged that a “progressive dictatorship” (dictatura progre) holds sway over his country.

Mondon and Winter put forward an ideological analysis that helps explain how the far right could claim to be championing the grievances of workers while at the same time defending the interests of the wealthy. The amicable relationship of far-right parties and politicians with large sections of the media has enabled them to perform this trick, even though they brand those media outlets that are hostile to them as “fake news.”

However, a focus on such “superstructural” elements risks losing sight of the deep-rooted structural factors behind the rise of the far right. These forces have had considerable success in reshaping the entire political map, and we cannot attribute this solely to realignments within the capitalist class. We also have to look at the appeal of far-right discourse to workers.

A Right-wing Social Bloc

Mondon and Winter argue that there has been too much stress on working-class support for the far right. While they concede that Trump “did appeal to poorer voters in larger numbers than Mitt Romney or John McCain,” they insist that his 2016 election victory should not be seen as a “working-class breakthrough,” since Hillary Clinton won a slightly higher share of the vote from categories associated with the working class. They also note that the working-class vote accruing to the far right seems less impressive when we take account of the high abstention rates among manual workers.

Yet the existence of a working-class constituency for the nationalist right has still been very significant, even if that constituency is not as large as some would make out, because we are talking about a section of the electorate that did not traditionally support right-wing parties. Any marginal increase in the size of this constituency will be a major achievement for the right, undercutting the support base for left parties.

By increasing their support among blue-collar workers, right-wing nationalists have assembled a formidable social bloc, which groups together segments of the upper class and the petty bourgeoisie with a part of the traditional working class. Racist and xenophobic appeals have played a key part in cementing this bloc, at least temporarily. Anti-immigration discourse exploits migration as the symptom of a broader systemic failure of the global order, scapegoating immigrants for the social ills created by neoliberal globalization and deflecting blame away from the wealthy.

The propaganda of the far right blames migrants for the malfunctioning of public services and downward pressure on wages. It depicts them as the fifth column of a New World Order that is conspiring against democracy and the livelihoods of ordinary people. Migration can thus no longer be seen as a “single-issue” question. It has become an issue of issues, a lens through which far-right spokesmen can recast all the problems that stem from neoliberalism and absorb them into a reactionary narrative.

The Next Stage

The success of this narrative also reveals a major failure on the part of the left, something that Mondon and Winter overlook, and which I believe to be of crucial importance. The rise of the racist right underlines the incapacity of left-wing forces to respond to the concerns of industrial workers — the very people that socialists formerly saw as the ideal subject of their movement.

These workers, who are now disproportionately located in exurban and non-urban areas, have found themselves sharply exposed to international competition, which has become ever fiercer in recent years, as evinced by the trade war between the US and China. Workers and the communities in which they live are particularly sensitive to fluctuations in global demand and supply chains, and the changing fortunes of export sectors.

As Thomas Piketty has argued, these workers no longer support the left because they feel as if they have been left unprotected, and because they identify left parties with the urban middle classes and neoliberal elites. If the left is not capable of appealing to manufacturing workers and their communities, other forms of collective identity will end up filling the void. By the same token, if the left does not cast the wealthy as the Great Villain, the far right will nominate other figures for that role.

The far-right wave discussed in Reactionary Democracy is now experiencing a moment of crisis, with Trump on his way out and some of his allies also in trouble, partly because of their clumsy responses to the pandemic. But sooner or later such tendencies will reemerge. The neoliberal policies of the coming Biden administration are likely to reinforce the social discontents from which the far right has drawn strength.

To counter this, the left must develop a platform and a language that can break up the unnatural right-wing social bloc. An important part of this will be laying claim to the populist mantle, wresting it from the right, and turning populist sentiments towards progressive ends.