Is right-wing populism fading?

The star seems to be dimming on the ultra-egotists who managed to win over millions of voters with their status quo-busting discourse that liberal democracy had run its course, but the light is by no means out.

2016 was a defining year in transatlantic politics. The twin movements – Brexit and Trump – promised disruption. They vowed to topple the system, cast the political elites in Brussels and Washington DC aside, ‘drain the swamp’ in Trump’s memorable phrase.  

Post 2016 has been marked by disruption, on both sides of the Atlantic, but not in the way it was sold. Brexit-era Conservativism has been defined by drama and chaos on par with a soap opera. Failure to ‘get Brexit done’ – though what ‘getting Brexit done’ actually entailed was always ambiguous – by four successive prime ministers has resulted in popularity for Brexit plummeting, even among Leave voters

The Brexit vote was marked by the rise of populism centred on the aim to reclaim national sovereignty from international institutions and gain control of immigration. The UK’s Euroscepticism paralleled the anti-trade and anti-immigration sentiment in the United States. In both countries this sentiment is driven, as Edward Alden, author of Failure to Adjust: How Americans Fell Behind in Global Economic Competition, says, by “individuals who feel like they have been on the losing end of globalisation.”

The ‘death of the centre right’ and ‘one-nation’ Toryism 

Amid hostility towards immigration and renewed energy on the ideological right both sides of the Atlantic, traditional Conservatism has been fading. Jeremy Cliffe of the New Statesman describes  the ‘strange death of the centre right.’ The conventional conservative tradition of the centre right, which dominated the political landscape in Europe in the early 2010s, with David Cameron as Britain’s prime minister, Angela Merkel as the German chancellor, Nicolas Sarkozy in France, and Poland’s Donald Tusk, was side-lined by a harder right. In Britain, the Brexiteers, which were once on the fringes of the Tory party, gained greater prominence and influence amid a widespread rightwards drift.Alongside the demise of the centre right, has been the fading of ‘one-nation’ Conservatism and the rise of a two-nation country. Based on conservative, paternalist and nationalist principles, the ‘one-nation’ term was coined in 1837 when Benjamin Disraeli declared that the Tory party, unless it is a national party, is nothing. In his book, Sybil, or The Two Nations, Disraeli suggested that the rich and poor were two nations sharing the same country. They were  “as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets.”

Sounds uncannily familiar to today’s political landscape, despite recent Tory prime ministers – Cameron, May and Johnson – having described themselves as ‘one-nation’ Conservatives.

The recent deselection of Damian Green lays bare the brutal death of one-nation Toryism. Despite having served in the House of Commons since 1997, the Conservative MP, was rejected this week as the party’s candidate for the newly created Weald of Kent constituency.

Speculation is rife that grassroot campaigners are targeting those seen responsible for Boris Johnson’s demise and that the veteran Tory MP’s deselection is linked to the pro-Boris Johnson Conservative Democratic Organisation (CDO). The group however denies Green’s deselection was linked to the issue.

Nonetheless, the deselection of the softly spoken Green, who was, in 2008, described as a ‘one-nation Tory who became known as one of Westminster’s top sleuths’, suggests a purge of ‘moderate’ Tory MPs has began, enabled by the new constituency boundaries and driven by the CDO.The swing to the right and the death of the one-nation model reached its pinnacle with the arrival of Liz Truss, a ‘puppet’ for the Tory right to impose their Thatcherite policies. But of course, ironically the markets didn’t like this huge leap to the right. Following the departure of Truss and her disastrous economy-wrecking 45-day reign, and the arrival of yet another unelected PM, the Economist’s Britaly’ frontpage said it all – a ‘country of political instability, low growth and subordination to bond markets.’

Trump-era Republicanism proved equally turbulent. From ‘American carnage’ to impeachment and the devaluing of a lethal pandemic to wallowing in denial, Trump’s chaotic presidency was defined by tweets, insults, and controversies.

With Brexit failing and unpopular, with most voters now thinking our departure from the EU was a mistake, both Boris Johnson and Donald Trump out the way, and the Democrats performing better than expected in the mid-term elections in the US, the tides are beginning to turn on the right-wing populism that has consumed politics in recent years.

As Tom Nichols wrote in The Atlantic: “It’s been a tough few years for democracy, but populist leaders – as they almost inevitably do – are now reminding voters that they never have very much to offer beyond angry slogans, mistrust, and paranoia.”

A string of election results from around the world has brought good news. Almost a year ago, Marine Le Pen was soundly defeated by Emmanuel Macron. The result brought relief to allies in both Europe and Washington, wary of the right-far challenger. In October, the left rejoiced in Brazil when left-wing candidate Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva obtained a narrow victory against the incumbent far-right leader, Jair Bolsonaro.

The outcome of the recent Czech elections was described as a ‘blow to populism.’ In January, Petr Pavel, a retired general and former senior NATO commander, secured a landslide victory in the Czech presidency over the billionaire populist former prime minister Andrej Babiš. Like Trump, Johnson, and most populists, Babiš was a chaotic, ineffectual leader. His response to the Covid-19 pandemic was hectic and saw him lose support among voters, as his grip on power slipped.

As Nichols wrote, the Czech election is “one more reminder that when voters decide in favour of freedom and decency, and then actually show up at the polls, democracy wins.’

Not all good news

Sadly, it isn’t all good news. The bad news is that Viktor Orbán got re-elected as the Hungarian prime minister. In April 2022, the right-winger and Putin ally won his fourth consecutive term.  Concerned about the functioning of its electoral system and judicial independence, the European Parliament has warned that Hungary has become an ‘electoral autocracy’ and ‘no longer a democracy.’  

More recently, Italy also went the wrong way. In September, right-wing leader Giorgia Meloni claimed victory in the election and formed a coalition with Silvio Berlusconi and Mattero Salvini, the populist leader of the Lega, known for stoking anti-immigration panic. Last week, Meloni’s right-wing coalition won a landslide victory in regional elections, strengthening the right’s grip on power.

It was similar story in Serbia, where Aleksandar Vucic, a former ultranationalist who has boasted of his close ties with Putin, claimed a landslide election win last April.

The Russian war and a revived defence of liberty  

While victories for right-wing populist leaders in parts of Europe may have scotched the hope that the war in Ukraine would obliterate the age of populism and mark a new liberal period, the triumphs are isolated. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many a right-wing populist has been trying to wash their hands of their Russian connections in the hope they won’t lose support.

Boris Johnson for one, who insisted that the “UK and our allies will respond decisively” to Russia’s attack on Ukraine, spent years standing by as Putin sought to destabilise the West. Rather than proactively challenging the Russian threat, Johnson, Theresa May and David Cameron all welcomed the flow of Russian money into Britain.

As Russian troops advanced on Ukraine, the UK government came under pressure to show the world that ‘Londongrad’ was no longer a convenient place for Russian oligarchs to launder their fortunes, such as the $630,225 donation to the Tory party that was tracked to a Russian bank account and was part of a fund-raising blitz that helped secure Johnson’s landslide election in 2019.

Nigel Farage, who said in 2014 that he has more respect for Putin than the ‘kids’ who run Britain, has denied he had any links to Russia. The former UKIP leader also denied allegations he was paid more than half a million pounds by the Russian state.

In confounding Putin through support for Ukraine, Putin’s war has, as Andrew Rawnsley of the Observer writes, ‘reinvigorated the west’s defence of liberty.’ Favourable opinions of Russia and Putin have declined sharply among populists in Europe since the invasion of Ukraine, as analysis from Pew Research Centre shows. The war may have wounded the populists who grapple to downplay their links to Vladimir Putin, but right-wing victories in Hungary, Italy and Serbia, show the right isn’t losing everywhere, and support for these populists lives on.  

Rishi Sunak

But where does our current prime minister Rishi Sunak fit into the equation, the man painted by the right as a ‘socialist’ and by the left as a ‘Davos man?’

He might not possess the same wildly irresponsible populism of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, but his profound wealth and right-wing views means Sunak is far from representative. He might sell himself as a pragmatist who promises to stamp out sleaze and steady the ship after months of chaos, but Sunak’s aim to placate the right-wing populist tribes within the Tory party, shows just how embedded the movement is in Britain.

Take the appointment of Suella Braverman. The unashamedly pro-Brexit, anti-woke and right-wing home secretary possesses the hard-line positions on crime and immigration the right craves. Sunak knows it, hence why she was appointed as home secretary despite having controversially resigned from the same job just days earlier under Liz Truss. 

Then there was the promotion of outspoken right-wing MP Lee Anderson to deputy party chairman as part of Sunak’s recent cabinet reshuffle – a move likely to be part of Sunak’s aim to extend the Tories’ appeal to working-class voters in northern England and the Midlands. The only trouble is that even ‘working-class’ people in his constituency of Ashfield aren’t buying into his far-right views on capital punishment and immigration. As one constituent said: “He’s a bit of a prat.”

In this sense, the prime minister’s attempt to defend his squeaky clean ‘Sunak the sensible’ image while placating the right of the party with the promotion of pugnacious darlings of the right, could prove counter-productive on election day, as voters no longer buy into the right-wing populist movement.

Party disunity 

From bickering Republicans in the wake of the fall of Donald Trump, to squabbling Tories following Johnson’s demise, if right-wing populism has achieved anything, it’s party disunity. Sunak is desperately trying to preserve the veneer of party unity, to the detriment of tackling the issues really facing the country. As such, we have a string of right-wing ministers and pathetically weak policies taking centre stage, such as teenagers being forced to continue to study maths. 

It could be argued that this is the result of the right-wing populist movement that has engulfed politics both sides of the Atlantic and much of the world since the fateful 2016. Brexit and Trump were its exemplars and they both achieved incredible disruption. They might have worked as exciting slogans for those craving change from the status-quo of the establishment, but they could never transform into governing competence and order. 

David Gauke, who served in the cabinet under Theresa May, gave a chilling forecast of what might come next – especially disturbing when you consider it was written by an ex Tory minister – that, as the Tory party leans heavily to the right, Sunak might come to resemble an aberration, as the populist right reasserts itself within the party.

With the underlying factors that gave rise to right-wing populism, such as enmity towards migrants and minorities, still in place, warnings have been made that claims of the death of far-right populism are exaggerated and that complacency could be dangerous. Voicing such concerns is Paolo Gerbaudo, a sociologist at King’s College London. Writing for Jacobin, Gerbaudo argues that celebrating Trump’s demise as the death of right-wing populism is premature and risks complacency. For Gerbaudo, only a recharged left-wing movement can break up the unnatural right-wing social bloc.

Right-wing populism might have faded in the wake of the Ukraine war, the disaster that is Brexit, the chaotic legacies of Trump and Johnson, but it’s far from over, and progressives can’t afford to be caught off-guard. 

Right-Wing Media Watch – Right-wing media’s phoney war against the ‘liberal elite’

Why do Republicans and their media allies tout the word ‘elite’ like it’s some sort of crime? They do so to make the case that the snotty establishment ‘elite’ look down on everyday people. Within this milieu, they manage to convince millions of people that the likes of Ron DeSantis, Florida’s far-right governor, are just ordinary folk who care deeply for the issues that matter to everyday people.

A glaring example of the hypocrisy of the American right in their derision of so-called ‘elitism,’ can be found in the Dominion Voting Systems’ defamation lawsuit. The lawsuit has laid out extensive evidence that Fox News’ hosts and executives understood that “stolen election” claims touted by Donald Trump and his team were baseless and false and they had privately derided them.

In short, Murdoch’s Fox News knowingly spread lies about the last Presidential election – not because they believed it, but because they were afraid of losing Trump supporters to even more right-wing channels. The spreading of misinformation was a commercial decision.

As Tom Nichols notes in an article on the defamation lawsuit against Fox News, Dominion might not win its lawsuit against Fox News, but it has produced something more important – “an admission, by Fox’s on-air personalities, of how much they disrespect and disdain their own viewers.”

Vox’s Sean Illing shared the same thoughts, tweeting that Fox’s business anchor Maria Bartiromo’s “thirsty pursuit of ratings is a reminder that “no one has a lower opinion of conservative voters than conservative media.”

The same Fox News’ model of unhinged populism being driven by a phoney war against the ‘liberal elite’ by the right-wing media can be found in Britain. Unsurprising really when you consider that Murdoch owns around a quarter of UK press.

Euroscepticism and the right-wing media

For many years the right-wing press in Britain has nurtured Euroscepticism. Since the EU referendum, such discourse has become explicitly populist, putting ‘the people’ against their perceived enemies. Titles like the Sun and the Daily Mail remain intent on portraying the UK as a victim of Brussels’ elite. “If you believe in Britain, vote leave,” urged the Mail, while lambasting the “lies” and “greedy elites” of a “broken, dying Europe” on its frontpage.

Like Fox News’ reporting of Trump’s rigged election claims, much of the populist, elite-bashing tripe that gets printed in these titles is wildly exaggerated and often fake. The Mail for example, was forced to run a correction on a frontpage story which claimed a group of migrants were from Europe, when they were actually from Iraq and Kuwait. The Sun, predictably, published the same story.

More recently, the Express and the Mail were caught out reporting fake asylum seeker hotel costs, no doubt to fan the flames of hatred towards immigrants.

The editors of these newspapers argue that they are simply reflecting the fears of the British electorate, fears that are largely ignored by ‘establishment’ politicians.

When asked whether the Mail, in years of reporting about the ‘hordes’ of immigrants entering ‘chocker-full’ Britain, had stoked fears, Martin Clarke, the editor of the Mail Online in 2016, said: “We’ve reported people’s very legitimate fears over immigration. We don’t stoke the fears. The fears are there.”

Where did we first hear such arguments, that the ‘liberal elite’ are out of touch with real people? Oh yes, it was from Nigel Farage as UKIP leader.

Then there’s the right-wing media’s reportage of Rishi Sunak. Sitting on a family fortune of about £730m and with a life of privilege unattainable by ordinary people, Sunak is about as far removed from the average voter than is possible to be. And the likes of the Sun and the Times have not exactly been kind to Sunak, especially in the wake of the tax rises announced in the Autumn Budget.

The same media loved, and still does, Boris Johnson and his brand of populism that was based on divisions of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ the key marker of populist theory which focuses on the struggles of ordinary people against the dominant elite.

The irony is of course that Johnson is the ultimate elite – Eton-educated and with a net worth believed to be around £1.67m.

The only hope in this sorry tale of the murky hypocrisy of the populist-obsessed right-wing media, is that the media editors and execs might know exactly what they are doing, but they don’t always get what they want.

Despite pandering to the right-wing anxieties about things like immigration, and fraudulently crying election ‘fraud’, firebrand right-wing populist Trump is losing support among Republicans, and Boris Johnson fell spectacularly, despite having support of the right-wing press.

Woke bashing of the week – Telegraph furies over ‘woke capitalism’, urging Tories to follow Ron DeSantis’s lead

Talk about the UK Conservative media sounding every inch like the culture warriors Fox News. On February 11, author Matthew Goodwin, who tends to devote his ink-time to anti-woke rants and populist trends, wrote about an apparent ‘creeping new trend’ in an article entitled: ‘There’s no public support for the woke takeover of British business.’

The creeping trend the author laboriously fills a page in the Telegraph with is so-called ‘woke capitalism.’ Yes, woke capitalism, is, apparently, the tendency of the likes of banks to lecture customers about gender pronouns, companies campaigning against the policies of an elected government, and supermarkets telling customers to shop elsewhere if they don’t hold specific views.

Further into the nonsensical piece, the author points to his own research for – surprise, surprise – Policy Exchange. Yes, the right-wing think-tank bothered to commission a poll asking people their views on these ‘woke capitalism’ issues. Unsurprisingly, the research uncovered that the public were not resoundingly overjoyed about companies entering the so-called culture war debate and, apparently, promoting political agendas.

Goodwin is especially irritated at Sainsbury’s support of Black History Month. He attempts to link the company to some kind of ‘woke’ hypocrisy given that a former Sainsbury’s CEO had been associated with the Invicta tax avoidance scheme.

Sainsbury’s acceleration towards becoming an inclusive retailer where people love to work and shop is surely something to praise the company for, not reprimand it. And it has little to with a former CEO being tied up in a tax scandal. Trying to equate the two as proof of so-called hypocritical ‘woke capitalism’ shows sheer desperation from the author.

And it gets worse. In the final paragraph, the author claims that some conservative politicians have grasped the fact that the public don’t want the corporate sphere to impose their political beliefs. And guess who Goodwin uses as an example – Ron DeSantis in Florida.

Yes, the ‘successful’ actions of the righter than right, anti-woke warrior should be used as a lesson for UK politicians, shouts Goodwin.

The piece points to a dark image that some of our media is becoming increasingly ‘Fox Newsified’ with commentators even using the likes of Ron DeSantis in the US as ‘proof’ that wokeism should be fought till the end in Britain.

The star might be dimming on the culture warrior ultra-egotists who managed to win over millions of voters with their status quo-busting discourse that liberal democracy had run its course, but, with their media cronies by their side, the light is by no means out.

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is author of Right-Wing Watch

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