The American Crisis – Some Characteristics of Rightwing Populism

The last week has been busy, preventing me getting back to this. And the week ahead is already looking like an even busier week!

Carrying on with the excellent work of Berlet & Lyons Right-Wing Populism in America (which I thoroughly recommend as a fantastic introduction and history of the phenomenon), they identify four more or less essential characteristics of right-wing populism, in addition to that which I provided an overview of in my previous posts. These are:

  1. Producerism
  2. Demonisation & Scapegoating
  3. Conspiracism
  4. Apocalyptic Narratives & Millennial Visions
The pillars of this mandapa are pretty heavily carved and topped with vyala brackets like capital.

I am going to try and give a summary of these, as I think they – along with the previous posts – are important in getting an understanding of the challenge that rightwing populism poses in our time. And, while the focus is on the USA, it is useful to reflect on this exploration into what rightwing populism is and see how it plays out in other countries. Aspects of this analysis are certainly informative when looking at the UK, Bermuda and elsewhere.

First though, I think it would be wrong to say that all four of these characteristics are always present; it’s more that these four characteristics are often present. Some rightwing populist groups might have three out of four for example.

Producerism

In general this refers to a belief that the real producers in society are faced with parasites both above and below; the above being unproductive elites who exploit the actual producers; the below being groups such as ‘the poor’ or defined ethnic or religious groups who are branded as lazy and immoral, who survive by leeching off the producers.

What constitutes the ‘producing’ classes vary, but in general, from my experience, those espousing these views seem to identify them with the middle class, entrepreneurs, farmers and Whites generally. The elites considered to be parasites identified in this view I have found to be bankers, speculators, monopolists, big landlords, most politicians, the civil service, union leaders and Jewish people. Similarly, based on my experience with those espousing these views, the people ‘below’ that are leeching off the producers tend to be people of colour, homeless people, those needing to use welfare, immigrants and Muslims.

I agree with Berlet and Lyon where they conclude that: “Producerism, with its baggage of prejudice, remains today the most common populist narrative on the right, and it facilitates the use of demonisation and scapegoating as political tools.”

Demonisation & Scapegoating

I feel these ones are pretty self-explanatory. However, there are two paragraphs in Berlet & Lyon which I feel are worth quoting in full here:

“Demonisation of an enemy often begins with marginalisation, the ideological process by which targeted individuals or groups are placed outside the circle of wholesome mainstream society through political propaganda and age-old prejudice. This creates an us-them or good-bad dynamic of dualism, which acknowledges no complexity or nuance and forecloses meaningful civil debate or practical political compromise.”

“The next step is objectification or dehumanisation, the process of negatively labeling a person or group of people so they become perceived more as objects than real people. Dehumanisation often is associated with the belief that a particular group of people is inferior or threatening. The final step is demonisation, the person or group is framed as totally malevolent, sinful and evil. It is easier to rationalise stereotyping, prejudice, discrimination, scapegoating and even violence against those who are dehumanised and demonised.”

Scapegoating then being wrongfully blaming a person or a group for problems. It is denial through projection. Again, Berlet and Lyon provide a useful passage worth quoting:

“We use the term scapegoating to describe the social process whereby the hostility and grievances of an angry, frustrated group re directed away from the real causes of a social problem onto a target group demonised as malevolent wrongdoers. The scapegoat bears the blame, while the scapegoaters feel a sense of righteousness and increased unity. The social problem may be real or imaginary, the grievances legitimate or illegitimate, and members of the targeted group may be wholly innocent or partly culpable. What matters is that the scapegoats are wrongfully stereotyped as all sharing the same negative trait, or are singled out for blame while other major culprits are let off the hook.”

“Scapegoating often targets socially disempowered or marginalised groups. At the same time, the scapegoat is often portrayed as powerful or privileged. In this way, scapegoating feeds on people’s anger about their own disempowerment, but diverts this anger away from the real systems of power and oppression. A certain level of scapegoating is endemic in most societies, but it more readily becomes an important political force in times of social competition or upheaval. At such times, especially, scapegoating can be an effective way to mobilise mass support and activism during a struggle for power.”

It’s not hard to see this at play in the American crisis. Be it the demonisation of Muslims, immigrants, social activists (BLM and ‘antifa’) for example. Nor is it surprising that, while this was always present in the USA, it really saw an explosive growth following the 2008 economic crisis, which still haunts us today.

Conspiracism

I know I’m quoting from Berlet & Lyon quite a bit…

“Conspiracism is a particular narrative form of scapegoating that frames the enemy as part of a vast insidious plot against the common good, while it valorises the scapegoater as a hero for sounding the alarm. Like other forms of scapegoating, conspiracism often, though not always, targets oppressed or stigmatised groups. In many cases, conspiracism uses coded language to mask ethnic or racial bigotry, for example, attacking the Federal Reserve in ways that evoke common stereotypes about ‘Jewish bankers’. Far-right groups have often used such conspiracy theories as an opening wedge for more explicit hate ideology.”

One need only think of Qanon, of the hysteria about antifa, about BLM as a Marxist plot, the ‘gay agenda’, 5G and anti-vaxxers, especially in reaction to public health advice around covid-19.

And sometimes people outside of the far-right (but this provides an opening for them) may use conspiracism to make sense of genuine inequity, but in doing so fail to recognise the actual power relations at work in society. As such, real life experiences of inequality can be the basis for conspiracism that actual blinds the believer from the true nature of the inequality they experience.

And this is, in a way, reinforced by the fact that there are actual conspiracies – one need only look at Watergate, the tobacco industry covering up knowledge about cancer, the FBI’s COINTELPRO of spying and dirty tricks, and so on. However, conspiracism differs from legitimate efforts to expose these actual conspiracies:

“First, the conspiracist worldview assigns tiny cabals of evildoers a superhuman power to control events; it regards such plots as the major motor of history. Conspiracism blames individualised and subjective forces for political, economic, and social problems rather than analysing conflict in terms of systems, institutions, and structures of power.”

“Second, conspiracism tends to frame social conflict in terms of a transcendent struggle between Good and Evil that reflect the influence of the apocalyptic paradigm.”

“Third, in its efforts to trace wrongdoing to one vast plot, conspiracism plays fast and loose with the facts. While conspiracy theorists often start with a grain of truth and ‘document’ their claims exhaustively, they make leaps of logic in analysing evidence, such as seeing guilt by association or treating allegations as proven fact.”

“Conspiracists attacks can be directed either ‘upward’ or ‘downward’. Anti-elite conspiracism targets groups seen as sinister elites abusing their power from above. Counter-subversive scapegoating targets groups portrayed as subversives trying to overturn the established order from below or from within.”

I’ve mentioned some examples above already. Here’s some more – the 9/11 conspiracy, pretty much anything around Bill Gates, the reptilians of Icke, freemasons, unions, scientists advocating public health advice during the covid-19 pandemic, the Muslim Brotherhood, environmentalists talking about climate change. And so on.

Also, it’s not difficult how some members of the elite may wish to take advantage of some forms of anti-elite conspiracism to both distract from a wider and radical critique of capitalism, as well as to benefit their own faction (class interests) at the expense of rivals. Similarly, it isn’t difficult to see how the elite may benefit from encouraging counter-subversive scapegoating in as much as it distracts from the actual causes of social inequality and helps protect the elite from potential threats from anti-oppression struggles.

Apocalyptic Narratives and Millennial Visions

Apocalypticism in this sense means the anticipation of a righteous struggle against evil conspiracies. Millenialism here is a more specific form of apocalypticism, more directly related to certain Christian fundamentalist narratives.

While these can often be religious based, with various aspects of the Book of Revelation featuring prominently with this or that being attributed as the Anti-Christ, or this or that as the Mark of the Beast (most recently this is being attributed to the covid-19 vaccines), they can also take a secular form. The idea of a New World Order, of a global government would be an example of such a secular apocalyptic narrative.

It isn’t hard to see how this characteristic drawers on the previous themes of producerim, demonisation, scapegoating and conspiracism.

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