Deliberately blurring critical distinctions, whilst appearing to be open and straightforward, is one of the right wing populist’s most potent weapons.
Populist demagogues in the age of anti-establishment anger have ruthlessly exploited the language around ‘elites’ to great effect. Riding on the backs of real and justified discontent amongst a huge swathe of the populace post the 2008 crash and the utter failure to hold those responsible to account, populist alt-right politicians have rounded on the ‘liberal elite’ they hold responsible. The phrase is used loosely and interchangeably with ‘the establishment’ , ‘the metropolitan elite’ and elitism in general – which might relate to expertise, culture, social tolerance or pro-Europeanism.
The trouble is that the one elite that should be the focus of our collective venom slips through the net in this trawl of the despised. The real elite, the architects and beneficiaries of neoliberalism; are the super rich and the corporate hierarchies. It is they who pull the strings of supplicant conservative and social-democratic governments alike; imposing austerity that continues to punish low and middle income earners for the profligacies of the financiers and other predatory capitalists.
The fact that a predatory capitalist like Donald Trump, with a record of scurrilous semilegal and anti-worker practices as long as your arm, has become the talisman of the uprising against the elites, illustrates perfectly how deftly the alt-right have played their hand. Even managing to make a virtue of his tax avoidance!
How was this achieved? The key, in the U.S. at least was in riding the wave of the Tea Party phenomena (bought and paid for by the Koch Brothers’ coalition of the super-rich) that abhor the very notion of government and considered even the most basic level of universal health care as tantamount to communism. With Donald Trump’s election, the Mad-hatter’s Tea Party, complete with its own altered reality, has truly come to pass.
Anger is rightly directed at the ‘Washington elite’ both Government and lobbyists, yet somehow those for whom the lobbyists ply their loathsome trade escape the alt-right’s wrath. Trump is not only happy to admit to tax dodging, he is also entirely unrepentant about buying political favours. Whilst we might concur that the greater offender is the holder of public office prepared to be bribed, the ability of the briber, not only to escape reprimand but to have his actions considered a mark of acumen is an astonishing sleight of hand. I’m all for ‘draining the swamp’ but not without taking those whose piss fills it up down with it.
Perhaps the greatest and most damaging reality twist has been the targeting of the ‘liberal’ in the liberal elite, this surprisingly subtle act has had devastating consequences; it has enabled the alt-right to home in on their real enemy; social liberalism – that embraces gay rights, welcomes migrants, celebrates multiculturalism and promotes gender equality. Whilst neo-liberals tolerate social liberalism, indeed positively endorsing free movement of labour, the alt-right are essentially racist, homophobic and sexist. The relative wealth of the liberal elite is a point of envy but it is their liberality, real or perceived, that is the focus of attack.
The assault on ‘political correctness’ was a key element of the alt-right strategy – championed in the UK by the Daily Mail, Express and the Sun. The vast majority of the stories were grossly exaggerated or simply made-up and helped fuel the popular mythology of native white brits losing out to foreign, dark-skinned scroungers. The endless regurgitation of ludicrous stories of apparently extraordinary generosity to immigrants, especially regarding housing and benefits, drip-dripped away at reality, just as effectively as the other perennial target of tabloid ridicule; European institutions, whether it be for imposing straight bananas or dastardly human rights!
But this isn’t to say that fear of appearing racist in progressive organisation hasn’t occasionally restricted honest debate, or that elements of the ‘hard left’ couldn’t be as intolerant as the hard right; invariably the greatest intolerance is being saved for those politically closest to them. 20 years ago, as an NUT representative I was pointing out to Birmingham City Council that the socio-ethnic group that consistently came bottom in academic achievement were white working class boys, and yet this was the only group with no funding or strategy to address their under-achievement.
Genuine and justified frustration and anger in former industrial working class communities from Cleveland, Ohio to Cleveland, England has been festering for decades. Centre-left parties across Europe and the U.S. have ignored their plight whilst courting middle class votes and engaging in identity politics. But class was no longer an issue social democrats were interested in. That shameful and catastrophic failure opened the door to the only groups offering to represent the white working class – those with an agenda of racism, division and hatred masquerading as representing the ‘silent majority’ or simply ‘saying it as it is’.
On the backs of real grievance, working class men and women who were inherently neither racist nor homophobic were drawn to the deceitful half truths of the authoritarian right. They were joined by huge swathes of middle income earners and the comfortably retired who have never accepted multiculturalism or working women let alone gay rights and long for a return to the lilywhite certainties of the 1950’s; together they have delivered an almighty kick up the backside to the political establishment.
The focus on social liberalism rather than the dark forces of neoliberalism allows the altright narrative to slip seamlessly into directly attacking those they regard as the beneficiaries of liberal largesse; women, migrant workers, gays, muslims etc. The fact that these all too visible targets have more than equally suffered under globalised capitalism is irrelevant.
The alt-right are supreme opportunists and the carcass of post industrial society offers fertile ground. Seeds of hatred flourish, fertilised by the lies and half-truths of an unregulated mainstream media and the pedlars of fake news that thrive in the online world. In our ‘post-truth’ world anything goes and, as Google and Facebook’s algorithms reinforce all of our prejudices, sense becomes nonsense and nonsense becomes sense. Where does that leave us? With the mad-hatter himself holding the tea-pot and the party invitees; Farage, LePen, Orban and Wilders drinking their fill.