Right wing populism: The politics of imagined enemies and personal grievance

A key part of this politics of personal complaint has been the dismissal, especially by the current occupant of the White House, of news outlets that criticize him or point out his lies as ‘fake news’.


The radicalization of the political right over the past five years is depressingly obvious, with politicians and parties in the most powerful English speaking countries, the United States and the U.K., moving away from traditional dog whistle conservatism, bad as it was, towards extreme nationalism, public displays of bigotry and the scapegoating of an amorphous ‘left’.

Although they bring their own uniquely buffoonish styles to the project, in many ways Donald Trump and Boris ‘Bojo’ Johnson have followed in the footsteps of authoritarian leaders like Narendra Modi in India, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Vladimir Putin in Russia and a host of others in central and eastern Europe best exemplified by Hungary’s Viktor Orban.

While left populism in the English speaking world has in the past been most focused on the grievances of working people, combining this with the kinds of concrete policies that gave us the 8 hour workday, on the right, the spotlight has most often been on racialized or political fear. A good historical example of this tendency was the ‘anti-Communist’ hysteria led by Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s (it’s interesting that one of the Wisconsin senator’s surrogates, Roy Cohn, was also a kind of mentor to the current U.S. president).

In our own era, this kind of fear based messaging, which the current U.S. president hasn’t shied away from, especially when stoking fears about protesters, immigrants and refugees, has increasingly also become a politics of personal, instead of societal, grievance. Rather than addressing the needs of his supporters (who are much better off financially than is usually reported), the president of the world’s most powerful country spends most of his time opining about how “unfairly” he’s treated by the ‘deep state’ and corporate media.

This kind of grievance politics might work so well with Trump’s overwhelmingly male, upper middle class base because so many of them seem to feel that they’ve been cheated of their rightful place at the pinnacle of the capitalist hierarchy, not by a corrupted system that all but guarantees the reproduction of wealth at the top and crumbs for everyone else, but by ‘feminists’, ‘Marxists’ and marginalized groups brave enough to demand equal treatment and opportunity.

A key part of this politics of personal complaint has been the dismissal, especially by the current occupant of the White House, of news outlets that criticize him or point out his lies as ‘fake news’.

The battle over perceived ‘leftist’ media bias is more intense in the United States than in the U.K. because in the latter country right wing tabloids rule the roost, but in terms of television, Boris Johnson’s Conservatives have boycotted a number of programs for asking tough questions about their handling of the ongoing health crisis and the growing possibility of a ‘No Deal’ Brexit from the European Union.

At the same time, both of these leaders and their parties claim time and again to be committed defenders of the right to ‘free speech’, at least for those who agree with them.

Free speech hypocrisy isn’t only found in the Oval Office but is a routine part of the discourse on the country’s most watched cable news network, Fox News, where anchor Laura Ingraham in late March managed to demonstrate this bias in consecutive segments on the same night.

First, Ingraham cheered an executive order by President Trump calling for funding to be pulled from universities that don’t allow ‘free speech’ (usually by outside conservative provocateurs invited to speak by rightwing student groups). Without displaying any signs of cognitive dissonance, she then turned to using her platform to attack two young women whose speech she didn’t agree with, one a former New Yorker fact checker and another who worked for Teen Vogue, criticizing New York University for giving them adjunct professorships and calling them “liberal techno terrorists”.

Not to be outdone by his American counterpart in terms of attempting to use his government’s control over the purse strings in terms of public education to stifle dissenting views, last month Bojo’s Department of Education, “ordered schools not to use any materials in the curriculum that question the legitimacy of capitalism. Opposition to capitalism was described as an “extreme political stance…”

In September, in one of the strangest attempts by the UK’s tabloid press to drum up sympathy for the Prime Minister, there were reports from unnamed friends that Johnson doesn’t have a housekeeper, is “worried about money” and even wondered if he could afford a nanny on his almost $195,000 annual salary.

Despite his personal knowledge of financial hardship, a majority of his party just voted not to give vouchers to the poorest students in the country for lunches over the Christmas break, ignoring the crisis created by a pandemic that has caused their numbers to swell.

The seeming belief of these so-called populists that they know more than the experts on the basis of their supposedly superior instincts is even more dangerous in the short term with the world still struggling to contain a new and highly contagious virus. Rather than the humility that such a disaster requires; starting with a willingness to listen to the experts and communicate their guidance to the public, the leader of the United States more than any other besides Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro (who often seems to imitate him), dismisses these voices whenever it suits him or finds other, less qualified people who will tell him, and by association the general public, what he wants to hear. Just this week his administration declared the pandemic over while the country reaches new milestones in terms of case numbers.

Although leaders like those in the United States and the U.K. offer it in a more exaggerated and often personalized form, the dismissal of such expert knowledge has been growing on the right since at least the 1980s, and has infected the thinking of many who would describe themselves as centrists.

As Jan Werner-Müller of Princeton University explained it to the Guardian in March, “Distrust of professionalism does not come out of nowhere. Neoliberalism paved the way for these attitudes. Margaret Thatcher memorably held that academics didn’t really do any work; in fact, they all – with the possible exception of scientists – seemed to be lefties wasting taxpayers’ money.”

As the pandemic has unfolded, one thing has remained constant: the world’s billionaires have for the most part become much wealthier while many of those just getting by have slipped further into poverty and hopelessness. Still, while this ever worsening social condition has been an ordinary part of life for working people in most countries after decades of austerity, the particular faults of right wing populists, especially their overwhelming self-centeredness, has led to catastrophe.

Former Vice President Joe Biden made a pertinent point about the income inequality that’s so often hailed by the heirs of vast fortunes like the current American president as ‘meritocracy’ during the final presidential debate last week, saying, “Look, the idea that the stock market is booming is his only measure of what’s happening. Where I come from in Scranton and Claymont, the people don’t live off of the stock market. Just in the last three years, during this crisis, the billionaires in this country made, according to Wall Street, 700 billion more dollars. 700 billion more dollars. Because that’s his only measure. What happens to the ordinary people out there? What happens to them?”

It’s a question the progressive left on both sides of the Atlantic has been asking for years.


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