(note: just an FYI that I’m going to be publishing most of my stuff over on my Medium account from now on, which you can check out at: https://medium.com/@chrisfinnigan )
Following the unexpected results in the 2016 Brexit referendum and US election, political commentators have increasingly described unexpected election results in terms of ‘populism upsurge’. Populism has been subsequently detected in just about every recent election across the Western world. From the Right wing populist One Nation party in Australian state elections to the Left wing populist Jeremy Corbyn in the British election, to the French election, where both the far Left and the far Right candidates were considered populist.
While the broad application of the term risks rendering it meaningless, it is not inherently unreasonable to apply the populist label to figures and movements on polar opposite ends of the political spectrum. In the broadest sense, a ‘populist’ can be defined by their animosity to the established political class and its structures, whether that’s expressed through forming their own party or through launching a hostile takeover of a major party. The particular suite of policies cited is almost secondary to the essential point that they draw their appeal from circumventing the traditional political power structures from which more conventional ‘centrist’ politicians emerge from.
The antipathy towards ‘elites’ that is expressing itself through populists has few historical precedents (at least on this global scale). It is therefore not surprising that the one obvious precedent that is often reached for, particularly in regards to right wing populism, is 1930s Europe. The parallels between Trump’s administration and the imposition of a Fascist state are regularly cited in major publications and (sometimes humorously) across social media:
Those drawing the parallels are not necessarily predicting the cessation of elections and the imminent emergence of dictatorships in Western countries within the next decade — as Henry Giroux acknowledges in his article for The Conversation: “Trump is not Hitler in that he has not created concentration camps, shut down the critical media or rounded up dissidents.” It is more often couched in the terms of an open-ended ‘slippery slope’ towards Fascism. For Giroux, there is a “resurgence of fascist principles in the United States.”
But is it a useful comparison to draw parallels between the political events of the past decade to Fascism? It is not so much the potential hyperbole of the comparison that is the issue, but rather whether the comparison provides useful insights into the political direction that politics is heading in. Does the comparison obscure more than it illuminates? Will it lead people (particularly on the Left) to miscalculate how to operate in a political environment that is wholly different from the political conflicts of the 1930s?
If it is a useful comparison, it might, for example, suggest that populism, particularly on the Right, reflects a broader racist and authoritarian shift (under the guise of ‘nationalism’) taking place in the electorate and that the toxic ideology of formerly fringe far right groups is becoming increasingly appealing to greater numbers of people. In this scenario, it makes total sense to devote significant political energy to attacking fringe far right figures like Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopolous, lest more voters become attracted to their sophistry and accelerate the ‘slippery slope’. Furthermore, it would suggest that opposition to figures like Trump can be equated with a defense of democracy itself.
Alternatively, the comparison to Fascism is less useful if the upsurge of populism has less to do with the electorate becoming more nationalistic and racist, but rather becoming less tribally attached to the traditional major party establishments. In decades past, major political parties across the West could implement programs of mass privitisation and high immigration (mixed with underfunding of infrastructure and services) that never had much public support and yet still enjoy a consistent level of class-based electoral support from voters. More recently, a tipping point has been reached where large swathes of voters feel that they can vote for parties and candidates who are not directly associated with that recent legacy of neoliberalism without their vote being ‘wasted’ as a meaningless protest vote.
In this scenario, it is not so much the potential appeal of authoritarianism that progressives should be concerned about, but rather the risk of failing to provide a meaningful progressive alternative to the political status quo. Will describing Trump’s attacks on government institutions as authoritarian make those who have long felt ignored by government feel more critical of Trump? Similarly, attacking fringe far right figures (while being an inherently morally worthy endeavour) may not effectively address the appeal of the populist Right anymore than Right wing columnists attacking socialism is going to reduce the appeal of figures on the populist Left. Their appeal is not vested in the content of their ideas but rather in their antipathy to the mainstream political establishment. Accordingly, attacks from prominent journalists and commentators may conversely add to, rather than diminish, the appeal of these political outsiders.
So which comparison is better suited the contemporary populist upsurge?
One clear distinguishing factor is that the Fascist regimes of the 1930s responded to the antipathy towards the political class by implementing strategies which were consciously revolutionary and fundamentally restructured the political sphere and its relationship to the state. In addition to opposing the political establishments (and subsequently imprisoning large sections of it), these regimes had strong and clearly articulated convictions about how society should be organised and governed. Furthermore, the contrast between Fascist focus on nationalistic unity and Communist and Socialist focus on class divisions meant there were distinct and fundamental alternatives to capitalism.
The populists of the 2010s are similarly capitalising on antipathy to the political class but they are not remotely revolutionary or opposed to capitalist society. Take Britain’s most prominent populists for example — Jeremy Corbyn on the Left and Nigel Farage on the Right — we can see that their visions for society can be largely achieved within the existing structure of modern capitalist society. Corbyn is advocating for increased state ownership and regulation within the economy, not unlike a conventional social democracy in mainland Europe (and not unlike pre-Margaret Thatcher Britain). Farage’s ambition for leaving the European Union is tied up with a belief that Britain can become a low-regulation free market economy (albeit with greater control of immigration) not unlike the United States. Both figures certainly define themselves against an existing political class, but the nature of their ultimate challenge to the economic and social order as a whole is fairly limited.
However, hasn’t there been a significant quantifiable increase in racist attacks in the wake of events like the Brexit vote? Undeniably. While there has been a quantifiable increase in racist attacks in the past decade, this noxious trend sadly feels less like a harbinger of a Fascist resurgence as it is a persistent feature in most of the West for most of history.
It was only a few decades ago, for example, when many young Londoners from minority backgrounds regularly had to organise themselves into street patrols to protecting migrant communities from racist gangs. The writer Kenan Malik has previously written about his experience growing up in London confronting these gangs as they marched through the streets firebombing migrant homes with impunity in the knowledge that the police and local politicians would be largely unresponsive.
In a recent article, the Australian journalist Jack Waterford has highlighted how Australia (which has a self image of being a historically successful multicultural nation) has, throughout the twentieth century, consistently expressed acute hostility to whichever happened to be among the most recent wave of immigrants: “Progressively right-thinking (white) Australians have resented the entry of northern Europeans, southern Europeans (additionally suspect for being Catholic), Jews, Greeks, Turks and Lebanese.” No prizes for guessing which migrant group in Australia has borne the brunt of this so far in 2018.
Combining that historical perspective with the standards by which racism is equated with Fascism in the 2010’s makes it difficult to determine which recent period in Western history would not be similarly Fascist. One could respond by stating this largely proves the West is and almost always has been Fascist. One could also wonder whether describing this history in the terms of an ideology most commonly associated with a utopian, genocidal, eugenicist regime from the 1930s and 40s risks diffusing the term to the point of meaninglessness.
Nevertheless, compared to other decades in recent history, the populist upsurge has displayed almost as much the limitations of the contemporary far Right as its capabilities. A reporter who embedded themselves in one of the groups involved in the Charlottesville march noted, the movement was certainly emboldened by Trump’s victory and experienced a huge upsurge in prominence. However, the reporter observed, the murder of anti-racist protester Heather Hayers exposed huge rifts within the groups as they struggled to determine how to respond to: “Unity turned out to be an elusive goal, even for a group of racists, Nazis, and ethno-nationalists. The past year showed us how far the far right could go — too far for most, even if they didn’t really get anywhere at all.” Other recent events such as the exit of Steve Bannon from the White House and Trump’s focus towards a more conventional Republican platform of corporate tax cuts further reflect the limitations of comparing this current era of anti-establishment populism to eras such as the 1930s.
Observing that populism doesn’t equal Fascism hardly means that the explicit racism of figures such as Trump or the implicit racism expressed in Corbyn’s support of Brexit should be accepted as harmless or inconsequential. Yet the desire in progressive and liberal media to ‘explain’ the support base of populists in terms of the familiar themes of Fascism and the 1930s seems to do little more than elevate the public profiles and fund the speaking tours of formerly obscure white supremacists. If anything, 2017 demonstrated the limitations of the far right rather than their successes. The failure of the political and journalist class to predict the rise of Trump in 2016 is, if anything, built upon by their prediction of a resurgence of Fascism in 2017. The events of the last couple of years suggest that these voters are not shifting towards Fascism, but are simply shifting away from established politics.