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.

The American Crisis – What is rightwing populism?

It is difficult to fully define anything – there are always exceptions to the rule – and I am not a fan of dictionary explanations of certain things (there are many Whites for example who refuse to recognise structural racism, insisting instead only on a narrow dictionary definition of racism, restricting it solely to overt racial discrimination, for example).

However, it is important to get at least a general outline of what rightwing populism is, and more specifically how it manifests in the USA. This is what I attempt to do here.

I am going to follow the lead of Margaret Canovan where she argues that all forms of populism “involve some kind of exaltation and appeal to ‘the people’, and all are in one sense or another anti-elitist.” And I also agree with the sentiments of Berlet & Lyons (2000) in their excellent book (which informs much of this series on this matter) where they develop a working definition of populism as:

  1. Involves a celebration of ‘the people’; and
  2. Some form of anti-elitism.

They go on to distinguish a populist movement from populist appeals with the qualification that a populist movement uses populist themes to mobilise a mass constituency as a sustained political or social force.

There are of course both rightwing and leftwing forms of populist movements (and I suppose there may also be centrist populist movements). Additionally, they may be authoritarian or egalitarian in nature, and based on a charismatic cult of a central leader or a decentralised movement based around a motivating idea. They may be advocates of a new future system, or conservatives that romanticise a fabled past ‘golden age’ that they seek to reassert. Further, what falls under the concept of ‘the people’ can be inclusive or it can be ethnic or other identity based. Some may be based on an actual critique of real existing social structures (such as class or structural racism), or they may be based on absurd conspiracy theories (i.e. lizard people or Protocols of the Elders of Zion).

Additionally, populist movements may be repressive in nature or emancipatory. A repressive populist movement is one that mixes anti-elite rhetoric (and scapegoating) with efforts to create, maintain or intensify systems of social privilege and power. Such as race or sex. Often they involve channeling popular discontent away from emancipatory, positive social change and towards oppressing marginalised or vulnerable groups (ethnic or other minorities, immigrants – so, for example, against Filipino workers but away from the bosses who exploit them to depress the general wage of labour…).

Sara Diamond offers what I think is a succinct definition for determining a rightwing from a leftwing movement: “To be rightwing means to support the State in its capacity as an enforcer of order and to oppose the State as a distributor of wealth and power downward and more equitably in society.”

I also agree with Berlett & Lyon’s argument that a rightwing populist movement “is a repressive populist movement motivated or defined centrally by a backlash against liberation movements, social reform, or revolution. This does not mean that rightwing populism’s goals are only defensive or reactive, but rather that its growth is fueled in a central way by fears of the Left and its political gains.”

It is not hard to see much of the rightwing populist movement, throughout the USA’s history, as fitting the above. One need only look at the KKK as a reaction to Black empowerment during the reconstruction era, and since, especially during the civil rights era. Or the Tea Party (and Trumpism) as a reaction to the election of a Black President and gains made by the Democrats in the 2008 (such as the Affordable Care Act).

What do you think – is the above a good working introduction to what rightwing populism is?

For those interested, I strongly recommend Berlet and Lyon (2000) Right-Wing Populism in America – Too Close For Comfort (The Guilford Press). I picked it up early on in the Trump regime and have found it very informative; much of the early part of this series The American Crisis is indebted to the insights of this book.

Also cited above are:

Canovan, M. (1981) Populism. Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich.

Diamond, S. (1995) Roads to Dominion: Right-Wing Movements & Political Power in the United States. The Guilford Press.

The American Crisis – Key Theses

There is a lot to cover regarding the American crisis, and my analysis will likely change as the crisis continues to develop and as I look more deeper into things. This post seeks solely to provide a skeleton look at my thinking at the moment. Subsequent articles will look to expand on these issues; I just want to put down in writing my current thinking and for readers to have a birds-eye view of it.

  1. The American crisis is in the immediate sense a result of the success of the neoliberal revolution against the social democratic state in Europe and its equivalent in the USA, the Keynesian compromise that grounded the social compact between capital and labour.
  2. Having said that, currents of rightwing populism have existed in the US since its creation. One can trace the thread of rightwing populism from the earliest colonial times, with the genocidal wars against the indigenous people, to the building of slavery, through to the civil war, the KKK, the racial massacres following WW1, the growth of the fascist movement in the 1920s and 1930s, McCarthyism, the struggles of the civil rights era, the economic nationalism of Pat Buchanan, the growth of Christian evangelism, the development of the militia movement in the 1980s and 1990s, the jingoism of the War on Terror, the emergence of the Tea Party movement in reaction to the election of Obama and right through to the Trumpian mess we have today.
  3. The essence of this rightwing populism in the USA is (i) mid-level groups who have a stake in traditional social privilege but feel their position is precarious while also resent the power of groups above them, ‘the elites’; and (ii) factions of the ‘elite’ who use forms of anti-elitism to either curry more power for their faction or as a tool to deflect potential threats to the social order (and thus their own – and for all elites – welfare). It goes without saying that a good chunk of this is based on White supremacy, as well as patriarchy.
  4. The failure of the USA left – already weakened by the McCarthyism of the Cold War – to counter the neoliberal revolution and to advance an alternative, has led to a vacuum within the working class which the right has exploited; it has produced fertile ground for rightwing populism to grow.
  5. The coup attempt of January 6th was more the heralding of a new era of rightwing activism. There will be further insurrectionary attempts in the near future (January 17th and January 20th in particular), followed by a move to the underground by the more militant elements (think domestic terrorist attacks along the lines of assassinations, bombings and occupations a la Malheur Refuge).
  6. The militant right is the immediate threat, and the left will have to mobilise to defend against it.
  7. However, the greater threat in the long-term is a return to a ‘business-as-usual’ Democrat regime. The social and economic pressures that birthed the rightwing populist threat must be addressed, otherwise one has the dilemma that Hercules faced fighting the giant Antaeus. No matter how defeated the giant was, once it touched the ground it was able to renew its strength and fight back. The American crisis cannot be ended with band-aids. It requires a radical restructuring of American society.
  8. As such, the left cannot be complacent and expect a return to normalcy under a Biden Presidency. The left must continue to mobilise within and without the Democratic Party. This means a focus to rebuild union power in the USA, while also building alliances (and in this there are lessons from Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain and Corbyn’s Labour in the UK) with social movements such as BLM.
  9. The coming struggle is thus on two sides; the immediate threat is combating the rightwing populist threat, but the struggle against establishment Democrats and/or the construction of a new force must not be ignored.
  10. The Republican Party also cannot be ignored. In the immediate term they risk a fracture between the far-right and the relatively more moderate right.
  11. It is possible the Trumpian faction might spin-off completely to form a new party, not dissimilar to the rise of the Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) in Germany which absorbed to more right-wing of the Christian Democrats.
  12. It seems likely that the more moderate faction will search for a new ideological approach. My intuition is that the project centered around Oren Cass, the American Compass, with it’s conservative labour approach is well placed here, and their ideology needs to be examined and countered.
  13. There are consequences for Bermuda here as well. Any advances in the US left struggle invariably will have ramifications for us. Wins in the USA give the left in Bermuda the energy to advance leftist struggles here. Furthermore, there are questions related to our constitutional relationship with the UK which the Trump era, in particular following the coup attempt (and the potential for a more successful coup in the future), that we need to prepare for. It is abundantly clear that a Brexit UK was happy to cosy up to a fascist in the White House for its own interests, and that has consequences for Bermuda to consider going forward.
  14. We must also consider what the coup attempt, and the continuation of the American crisis means globally, both in terms of economics and geopolitics. This must include the impact of Brexit and the rise of China.
  15. While the American Empire is in decline, it would be a mistake to write them off. The new regime under Biden will likely look to try and reestablish American hegemony, and this will have ramifications of its own, even if it is only temporarily successful.

The American Crisis – Views from the 14th Colony

I confess that when, on New Year’s Eve, I wrote about my blogging plans for 2021, I had not envisioned that an attempted coup in the USA would happen on January 6th.

To be clear, it was obvious since early December that the far-right around Trump were looking to organise a protest in early January. They were not exactly subtle about their intentions, including their ambition to storm the Capitol. However, I assumed that this was more bluster than anything – that the US security forces would be reading the same things I was and would put in sufficient security so that all that would happen would be a noisy protest outside.

My biggest concern was that the more militant elements of this mob would seek to provoke a response from anti-fascist and anti-racist groups, with the intention of giving Trump an excuse to execute some form of martial law, and do a coup through that way. I was confident they would fail in their attempt to provoke such a reaction.

Well, here we are, four days after the attempted coup. It happened, but not in the way I expected.

In light of the attempted coup, I have decided to try my hand at a series, The American Crisis. My objectives in this series will be to:

  1. Explore the origins and nature of the fascist/rightwing populist movement in the USA.
  2. The likely development of this movement in at least 2021, as a result of the attempted coup.
  3. The likely development of the post-Trump Republican Party (and the internal conflicts shaping this).
  4. The likely development of the post-Trump Democratic Party (and the internal conflicts shaping this).
  5. The opportunity for a revolutionary offensive (noting it might not be a revolution, but the opportunity to advance class positions against the right all the same).
  6. The potential implications of the attempted coup and the ongoing American crisis for Bermuda – and what we, in Bermuda, might do. This includes a look at our own issues of class and race, as well as our constitutional relationship with the UK.

It will take me some time to cover all of these issues. I will seek to first publish a skeleton article hitting my key points, which I will then expand in respective articles

I have taken the name of the series from the work of the same name by my favourite US Founding Father, Thomas Paine.

Additionally, while the US mythos speaks of the 13 colonies that launched the revolutionary war in the first British Empire, a war that ended in their war of independence, there were actually other colonies in the Americas. Bermuda was actually the 14th colony. Only our geography – isolation and small size – and a large British military garrison prevented us being one of the founding States. We have, of course, diverged since. However, we have always remained interlinked with the US. Like Mexico, we are too far from heaven and too close to the USA; in practical terms we remain a British colony formally, but an American colony in reality.

Smoke surrounds the Capitol Building during the January 6th attempted coup. Photo by Heather Khalifa, the Philadelphia Inquirer.