Since at least the Reagan/Thatcher era, the left in the English speaking world has fought a losing battle against a neoliberal economic model that seems immune to changes in government. In response, left leaning parties like Labor in the U.K. and the Democrats in the United States abandoned many of their traditional ties to leftwing organizations and in many cases withdrew their support from organized labor. This allowed them to develop relationships with big business interests previously associated with their conservative opposition but smart enough to realize that supporting both major parties in these countries would be worth the spend.
As it became clear that the West had vanquished not just Soviet ‘communism’ (better defined as state capitalism) but also the socially democratic model that led to massive economic growth and prosperous (mainly white) middle classes in the Anglosphere after the Second World War, the loss of clearly defined enemies also seemed to leave the traditional right rudderless.
With no real political left to fight, socially conservative culture warriors started going back to their reactionary roots, allying with some self described liberals to confront an enemy that couldn’t be defeated: social progress. This led to early battles against so-called ‘political correctness on college campuses.
Unsurprisingly, it was leftist academics, especially feminists, scholars focused on marginalized groups and those pointing out the crimes of Western Imperialism who paid the biggest price during this ginned up panic.
After the tragic events of September 11th, 2001, what seemed at the time like a more realistic threat was identified and for many years after, earlier arguments developed to attack political correctness were expanded to include those they accused of being ‘soft’ on terrorism. This allowed anti-Muslim bias to flourish while conservative ‘intellectuals’ accused those horrified by the vilification of some 1.7 billion people as a kind of fifth column worthy of mainstream contempt if not execution for treason.
Along with this mainstreaming of bigotry in the form of Islamophobia, the election of the first African American president in 2008 was a watershed moment for the far right, including open white supremacists, who had been on the margins in the United States and other majority English speaking countries for decades but found new audiences through obvious dog-whistles thrown around in a rapidly growing rightwing media ecosystem.
At the same time, a younger, more internet savvy mix of true believers and online trolls rediscovered the power of conspiracy theories, often spread very quickly through memes, to radicalize what would come to be called conservative ‘populists’ around the world.
In different ways, some of the rhetoric around Brexit in the UK and Donald Trump’s attacks on immigrants in the United States during his 2016 campaign hinted at the white supremacist ‘Great Replacement Theory’, which posits that immigration from the global south is not the result of economic dislocation, foreign interventions or coups planned in western capitals but a plot by ‘globalist elites’ to overrun the United States and its allies with migrants.
This has had real world consequences in places as different as Christchurch, New Zealand, Poway, California and El Paso, Texas, where mass shooters targeted minority communities after posting manifestos on the 8Chan image board that, besides being a cesspool of the weird and disturbing, had large numbers of posters, including these murderers, referencing the Great Replacement. The board, which changed its name to 8Kun, also became the main driver of the multiplying conspiracy theories associated with the Qanon ‘movement’.
Proof that the Great Replacement is becoming mainstream was recently offered by Tucker Carlson on his nightly Fox News opinion show, replacing the Jewish people historically labeled as being at the center of this supposed plot with much vaguer labels: ‘Democrat’ and ‘liberal’.
Carlson, a multi-millionaire heir who plays a populist champion of the working class on TV, spread this theory to over 4 million viewers in a segment last week, saying, “Now, I know that the left and all the little gatekeepers on Twitter become literally hysterical if you use the term ‘replacement,’ if you suggest that the Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate, the voters now casting ballots, with new people, more obedient voters from the Third World. But … let’s just say it: That’s true.” https://www.huffpost.com/entry/white-nationalists-love-tucker-carlson-great-replacement-fox-news_n_6077470de4b0293a7edda566
While anti-immigrant sentiment pushed by the populist right has mainstreamed the Great Replacement theory, their greatest success in winning new converts is probably through those radicalized by the rise of Qanon, especially after lockdowns caused by the ongoing health crisis kept people in their homes and online.
Qanon started on 4Chan before moving over to 8Kun, which innovated image board culture by allowing anyone to create their own boards, distinguishing itself from Reddit, which allows similar freedom but is subject to moderation. From the beginning, a person or persons claiming to have a ‘Q level’ security clearance made what came to be called Q drops. Followers were expected to interpret these puzzling messages to follow developments in a ‘secret war’ between former U.S. President Donald Trump and a Satanic ‘deep state’ cabal run by liberal political elites and celebrities.
With Q having gone silent in December of last year and his likely alter ego (whose identity may have changed after the move from 4Chan) revealed in the recent HBO documentary series, ‘Q: Into the Storm’ as a manipulative child of privilege whose father had purchased 8Chan from its creator rather than a rebellious deep state operative as advertised, one would think that his followers would have lost faith some time ago. Nonetheless, the movement has shown itself to be remarkably resilient.
As podcaster Travis View, who has closely followed the movement from the beginning, explained to NPR in February, “The belief systems and the conspiracy theories that sustain the movement don’t come from Trump or Q or any specific leader — it’s sort of crowdsourced and self-generated. It really is about the community and the feeling that they have some sort of inside information about what’s going to happen, so there’s really no head of the snake. There’s not one thing you can take out that will make the entire movement fizzle.”
A large part of this immunity seems to be based on the sheer amount of money that those still pushing the conspiracy have been able to make from the gullible people who have bought into the idea that the world is run by people who kidnap children and drink their blood in order to preserve their youth.
As Qanon has grown internationally, especially in Canada, the UK, Germany and Japan, many adjacent influencers have turned away from national politics to fight against health mandates like mask wearing. In the process the movement has absorbed large numbers of those opposed to vaccinations.
These anti-Vaxxers draw on the sense of victimhood we so often see on the right (who project it onto just about everyone else). Last week at a large protest in London against non-existent ‘vaccine passports’ and health mandates around things like mask wearing, among the shirts and signs referencing Q were at least two people who thought it would be a good idea to compare being asked to get a vaccine to protect others to the Holocaust by wearing yellow Stars of David like those used by Nazis to isolate and dehumanize Jewish people.
In the United States, as reported by The Conversation this week, Qanon is remaining relevant by turning away from national to more local politics.
“Bigoted conspiracy theories like QAnon have an enormous influence on the context in which local government operates. Democratic governance is hard to achieve if we don’t live in a shared reality, and that’s as true on the local level as it is on the national level,” The Western States Center’s Lindsay Schubiner explained,
While the austerity politics of most mainstream political parties in the Anglosphere are the main impediment to the structural changes the progressive left is fighting for, with conspiracies like the Great Replacement and groups like Qanon who have shown a willingness to work with armed militias and engage in and support violence on their own, the question becomes how to confront large numbers of people who deny reality itself in favor of their irrational beliefs.
Imagined grievance has always been a powerful tool for the right, but in the hands of cynical rightwing populists, an all pervasive sense of victimhood and willingness to believe anything about those whose politics they oppose on the part of millions of objectively privileged people across borders is a danger unlike any we’ve ever faced.