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The New Authoritarians vs. COVID-19

Across the world, right-wing governments headed by the likes of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Rodrigo Duterte, Jair Bolsonaro, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have severely bungled their respective country's responses to the Coronavirus pandemic: downplaying its impacts, spreading misinformation, catering in racist anti-Chinese rhetoric, and exacerbating the already deadly situation. In recent days, with eyes toward their popular standing, some have reversed course to some extent—buckling to the obvious seriousness of the crisis, but too late to responsibly confront it. The actions of others, like Viktor Orban of Hungary, have made starkly clear the danger of authoritarian rulers using this moment of crisis as a pretext for expanding their power and upending democratic rights and norms.

In the United States, this health emergency has come in the midst of the Democratic primary: disrupting that process, putting many thousands of voters in jeapordy, and making evident both the stakes of this election year and the underlying inequality in American society. How is it that far-right forces came to lead many of the world's most powerful nations, how do we understand the responses of their figureheads to COVID-19, and what does this context mean for the left in this moment of global crisis?

The New Authoritarians, by historian and anti-fascist activist David Renton, provides an accessible and instructive account of the rise of the contemporary right under the clouds of economic austerity and post 9/11 Islamophobia, as well as a lucid and historically-informed argument about how the left can most effectively challenge its ascent. Below we present an excerpt from the Introduction.

The right has changed; it has embraced the ideas of its outliers. In the US and Europe, conservatives have made alliances with those previously consigned to the margins. Ten years ago, the centre right had lesser ambitions. Its priority was to cut taxes and reduce welfare. Today’s right seeks to restrict welfare benefits to members of the national community, excluding migrants and Muslims. Its new politics address both the apparent shrinking of public finances and the desire on the part of some of the public to exclude foreigners. While the right has developed, large parts of the left are still arguing for positions which were at their most popular more than 20 years ago. The left has allowed itself to seem the party of unreformed capitalism, neither acknowledging that the economy has failed to deliver for tens of millions of people, nor daring to confront the right’s myth-making around immigration.

The new character of our recent moment was at its clearest between June 2016 and May 2017. In less than a year, the right enjoyed three significant victories: the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom, the election of Donald Trump, and Marine Le Pen’s second place in the French Presidential elections.

The campaign for a British departure from the European Union began at the end of the 1980s among Margaret Thatcher’s keenest admirers and was shaped by the anger they felt at their fellow Conservatives for removing her. Privatisers and flat-taxers, they saw the referendum as a chance to change Britain and to abolish the numerous EU Regulations which protected the environment, or which made it more expensive for businesses to employ workers. The Conservative leaders who dominated the Remain campaign were incapable of saying clearly that inequality or pollution were in themselves wrong. Taking their cue from Cameron and Osborne’s inability to answer the arguments for Leave in the referendum, a majority of Tory voters supported Leave. Even this, however, was not enough to win the referendum. To achieve its victory, the Leave camp also had to convince a minority of Labour voters, which it did by persuading them that immigration represented a threat to their pensions and benefits. Theresa May’s post-referendum government has deferred at least until 2020 any attempt to solve the problems facing education, health or housing. In prioritising Brexit over everything else, it has not appeased the advocates of British independence. Rather, they have made Theresa May the prisoner of her most recalcitrant backbenchers. The Britain that is emerging from the referendum has not solved the problems of Europe or of immigration. It has made them central, unavoidable questions of our politics for years to come. 

In the United States, the events that were to lead to the election of Donald Trump in November 2016 began five years earlier with Trump’s decision to court the conspiracy-theory right. In 2011, he made himself seem a plausible challenger for the Presidency by claiming that Barack Obama was not an American citizen, but a Muslim from Kenya. From 2014, Trump kept in the headlines through the support of the website Breitbart which thrived on an audience of online Islamophobes and misogynists. The alliance between Trump and his base continued after his election to the Presidency with his decision to appoint Breitbart’s Steve Bannon as the administration’s Chief Strategist. This grim alliance of the centre and far right shaped Trump’s inauguration speech, his choice of international allies, and his visa ban on seven majority-Muslim countries. It continued until the events at Charlottesville in August 2017, which compelled Trump to choose between his mainstream right and far right supporters. Threatened by a revolt of mainstream businessmen and Republicans, Trump had no choice but to dismiss Bannon. Even afterwards, however, Trump’s instincts did not alter. Threatening trade wars against the EU and China, promoting the online supporters of the alt right, he has straddled the mainstream and the far right.

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The alliance of conservatives and the far right is unwelcome to everyone else. In the US, the Anti-Defamation League has estimated that 2.6 million anti-Jewish tweets were sent between summer 2015 and summer 2016. The ADL was especially interested in tweets directed at anti-Trump journalists, who were accused of being unpatriotic Jews. Some 800 journalists were targeted in this way, with some 45 million people reading the anti-semitic messages. Two-thirds came from just 1,600 twitter accounts. The Southern Poverty Law Center estimates the size of the largest far-right network, the Ku Klux Klan, as less than 6,000 people. If we treat these two figures, 1,600 and 6,000, as boundary estimates of the size of the US far right, either figure is eclipsed by the 60 million people who voted for Trump in 2016. Without his presidential campaign, the conspiracy theorists would have had little influence over the larger number of conservatives. Co-operation between the mainstream and the extreme right has given the latter an influence out of all proportion to their support.

This is not the first time in history when the mainstream has lurched to the right, leaving socialists, feminists and other anti-racists struggling to respond. Subsequent chapters of this book engage with what it means to speak of a moment of far right advance, comparing 2016–17 to previous periods when the right has become radicalised across borders (including 1922–39 and 1979–80). These are the most notorious available comparisons; not all short moments of right-wing success have ended this badly. The late 1890s and early 1900s, for example, saw popular anti-migrant and anti-semitic campaigns in each of the United States, Britain and France, fuelled by a similar combination of economic crisis and fears of migration. Here too there was a relationship between movements of the street (the British Brothers’ League, the anti-semitic campaign against Albert Dreyfus in France) and governments led by William Jennings Bryan, Jules Méline and Lord Salisbury. As the decade wore on, however, the left responded with a combination of trade union struggles and political opposition to the right, including the successful campaign in support of Dreyfus. Where their campaigns were both militant and principled, socialists were able to recover and by 1906 in many countries it seemed that racists were once more in retreat.

The question of how long this epoch of right-wing success lasts will be shaped in part by how their opponents respond and whether the left takes the opportunities available to us. The point of this book is to encourage readers to see our enemies clearly, without fear, and to focus on where they are now in the hope that by understanding them better, we can more effectively challenge them.

For further reading, continue to Haymarket Books for Fighting Fascism

  • The New Authoritarians

    An original and compelling analysis of how a newly emboldened and radicalizing right has come to global political ascendance in the years after 9/11, culminating in the victories of Trump and Brexit.

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